Posted by: happyfan08 | November 23, 2011

Hee Young Park: Rocket Takes Off

On the 72nd hole of the 2011 CME Group Titleholders Championship, Hee Young Park found herself in a dicey situation.  Looking for the first win of her LPGA career, she had left her approach shot short of the green, and the ball had rolled down into a depression near a storm drain.  After taking relief, she still was left with a tricky chip shot to a treacherous green.  What she needed to do was clear: get it up and down for par, and her first win was hers.  Make a bogey, and she risked getting caught.  Anything worse than a bogey, and she probably would see the win slip between her fingers.

Hee Young putts in round 4 of the Titleholders

Park had managed to stay ahead of some of the top players in the game all day.  World #1 Ya Ni Tseng, #2 Suzann Pettersen and #4 Na Yeon Choi were all breathing down her neck on Sunday, but she had managed to stay cool and make clutch par saves when she needed to.  But Park had had chances to win tournaments in the past, and each time she had come up short.  Her most recent slip up was at the Safeway Classic in August.  All she had needed to do was make par on the final hole to get into a playoff for the title; a birdie would win it outright.  But she made bogey when she failed to get it up and down from off the green.  Was that moment going through her mind as she faced another testing moment?

One good thing came from that Safeway Classic near miss: it qualified her to play in the Titleholders event that she was now on the cusp of winning.  And as she stood over the shot on Sunday, she certainly didn’t show that she was thinking about past collapses.  She executed a beautiful chip to three feet, then buried the putt for the par and a two stroke win.  She collapsed in joy into the arms of her playing partner Sandra Gal, and was given an ecstatic champagne dousing by her father and several Korean golfing friends.  After four long years, Hee Young Park had at last tasted victory on the LPGA tour.

Hee Young celebrates her win

Hee Young Park’s career started out very much like that of other great golfers of her generation.  Like Na Yeon Choi and Jiyai Shin, her contemporaries, she won a KLPGA event, the Hite Cup, before even joining the tour.  She turned pro at the end of 2004 and was a rookie, along with Choi, in 2005.  Most of the observers at the time believed Choi was the talent to watch, but Park surprised everyone with her own great performance in 2005.  She notched a bunch of top tens before her achieving her first victory as a tour member at the PAVV Invitational.  This was especially impressive considering the field including a bunch of invitees from the LPGA tour, including Carin Koch, Laura Diaz, Meena Lee, Soo-Yun Kang and Jeong Jang. 

A few months later, she finished fourth at the CJ 9 Bridges, the event co-sanctioned by the LPGA tour.  Among the top LPGA pros she beat that week were world #1 Annika Sorenstam and that year’s LPGA Rookie of the Year Paula Creamer.  She was paired with Creamer in the final round and outplayed her by six shots in tough conditions (interestingly, she played with Creamer again during the third round of the Titleholders).  Hee Young would go on to become the KLPGA’s Rookie of the Year, topping her rival Na Yeon Choi.

Hee Young dives into the water to celebrate her win at the PAVV Invitational

Hee Young Park was so respected by her peers that she received a very unusual honor from them.  Fifty KLPGA players were asked to name the golfer they thought had the best swing among all the Korean female golfers.  They chose Hee Young as having the best swing, beating Korean superstar Se Ri Pak and Korean American star Michelle Wie among others.  Park was on the fast track to stardom.

She quickly won two events in 2006 to lead the KLPGA money list.  But at that point she went into a mini-slump, and a new rookie star rose up to challenge her: Jiyai Shin.  Shin seemed to play well every week, and by the end of the year she had claimed three wins and had overtaken Park for the money list lead.  Hee Young still finished second, though, and considering what a superstar Shin was soon to become, that was not such a bad result in retrospect.

Hee Young Park with one of her two KLPGA wins in 2006

Park became a bit more inconsistent in her final year on tour and was not able to claim a win, although she did earn three runner-up finishes.  At least one of these probably should have been a win, the second KB Star Tour event.  She was paired with Eun Hee Ji, and after playing a hole noticed that Ji had left one of her clubs by the green.  Her caddie picked it up and put it into Hee Young’s bag.  Later, however, Ji noticed the extra club in Park’s bag and called a violation on Park for exceeding the maximum 14 club limit.  Park ended up in a playoff with Ji and lost.  But if her caddie had not tried to do the good deed for Ji, Park would not have gotten a two stroke penalty, and would have won by two strokes.  Talk about a bad result from a good deed!

At the end of 2007, both Park and Na Yeon Choi entered LPGA Qualifying School.  Both had managed 4 KLPGA wins during their three years on tour.  But while Choi was only able to get conditional status on tour for 2008, Park finished third and earned a full tour card.

Hee Young and Na Yeon Choi in 2007, their final year on the KLPGA tour

So coming into their rookie seasons, these two talented young golfers were pretty much neck and neck in terms of professional accomplishments, almost mirror images of each other.  If anything, Park was perhaps a little ahead of Choi.  Yet in the next few seasons, Choi went from strength to strength, eventually winning five events in her first four seasons, winning the Vare Trophy for low scoring average in 2010, and leading the LPGA money list that season, only the second Korean to ever accomplish that feat.  Park, meanwhile, was unable to win even once, and though she easily maintained her tour card and played decently, it was pretty clear that both Choi and Jiyai Shin, who joined the LPGA the year after Park and has already earned eight tour wins, had left her in the dust.

She may not have been living up to her expectations, but those first few years were hardly a waste of time, either.  By the end of 2008 she had signed a lucrative sponsorship deal with Hana Bank that she still has.  She did manage four top tens, including one at the Evian Masters, and finished 35th on the money list with nearly $500,000 in earnings. 

Hee Young Park became a spokesperson for Hana Bank in 2008

In 2009, she did a little better, making 6 top tens and finishing 20th on the money list, her first time within the top 20.  She even came close to winning for the first time.  The second event of the year, the Honda LPGA Thailand, saw Hee Young struggle mightily in the first round with a bout of illness.  She staggered home with a 79, one of the worst scores in the field, and spent the night in the hospital.  But the next day she woke up healthy, went to the course and shot a sizzling 64, 15 shots better than her first round result.  In the end, she finished 2nd, beaten only by the top player on tour, Lorena Ochoa.  It says something about her talent that she could recover from such a disastrous start to play so well.

Hee Young sizzled in the second round of the 2009 Honda Thailand

Read more about Hee Young’s Thailand tournament in this blog entry:

Hee Young continued to search for her first win in her third LPGA season in 2010.  The Koreans won an amazing number of tournaments that year, with old rival Na Yeon Choi winning twice and finishing atop the year’s money list.  By this point, Hee Young had earned the nickname ‘Rocket’ for her ability to score birdies in bunches and ‘rocket’ up the leaderboard.  But like a rocket, she was just as capable of shooting down a leaderboard.  It seemed like when she was on, she was as good as anyone in the game, but when she was off, she could be really terrible.  If she could just find a way to grind out the weak moments in her tournaments, the good results would come.  Rocket displayed her rocketlike tendencies at the Jamie Farr Classic in 2010.  She shot a final round 64 to zoom up the leaderboard, narrowly missing a date with Choi in the playoff (which Choi went on to win).  She pulled a similar stunt at the State Farm Classic, shooting her career best 63 in the final round but still coming up two shots short to Cristie Kerr.  She ended 2010 with six top tens, and finished 34th on the money list. 

Hee Young beats the heat at the HSBC in 2010

She did have a big thrill in 2010: her younger sister, Ju Young, qualified for the KLPGA tour.  Hee Young even got a chance to follow her around at one tournament, cheering her on from the sidelines.  If Ju Young ever manages to make it to the LPGA, they would be the first sisters to play on tour since Aree and Naree Song and the Sorenstam sisters.

Hee Young and her younger sister Ju Young during a KLPGA tournament in 2010

What it basically came down to for Park was confidence and concentration.  With six international wins in her career heading into 2011, she definitely had the game to contend and win on the LPGA tour.  But whenever she smelled a chance to get the win, the nerves kicked in and she didn’t play well.  She is hardly the only star golfer to have to deal with this.  For many seasons, Lorena Ochoa and Ai Miyazato struggled with closing tournaments; yet they both ended up being ranked #1 in the world during their careers.  Na Yeon Choi, too, has let more than a few tournaments slip through her fingers, and Song Hee Kim has become notorious for her inability to win despite being in contention many times (see sidebar below for more!).  Hee Young just needed to find a way to get over the nerves and get the job done when it counted.

She didn’t have many chances to do that in 2011.  Before the Safeway, it had been one of her weakest seasons, with not even a single top ten coming into that week.  But though she was not able to get over the hump in Portland, the near miss did seem to light a spark in Hee Young.  She scored another top ten in Taiwan a few months later, then had her big chance at the Titleholders at Grand Cypress in Orlando, Florida.

 The event started out with her old friend Na Yeon Choi taking the first round lead.  Choi continued to lead through the second round and much of the third, but she had a really ragged end to the third round and fell several strokes off the pace by the end.  While that was going on, Hee Young entered her rocket mode.  She made a birdie on the par 5 15th, and then dunked another birdie on the 16th that barely dribbled into the hole.  She had trouble on the 17th, though, landing in the greenside bunker, and was not able to hold the green with her shot out.  But putting from the fringe, she dunked the clutch par save to maintain her momentum.  On the 18th, one of the toughest holes all week, she hit the green, then drilled a thirty foot birdie putt, one of the few made there all day, to secure a share of the third round lead.

Hee Young in round 3 of the Titleholders

She told the press that she was ‘thirsty’ for the win, and went into the day determined to finally end her winless drought.  It would not be easy: she would have three of the top four players in the world, including Choi, in her rearview mirror all day.  She had an early bogey to fall briefly out of the lead, but then pulled another rocket stretch, making birdies on three of four holes to regain the lead.

On the back nine, she steadily maintained a two shot lead for the most part, making par after par.  Gal made a bogey on the 12th, and the lead became three, but then the German star made two straight birdies, including a chip-in, to move to within a shot.  On the 14th, Gal hit her approach very close, while Park was left with a long par save.  But Hee Young made the putt to maintain the one shot cushion. 

The par 5 15th was crucial.  Both ladies ended up with par saving putts of about five feet in length.  But Gal lipped hers out while Hee Young made hers, and the margin returned to two strokes.  On both 16 and 17, Hee Young had great birdie opportunities, but missed them both.  She walked to the 18th tee, still leading by two, and did not even glance at the trophy, which sat on the tee box.  She managed to hit a great drive, but her approach was short.  Gal hit hers well, but it could not stop near the hole, and rolled to about twenty feet past.  Hee Young now was faced with the up and down from the front of the green.  She came through, and finally, after four long years, earned her first LPGA victory.

Hee Young at last gets to hoist an LPGA trophy!

The win was huge: the $500,000 winner’s check was not only nearly $400K more than second place (it’s a very rare thing on the LPGA to have such a huge difference between first and second place prize money), it was also the second largest winner’s check on tour (only the US Women’s Open, coincidentally this year also won by a Korean first time winner, is larger).  It moved Hee Young to 12th on the money list, her highest ever finish. 

Hee Young won a cool half mil last week!

Is this the breakthrough she has been waiting for, or will she return to her usual ways next year?  Time will tell, but keep in mind that Park’s biggest problem has always been confidence;  her game has always been solid.  If this win gives her the confidence to play her best from here on out, the rocket might be ready for a few more orbits next year before returning to Earth.

Sidebar: Best Korean golfers without a win on tour.

Now that Hee Young Park has claimed her maiden victory, who are the other best Koreans on tour who have yet to claim a win?

Song Hee Kim

Song Hee Kim

No Korean golfer currently on tour (perhaps no other golfer, period) has more top tens and great finishes without claiming a win than Song Hee Kim.  She did not have a particularly good 2011, but the previous three years saw her accumulate oodles of top ten finishes.  She started 2010 with 8 straight top tens en route to 15 on the year, and had had 12 top tens the previous year.  In 2010 alone, she finished 2nd at the LPGA Championship, but lost by 12 shots to an unstoppable Cristie Kerr; lost the Jamie Farr in a playoff; and lost the Hana Bank to Na Yeon Choi despite being in the lead most of the week.  It’s all the more weird because she won 5 times on the Futures Tour before joining the tour; she has not won anywhere in the world since.

Amy Yang

Amy Yang

People have been calling Amy Yang the future of Korean women’s golf since she won the 2006 ANZ Ladies Masters on the European tour as a 16 year old high school student.  She did win three times in total on the LET, and also notched a Major victory on the KLPGA in 2011, but a win on the LPGA has eluded her.  In 2011, she made nearly a million bucks and was the second highest ranked Korean on the money list.  Among her close calls: she finished second to Maria Hjorth at the season ending event in 2010; lost by five to Ya Ni Tseng in Taiwan this year; and finished second in Arkansas as well.  She has had top five finishes in three Majors over the past two years.

Vicky Hurst

Vicky Hurst and Hee Young Park at the 2010 Hana Bank Championship

Vicky has not been nearly as prolific as Yang and Kim over the past two years.  But she looked like a world beater on the Futures Tour, where she won five times and set the all time record for most money earned on that tour.  She also was an imposing amateur, and last year was one of the very longest drivers on the LPGA tour.  Despite these qualifications, the half-Korean American has greatly underperformed since joining the tour in 2009.  She did finish second to Na Yeon Choi last year in Korea for her best result.  But so far, she has not found the form to be a consistent star.


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