Posted by: happyfan08 | January 24, 2011

2010 Awards (10 of 10): Player of the Year

Player of the Year

And the Winner Is: Na Yeon Choi

Na Yeon Choi

Jiyai Shin has dominated this category the last several years, pretty much ever since she first turned pro.  In 2007, 2008 and 2009, there was simply no other Korean who could touch her, although an argument could have been made for Hee Kyung Seo in 2009 (but a losing argument in my opinion).  Simply put, even with all the great and near great Korean golfers in the world, there was no one in Jiyai Shin’s league.

But this year, one golfer rose to the challenge, played superlatively, and managed to even trump the Final Round Queen in a closely fought contest.  The player I give the Player of the Year award to is Na Yeon Choi.  Let’s take a little look at her path to this point, and what made her 2010 season so special.

Choi, like Shin, first burst onto the scene as an amateur high school golfer, when she won the ADT-CAPS Championship in 2004.  The player who finished second that week was none other than Se Ri Pak herself.  Quite an accomplishment for a teenager to beat a living legend like Pak in front of her home country fans!  The next season, Choi joined the KLPGA, where she played for three seasons, finishing in the top ten on the money list all three years.  At the end of 2007, she played LPGA Qualifying School, where she gained conditional status for the 2008 season.

Na Yeon and her trophy from the 2004 ADT-CAPS, her first pro win

It did not take Choi long in 2008 to step up her game.  In her first Major on tour, the Kraft Nabisco, she notched a tie for 6th.  She soon found herself in a pitched battle for the Rookie of the Year award with Ya Ni Tseng from Taiwan.  When Tseng won the year’s second Major, the LPGA Championship, in June, it looked like that race had been won.  But Choi continued to play brilliantly week after her week.  Her consistency was almost ridiculous.  Not only did she not miss a cut in her rookie year, she did not even finish outside the top 40 in any event until October, and collected top 20s in all four Majors.  She had several great chances to win as well, but somehow could not close the deal.

Finally, everything seemed to come together for Choi at the Evian Masters in July.  She seized the final round lead by four strokes with just a few holes to go, and looked for all the world like she would grab the trophy.  But at that exact point, Helen Alfredsson started making every shot, whittled away Choi’s lead, and caught her on the final hole.  Choi eventually lost a playoff to the Swedish veteran, a crushing blow when victory had been so close.

Na Yeon at the 2008 Evian -- so close to a win!

Choi was back in the lead as Rookie of the Year, but Tseng nearly won the British Women’s Open the next week, and retook the lead.  Choi kept pounding, though, and Tseng did not finally put the Korean away until the final event of the year.  Choi did not claim a win, but made over a million bucks and finished 11th on the money list.

Her 2009 season was much the same.  Incredible consistency: she did not miss a cut again all year; she had multiple top tens and twenties and few worse results; and she had several good chances to win.  Finally, Choi again found herself in a position to get her first win, this time at the Samsung World Championship.  Her final round lead got as high as seven shots, but Japanese star Ai Miyazato at that point began to whittle it down, catching Choi with one hole to go.  But at that point Choi finally got a break: Miyazato made a careless mistake, made bogey on the final hole, and when Choi made a birdie a bit later, she claimed her first win on tour at last.  To prove it was no fluke, Choi got her second win just weeks later at the Hana Bank Championship, again with a birdie on the final hole.  Her final results for 2009: 11 top tens, two wins, top tens in three of four Majors, and a 6th place finish on the money list.

But even with all that brilliance, Choi was still in the shadow of Jiyai Shin coming into 2010.  She certainly had her moments of excellence early last year: a tie for 2nd at the State Farm Classic (she barely lost that one to Cristie Kerr); 3 other top tens as well.  But interestingly, it was her first missed cut on the LPGA tour that seemed to set a fire in the placid athlete, spurring her to a new level where she could compete with and beat anyone in the world.  That missed cut came at the second Major of the year, the LPGA Championship.  She just missed it by a stroke, but it was still hard for her to take.  She did not take long to recover.  The next week, at the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic, she seized control of the event, struggled a bit in the final round, made a clutch putt to get into a playoff, then beat almost all her fiercest rivals for the win.  That’s no exaggeration: her good friends and fellow top Koreans In-Kyung Kim and Song Hee Kim fell to her in the playoff; Jiyai Shin was just one shot away from that playoff; and Inbee Park, another superstar, was just two shots out of it.  The top five ranked Koreans in the world, and it was Choi who got the win.  That HAD to be a big spur to her confidence.

Na Yeon with her Farr trophy in 2010

After that, it seemed like nothing could stop Choi.  Week after week, there she was, either in contention or high up on the leaderboard.  She finished 2nd at the US Women’s Open and 3rd at the Ricoh British Women’s Open, the year’s final two Majors.  She had a great chance to win the Evian Masters after making four straight late birdies to cruise up the leaderboard.  Her second shot on the par 5 18th sailed over the green, though, and she could not get up and down; she finished tied for 2nd.  With a tie for 2nd at the Safeway Classic, that made five straight top three finishes.

After an 11th and a 9th, she returned to the top three with a tie for 3rd at the Navistar LPGA Classic.  A few weeks after that, she was in Korea defending her title at the Hana Bank Championship.  Despite playing with her good friend and fellow superstar Song Hee Kim in the final round, and entering that round trailing Kim, Choi got the better of her in the end, successfully defending her title for her second win of 2010.  Choi became the first Korean to defend a title on the LPGA since Se Ri Pak in 2002.

Na Yeon's second win of 2010, the Hana Bank Championship

By this point, Choi was the top player on the money list, nearly top in scoring average, and in good position to even win the Player of the Year award.  Jiyai Shin struck back, though, by winning the next tournament on the schedule, the Mizuno Classic, to seize the money list lead from Choi.  Choi finished tied for 5th, not too bad, and the two stars were practically neck and neck in that race.  Shin, however, decided to skip the next event on tour, and when Choi finished tied for 7th there, she once again regained the money list lead, and strengthened her lead in the scoring average as well, with just one event to go.

Choi had a chance to become the first Korean to ever win the Player of the Year award, and was the only player in the Tour Championship field who could win ALL the post-season awards.  But Shin, too, could still become Player of the Year.  They both needed to win the tournament to get that award.  It was another big test for Choi: could she face down her great rival and claim post season hardware?  The answer was a resounding yes.  Shin did not play well at all, Choi finished tied for 5th, and thus Na Yeon Choi became only the second Korean in history to lead the LPGA season ending money list (Shin did it last year).  Her final money total of $1,871,165 is also the highest money total ever achieved by a Korean golfer on that tour.  In addition, her scoring average of 69.87 was good enough to claim the Vare Trophy, the third Korean to win it after Se Ri Pak and Grace Park; it was the second best scoring average by a Korean in history (behind only Se Ri Pak). She also finished third in the Player of the Year standings.

Yani Tseng, Player of the Year, and Na Yeon Choi, Vare Trophy winner

Choi’s record was impressive top to bottom.  During 2010, she had 15 top tens, tied for the most top tens a Korean has achieved since the heyday of Se Ri and Grace Park (the only Koreans to ever beat that total).  More impressively, 12 of those were top fives, including two wins, four seconds, and two thirds.  She had top threes in two Majors.  After her missed cut, her WORST finish in her final 13 events of the year was a 16th place.  She led the league in five statistical categories: total birdies (338), rounds under par (.722), rounds in the 60s (.468), scoring average and sand saves (!), and was top three in four others. 

Na Yeon Choi has been great since she started playing pro golf, but she truly exceeded anything she had done before in 2010 and especially in the final five months of the season.  She clearly earned the Player of the Year award over some very stiff competition.

Na Yeon Choi -- soon to be #1? Or is she already there?

Honorable Mentions:

Jiyai Shin                                                             

Jiyai Shin in March

 Although Jiyai Shin did not win the Player of the Year award this year, she still had a fantastic year by almost any standard (except possibly her own).  It was quite a tough battle between her and Choi for this Player of the Year award; indeed, had she played better in the final event of the year, she might very well have won it yet again.

In several ways, Shin had the advantage over Choi.  For instance, Shin won four events in total in 2010 – two on the LPGA, one on the JLPGA, and a KLPGA Major, the KLPGA Championship, where she beat Choi among others – while Choi only won two events all year.  While Choi basically concentrated on the LPGA, Shin played a lot of events in Japan, 7 in total, and finished in the top five in six of them.  Her scoring average on that tour was a scintillating 69.67.  It is quite a tough thing to play multiple tours all over the world and do well in all of them.

Jiyai wins in Japan

Meanwhile, she had a fantastic year in America as well.  She finished the year #1 on the Rolex rankings (Choi was #4), and was #1 for more weeks than the other two players, Ai Miyazato and Cristie Kerr, who also spent time at #1 in the wake of Ochoa’s retirement.  She played only 18 events, compared to 23 for Choi, yet managed 14 top tens, just one fewer than Choi, and barely finished behind her in the Player of the Year standings.  They had the same number of LPGA wins, although Shin had the most impressive win of the season when she captured the Evian Masters, arguably the most important non-Major event on tour (Choi finished tied for second at that event).  Shin had 12 top fives just like Choi, but Choi’s top fives were a little more impressive: Shin had only one runner up finish, at the CN Canadian Women’s Open, and four thirds, while Choi had more seconds.  Perhaps most impressively, Shin accomplished all this despite undergoing an emergency appendectomy right in the heart of the season that not only forced her to miss several key events but also inhibited her swing for some weeks after she returned to action (although her first event back after the surgery, she finished tied for third, showing just how tough she really is).

As far as post-season awards go, they were both pretty close again.  Until the final event of the year, Shin was only hundredths of a stroke behind Choi in scoring average (but she could not win the Vare trophy because she did not play enough rounds to qualify, thanks again to the appendix).  She was slightly behind Choi in Player of the Year, but could still win it with a victory in the year’s final event.  She was the only player who could catch Choi on the money list as well.  If Shin had played better than Choi at the LPGA Tour Championship, she conceivably could have beaten her in all those categories (although, again, even a lower scoring average would not have given her the official Vare trophy).  But Shin did not play well that week, and that one hiccup might have been the razor thin edge Choi needed to claim our award.

Shin became the first Korean to win the Evian Masters

Choi also had a better statistical season than Shin.  Shin wound up leading two categories: top ten % (14 of 18 events) and Fairways hit (they don’t call her Chalk Line for nothing – she is incredibly accurate off the tee!).  Choi, as mentioned previously, led in five categories.  Shin was second on the money list with nearly $1.8 million earned, fifth in Player of the Year points, and fifth in scoring average even with her fall in the final event.  It was a great year for Jiyai Shin again, but this year only good for an honorable mention in these awards.

Sun Ju Ahn

See Rookie of the Year for more details about her fantastic season in Japan.  She also added a near top ten at the Evian Masters.  Her historic year on the JLPGA was certainly amazing, but Shin and Choi’s exploits were so incredible in 2010 that Ahn would have had to have been off the charts in Japan to compete with them for this award.  She does deserve an honorable mention, though!


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