Posted by: happyfan08 | November 18, 2011

Return of the Supermodels

In 2008, the KLPGA tour was dominated by Jiyai Shin, who was on her way to becoming the first Korean golfer, male or female, to ever become #1 in the world.  She swept the three Majors that year and also won three LPGA tournaments, including a Major.  But right behind her, at number two and three on the KLPGA money list, were two players both having breakout seasons on tour.  The two were glamorous, beautiful, fashionable, and full of personality, and their rivalry soon became known as the battle of the ‘Supermodels of the Fairways’.  In the end, 22 year old Hee Kyung Seo won that battle decisively, capturing six victories to three for her rival, 19 year old Ha Neul Kim.  But both had established themselves as potential superstars of the future.

Hee Kyung Seo and Ha Neul Kim at the 2009 Kraft Nabisco Championship

The two golfers accomplished many things in the next few years, but there were also many ups and downs in their careers.  Cut to 2011, and both golfers came into this year not having won in Korea in a while, and not playing at the top of their games.  By the end of the season, however, both had accomplished impressive feats in their respective arenas.  Hee Kyung Seo became the eighth woman of Korean ancestry to capture the LPGA’s Rookie of the Year award, while Ha Neul Kim won her first KLPGA Major en route to finishing first on the tour’s money list for the first time in her career.

Ha Neul Kim seemed like a star in the making right from the moment she joined the KLPGA tour in 2007.  Ha Neul – whose name means both ‘sky’ and the color off the sky (light blue) – achieved six top tens that season en route to winning the Rookie of the Year award on tour.  It was in 2008, as mentioned above, when she went from a promising newcomer to one of the top stars on tour.  She notched top tens in her first two events of the year, but in the third tournament she faced down the unstoppable Shin and beat her, claiming her first career victory in the process.  Just a few weeks later she earned win #2, and the Supermodel of the Fairways, as she became known, was on her way to stardom.

Ha Neul Kim during her breakout season of 2008

Meanwhile, Hee Kyung Seo, several years older than Kim, was in a rut.  Seo had joined the tour in 2006, and in her first two years on tour, she had had a few decent finishes here and there, but no wins.  In 2007, she finished 9th on the KLPGA money list, certainly not a bad performance.  But Seo had high standards, and was frustrated that she was not doing better.  During the summer break of 2008, she spent some time training with her good friend Shin, hoping to pick up some tips that would help her game.

Her time with Shin opened her eyes to just how hard she would have to train to achieve her goals.  She was particularly impressed with how much Jiyai worked on her short game.  Newly energized, Seo began to apply what she learned to her own game.  The results were immediate and impressive.  In her first event back after the break, she defeated a star stocked field at the SBS Open, beating Shin and that year’s US Women’s Open champ Inbee Park among others for her first career title.  She led that event wire to wire, and did the same thing at the next event to capture her second win.  Blazing hot, she won the next event after that as well, becoming one of the few in history to claim three consecutive events on the KLPGA tour.  Suddenly, Ha Neul Kim had a gorgeous new rival for the title Supermodel of the Fairways.

Hee Kyung Seo in her breakout season of 2008 with yet another trophy

If Kim was worried about the new star, she didn’t show it: shortly after Seo’s run ended, Kim claimed her own third win of the season, and the rivalry reached a new level of heat.  The KLPGA powers-that-be were probably giddy with joy at the prospect of a battle for supremacy between two golfers frequently compared to supermodels by the press, and they gladly publicized the two and their friendly competition with each other.  They even arranged to get the two golfers into a Skins Game with PGA star Anthony Kim and a top KPGA player.  Kim paired with Anthony, and Seo with the KPGA star, and in the end the two Kims prevailed.  But Seo got revenge by claiming the KLPGA event held that weekend for her fourth triumph of 2008.

Anthony Kim and Ha Neul Kim at the 2008 Anthony Kim Skins Game

Seo continued to excel through the rest of 2008, winning two more events to eventually compile six victories, second only to Shin.  She wound up second on the money list, while Ha Neul was third.  But both had had breakout seasons that announced their arrival on the golf stage.  And on an actual stage as well: at the year ending KLPGA Awards Show, Seo and Kim participated in a dance number with several other top KLPGA stars.  Seo also walked away with the Most Popular award for the season. 

Hee Kyung Seo dances at the 2008 KLPGA Awards Show

Ha Neul dances at the 2008 KLPGA Awards Show!

For Seo, the good times continued in 2009.  With Shin moving on to the LPGA tour full time, Seo took over the KLPGA, winning five tournaments, and three of the four Majors.  She thus became the top player in the league in every major category.  Meanwhile, Ha Neul Kim was not able to win in 2009.  She was having trouble with her swing plane, and as a result was far more inconsistent off the tee.  She still notched seven top tens and finished 7th on the money list, but this was a decided step back from where she had been.

Seo danced away with all the big awards in 2009

Yet, even 2009 was great compared to Kim’s 2010 campaign.  The swing troubles continued, and suddenly her good finishes were becoming fewer and farther between.  Towards the end of the season, she had a couple of good results, but only wound up 21st on the money list for the year.  She was still a very popular player, hip deep in endorsements and beloved by the fans, but was starting to risk becoming an afterthought as her play declined.

Kim still had a smile on her face in 2009 and 2010, but her results were suffering

Seo had struggles of her own in 2010.  Amazingly, she was not able to win so much as a single event all season on tour, and saw fellow player Bo Mee Lee rise to the top of the tour instead.  Seo still managed a 6th place finish on the money list and had 12 top tens.  And she did have a few chances to win, notably at the season opener in China, where she lost in a playoff to young phenom So Yeon Ryu.  So the year was a disappointment, but only in comparison to the brilliance of the two previous ones.

While Seo had her issues in Korea, however, she was sterling on the LPGA tour.  In March, she was invited to play the inaugural Kia Classic as a sponsor’s exemption and made the most of it.  She wound up easily winning by 6 shots against a field stocked with most of the best women’s golfers in the world.  This earned her membership on the LPGA for 2011.  Interestingly, she wasn’t sure she was going to take it, having wanted to play in Japan that year.  But in the end, it was too good an opportunity to pass up, and so she left Korea to become a rookie in America in 2011.  On top of her win, she also achieved a tie for fifth at the year’s final Major, the Women’s British Open.  All in all, 2010 was a year of transition for her, but one with some definite highlights to celebrate.

Hee Kyung won the 2010 Kia Classic to earn LPGA membership

Ha Neul Kim started 2011 wondering if she were ever going to get to celebrate a win again.  But right off the bat, she showed she was ready to make this a comeback season.  She just missed grabbing the trophy at the year’s first event, finishing second.  When the season started in earnest several months later, she notched an 8th place at the Lotte Mart Women’s Open.  But it was at the next event that Ha Neul finally made her triumphant return to the winner’s circle, some two and a half years after her last win.  The event was the Hyundai Construction Seoul Economy Women’s Open in late April.  Kim seemingly had the tournament cup in her hands when Hyun Joo Lee made an unlikely run and caught her, forcing a playoff.  Two holes later, the nervous but resolute Kim made par while her opponent bogied, and the win was hers.  She broke down and cried on the green, so happy was she that she had at last captured her fourth career win.

Ha Neul cries after winning her first tournament in two and a half years

For much of the next few months, Kim was inconsistent, with occasional top tens mixing uneasily with missed cuts and mediocre finishes.  She really didn’t come too close to winning again, and it looked as though her April win would be her only one of the season.  But in October, she caught fire and made a huge charge at exactly the right time.  Until then, So Yeon Ryu had looked likely to win all the Major season ending prizes.  But Ryu went into a bit of a slump right when Kim started to shine.  At the year’s third Major, the Hite Cup, Ryu had a share of the second round lead, but a rules infraction knocked her down the leaderboard in round 3, allowing Ha Neul to sneak into contention.   In the final round, amateur In Ji Jeon climbed to a three shot lead, but the pressure got to her and she dropped again on the back nine.  Ha Neul, meanwhile, played cool, dependable golf, and when Jeon made a triple bogey late in her round, Kim was suddenly tied for the lead.  She then nailed a clutch birdie on the final hole to claim her first ever KLPGA Major.  The win also moved her into the top spot on the year’s money list and into third in the Player of the Year race.  Suddenly, Kim had a chance to win all sorts of post-season hardware.

Ha Neul enjoys the sponsor's product after winning the Hite Cup on the KLPGA tour

Kim rode with the momentum at the next KLPGA event, the KB Financial Group Star Championship, which was also the year’s final Major.  In the third round, she shot a blistering 6 under par 66 to zoom to 10 under total, which in most cases would have been enough for the lead.  But at this tournament, LPGA player Amy Yang was playing even better, shooting a 64 in round 3 to move to 14 under.  The two battled it out on the final day, but Yang maintained her four stroke advantage to capture the title.  Ha Neul finished second, and thus increased her lead on the KLPGA money list even more.

At the next event, the EDaily KYJ Golf Ladies Open, Ha Neul continued her torrid play by opening with an incendiary 8 under par 64.  Only one other player, Rookie star Yeon Ju Jeong, was within five shots of that score.  Those two duked it out in round 2, with Kim maintaining her 2 shot margin over her in the end. 

Ha Neul Kim during round 2 of the EDaily Open

In the final round, Jeong collapsed, and Kim coolly cruised to her third win of the year by four shots.  The win secured for her the Money List title and moved her into the lead in the Player of the Year race with one event to go.  This honor now qualifies her for several LPGA events and Majors next year, and she tells the press she plans on playing six of them in 2012.  She does not intend to enter Qualifying school, however, so look for her to continue to play on the Korean tour in 2012.  But next year, she will be coming into the season as the big gun, not the star trying to get her mojo back.  It ought to be very interesting indeed!

Ha Neul Kim during round 3 of the EDaily OpenOpen

Ha Neul’s success has led to even more appearances in the media than before.  Here she appears in Men’s Health Magazine, Korean edition.

Ha Neul in Men's Health Magazine

Meanwhile, Hee Kyung Seo joined the American tour, and found herself struggling to live up to her big expectations for the season.  Despite a fairly deep class of rookies, she was arguably the most accomplished player in the group, and thus had some pressure on her to win the Rookie of the Year prize.  But strong results eluded her.  Perhaps the early lowlight was missing the cut at the Kia Classic, the tournament she had won the previous year to get into the LPGA tour in the first place.  But after that, she notched three top 20s, including a 6th place, in her next six tournaments.  It was hardly sterling stuff, but it was at least keeping her in the lead in the Rookie of the Year standings.

Around that time, Hee Kyung went to a US Women’s Open qualifier in New Jersey and won it.  It was the first time she had ever played 36 holes in a single day, but her win there was a foreshadowing of what would happen a couple of months later.  The US Women’s Open this year was held at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, and the conditions were tough, with frequent weather delays testing the field like they had rarely been tested before.  Seo ended up playing 36 holes in one day again, but this time it was the final two rounds of the Open on Sunday.  And she played brilliantly, shooting back to back 68s to vault into the lead by the end of the day. 

Hee Kyung Seo in round 4 of the US Women's Open

Her only major miscue came on the par 5 17th in her final round.  The wind had started whipping hard, and Seo and her group were hurrying to beat the darkness.  She nonetheless hit the green and narrowly missed a birdie that would have given her a prohibitive lead.  She then missed the three foot comeback par save, lowering her visor over her head in disbelief afterwards.  She still finished her round just before darkness fell, and would have to wait and see if the few players who had not finished would be able to catch her on Monday morning.

Hee Kyung Seo in round 4 of the US Women's Open

As it turned out, one player had the best chance to do that: her old rival So Yeon Ryu, playing the event as a result of her great finish on the KLPGA tour the previous season.  On Monday morning, Ryu had three holes to play and was one shot back.  She scrambled to save par on 16 and just missed a birdie on 17.  But on the final hole she hit a perfect drive, an unbelievably great approach, and drained the tricky putt for birdie to force a playoff.  Seo, who had not struck a shot all day, had to play the same three holes in the playoff that Ryu had just played so well.  It was too much to ask, and Ryu easily won the three hole playoff to claim the Major title.  But Seo’s second place finish was by far her best in a Major, and it helped her to a huge lead in the Rookie standings that she would never relinquish.

So Yeon Ryu and Hee Kyung Seo during this year's US Women's Open playoff

For much of the rest of the season, Seo kept putting up top 30 finish after top 30 finish, not allowing any other rookie a chance to make much ground up on her.  Finally, at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational, Hee Kyung roared to her second best finish of the year, a tie for 4th, which was enough to put the Rookie of the Year title away.  She became the 8th Korean or woman of Korean heritage to win that award in the tour’s history.  Judging by past results, she’s in great company.  Of the seven previous winners, one, Angela Park, is no longer playing golf, and another, Shi Hyun Ahn, never really improved on her rookie year.  But the other five rookie standouts are among the best golfers in the history of the Korean contingent: Seon Hwa Lee has four career wins, Hee Won Han six, Mi Hyun Kim and Jiyai Shin 8 apiece.  And Se Ri Pak, of course, is a 25 time winner and Hall of Famer.  Hee Kyung has said she, too, wants to be in the Hall of Fame someday.  She has taken an important first step towards that goal this year.

Hee Kyung Seo with the 2011 LPGA Rookie of the Year award

The days of their rivalry on the Korean tour is behind them, but perhaps it will not be too long from now when Ha Neul Kim and Hee Kyung Seo are duking it out for the big prizes on the LPGA tour.  Time will tell, of course, but regardless, it should be fun to watch them try to get there!

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Responses

  1. […] See original here: Return of the Supermodels « SeoulSisters […]

  2. Very pretty.


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