Posted by: happyfan08 | January 6, 2012

2011 Seoul Sisters Awards (part 1 of 2)

It’s that time of year again.  No, I’m not talking about Christmas, Kwanza or New Year’s.  It’s the time each year when I award the annual Seoul Sisters awards, aka the Seoulies.  For a bunch of years running, I have named nominees and winners in a host of categories.  But this year I’m going to do something a little different.  Instead of spreading the awards out over several posts, I’m going to condense them into two posts.  The first one will talk about some of the notable achievements and moments for Korean female golfers in 2011.  The second post will focus on the big awards: Rookie of the Year, Most Improved, and Player of the Year.

So without further ado, let’s get to the awards!

Biggest Disappearing Act

The Winner Is: The Koreans on the LPGA tour

It’s hard to explain why the Korean golfers had such a crummy year on the LPGA tour in 2011, but that’s exactly what happened.  In 2010, the Koreans managed 10 wins on tour, and in 2009 they had 12 (if you include the Korean Americans), their best totals in LPGA history.  2010 saw a nice mix of veterans recapturing their form (Jimin Kang, Se Ri Pak) and the younger generation coming into their own.  For the first time in history, Koreans occupied the first and second spot on the LPGA tour money list (Na Yeon Choi and Jiyai Shin, each of whom won twice in 2010).  The Koreans also captured the Vare Trophy (Choi again), and a Korean finished the year for the first time as the #1 golfer in the world (Shin).  Even the stars who had yet to capture wins, like Amy Yang and Song Hee Kim, seemed poised to do that in 2011.  Everything pointed to a phenomenal season in the making.

Na Yeon Choi was #1 on the 2010 LPGA money list

But in fact, the exact opposite wound up happening.  Koreans only managed three wins in 2011, their lowest total since 2000 and second lowest in the Se Ri Pak era.  The last time the Koreans had a similarly weak season was 2007, when they managed only four wins.  However, that was in many ways a transitional season, where the veterans were struggling and the young guns were new to the league and had not yet acclimated to the tour (Shin and Choi were not yet members; In Kyung Kim, Inbee Park, Eun Hee Ji and Ji Young Oh, all of whom have won on tour since, were all rookies).

There were a few factors that affected the Sisters in 2011.  Ya Ni Tseng, who had never won more than a few times in a season, suddenly was winning practically everything in sight.  She had by far her best season, taking a quantum leap up in her results.  Jiyai Shin, the Korean’s top player, struggled with injuries, as did many of the veterans, including Se Ri Pak and Grace Park.  But there were other golfers who should have been ready to take the next step who simply didn’t, and they didn’t have the excuse that they were newcomers to the league like in 2007.  As Tony Jesselli noted in a recent post on his blog, three of the four biggest losers in the world rankings this season were Korean, and they were also three of the biggest stars the Koreans have.  Among the 10 players with the biggest ranking drops, five were Korean or Korean American.  That is not a positive trend.

The biggest loser of them all was Jiyai Shin, the Korean who started the year as the #1 golfer in the world, but finished the year ranked 7th.  She did not win an event on any tour in 2011, the first time in her professional career that this had happened.  If you eliminate the final event of last year from the calculation, Shin managed an under-70 scoring average for 2010.  Her average in 2011 was nearly a FULL STROKE worse than that.  No wonder her results were so much poorer.

Shin and Choi share laughs in 2010

Song Hee Kim had the second largest drop, falling from 9th to 30th.  Kim has never won an LPGA tournament, but her record the past three years was very impressive, with umpteen top tens and runner up finishes to her name.  She still had a couple of great tournaments in 2011, but her consistency was missing.  The 4th biggest drop belonged to Inbee Park, who had been strong on both the LPGA and JLPGA in 2010, but struggled a bit more in 2011 (though she did win in Japan).

Even the Koreans who had relatively good years, however, had their struggles.  In Kyung Kim was the strongest Korean the first half of the year, but had a major slump in the second part of the season.  Na Yeon Choi was very erratic from the start of the year through the middle of the summer, where she missed her second career LPGA cut at the US Women’s Open.  She improved markedly after that, and played brilliantly much of the rest of the year, finishing third on the money list.  But even so, she had only one win all year (plus another win on the Korean tour).

In Kyung Kim in March of 2011

In the first half of the season, not only were Koreans not winning, they weren’t even contending all that often.  It was once upon a time common to see Koreans all over leaderboards, but in the first half of 2011 there were several events where only one or two Koreans finished in the top ten, and none were in the mix trying to win the title come Sunday.  It took until March and the Kia Classic before the Koreans had their first real chance to win. Jiyai Shin cruised into the lead in the second round and stayed at or near the lead the rest of the week.  But German Sandra Gal, who had never won an event, refused to lose, hanging in close for three rounds.  In the final round, Shin made many uncharacteristic mistakes, but still held onto the lead.  It all came down to the final hole, when the Final Round Queen hit a fabulous approach shot, then botched a short birdie putt to hand the trophy to Gal.  The entire performance had been most un-Shinlike.

Jiyai Shin misses the crucial putt at the Kia Classic

There were a bunch of other disappointments along the way.  When Tseng wasn’t blowing away the field, the Koreans still would come up short.  Na Yeon Choi blew a lead at the Safeway Classic, then dunked her approach shot in the water in the playoff.  Hee Young Park needed a par on the final hole to get into that playoff, but made bogey.  Song Hee Kim being edged out by Maria Hjorth at the Avnet Classic.  Only one Korean in the final four at the match play (last year, three of the final four were Korean).  Ran Hong and Shin Ae Ahn were not able to get the win at the Evian.  Despite a fantastic day two by three great Korean golfers, the British Women’s Open turned into another Tseng blowout.  The Koreans didn’t even win the tour event in Korea, though most of the top five were Korean.  Amy Yang lost by a shot in Arkansas. Catriona Matthew suddenly found her form in Mexico and denied In Kyung Kim a great chance to repeat her title.   Etc., etc.

KLPGA star Soo Jin Yang had a good week at the Hana Bank, but still came up short

How bad was this year?  The Koreans did not have their first win on tour until early July at the US Women’s Open.  In almost every other season in the Se Ri Pak era, the Koreans won for the first time much earlier than that. And that win was by a non-tour member; an actual Korean member of the LPGA did not win an event until OCTOBER. 

Hopefully this was just a weird aberration.  You may recall that in 2007-2008, there was a streak of nearly a year without a Korean win on tour.  But the latter half of 2008 was one of the most successful seasons in history for the Sisters, totaling nine wins.  So perhaps they are loading up for a fantastic burst in 2012.  Here’s hoping!

Other nominees: Jee Young Lee

What has happened to Jee Young Lee?  Once upon a time she was among the top Koreans on tour.  These days she’s struggling to maintain a tour card.  It’s a mystery.

Best Korean confrontation:

And the Winner is: So Yeon Ryu vs. Hee Kyung Seo, US Women’s Open

It has all the makings of a Hollywood movie.  Two longtime rivals from the local Korean golf tour playing in the US Women’s Open, the biggest women’s golf tournament in the world, where they wind up in a playoff for the trophy.  It may have been the most improbable result of the year, but sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. 

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

Hee Kyung Seo won the Kia Classic in 2010 to gain full membership on the LPGA tour.  She had been having a lackluster 2011, but still managed to win her sectional qualifier to gain entry into the field at the US Women’s Open.  Meanwhile, her longtime KLPGA rival So Yeon Ryu earned her way in by virtue of her finish on the 2010 KLPGA money list.  The event was plagued by terrible weather, and it turned into a test of survival.  On Sunday, Seo played 2 full rounds, 13 hours of golf.  She started the day in 21st place, but after two brilliant rounds of 68, she carded a 3 under total just before darkness fell and play ceased.  She would have to watch on Monday morning to see if anyone could catch her.  Only three golfers still had a mathematical chance to do so.  Her biggest threat was none other than her old friend Ryu.  The 21 year old was only one shot back with three holes to go.

Ryu did not get out to a good start: her tee shot on the 16th hole found the greenside bunker.  But she got up and down from a tricky lie to keep her hopes alive.  She had a great chance for birdie on the par 5 17th, but her putt burned the edge.  But on the 18th hole, she hit a phenomenal approach to five feet, then drained the tricky putt to catch Seo.  Making a birdie on the 72nd hole of the biggest event of the year to tie the leader is the stuff dreams are made of, and Ryu did it with the confidence of a veteran.

So Yeon Ryu made some clutch putts during Monday play at the Open

The playoff was a three hole aggregate affair.  Both players made par on the 16th hole.  On the 17th hole, however, Seo hit a poor drive into a fairway bunker and could only advance her next shot 100 yards.  There would be a two stroke swing when Ryu birdied and Seo bogied.  Ryu put the exclamation point on the win with an even more brilliant iron on 18 than the one she had hit an hour earlier.  In the six holes she played on Monday, Ryu had three birdies and three pars.  On a tough Major level course with everything on the line, that is astounding.

So Yeon Ryu, the third youngest to ever win the US Women's Open

But though Seo ended up losing, she could still hold her head high.  She had played fantastically on Sunday to even give herself the chance for the win, and it took a truly special effort from Ryu to beat her.  And they both contributed to a bit of history: the first ever playoff between two Koreans for a Major title.

Other Nominees:  Ha Neul Kim vs. Young Ran Jo, ADT-CAPS Championship

This playoff at the KLPGA’s final event of the season seemed like it would go to Ha Neul Kim, who had two wins and a second in her previous three events.  But Jo would not go away, and won the battle of attrition after seven holes.

Ha Neul Kim after losing the 7 hole playoff at the ADT CAPS

Lydia Ko vs. Cecilia Cho, many times

These two Korean teenage amateurs, both living and playing in New Zealand, have been writing and rewriting the record books for the past few seasons.  They are good friends, but also fierce rivals, and by the end of the year, they were the ranked #1 (Ko) and #2 (Cho) in the world in women’s amateur golf.  Whether they really are the two best amateurs in the world or not is debatable, but the battle these two waged for titles in 2011 provided some of the best drama of the year.

Cho, 16, started the year as the higher ranked player, but Ko got the best of her most of the times they met this season.  And boy, did they run into each other a lot!  In March, they battled for the Australian Stroke Play championship.  Of course, it wound up as a playoff, with Ko beating Cho on the second playoff hole to become the youngest ever winner of that title.  The two were 7 shots ahead of the third place golfer.

Cecilia Cho poses in 2010

In April, they were the top two players on the leaderboard at the North Island Stroke Play, but Ko wound up edging out Cho by a shot to grab the title (Cho was 9 shots ahead of the third place golfer). 

Then came the New Zealand Stroke Play Championship.  Ko and Cho soon distanced themselves from the field.  Ko took a five shot lead, lost it, then cruised to a nine shot victory over her rival in the final round.  She became the first golfer to ever hold both the Australian and New Zealand Stroke Play titles in the same year.  The next day, she turned 14.

Lydia Ko with another of her many 2011 trophies

Next came the New Zealand Match Play Championship, which was seeded based on the results of the Stroke play championship.  Cho was the two time defending champion (she had beaten Ko in the finals in 2009, when Ko was 12 years old (!!) ).  To no one’s surprise, both players made it to the finals for yet another epic clash.  And once again, it was Ko who came out on top, decisively defeating her rival 4 & 3.

We eagerly look forward to the next chapter in this amazing rivalry!

Round of the Year: HJ Choi, MetLife KLPGA Championship, final round

The year’s second Major on the KLPGA tour, the MetLife KLPGA Championship, was contested under difficult conditions, and low scores were few and far between.  After three rounds, no one was able to score better than 69, and very high score were far more common.

Then came the final round, and one golfer was so on fire that she shot not only the best round of her career, but one of the very best rounds in KLPGA history.  Hye Jung ‘HJ’ Choi had been playing on the LPGA tour the past few seasons, but decided to focus on the KLPGA tour this year.  In her first three rounds, she played decently, and was five shots back entering the final day.  But right from the get go, she was unstoppable on Sunday.  She had five birdies on the front nine and five more on the back to shoot an unbelievable 10 under 62.  To put this in perspective, no other golfer was able to beat 67 all week.  She herself had not been able to beat 70.

HJ Choi with her KLPGA Championship trophy

Two of the golfers who started the day ahead of her, Soo Jin Yang and So Yeon Ryu, were a bit shellshocked by Choi’s run up the leaderboard.  But both stars had great days themselves on Sunday.  Yang shot the second best round of the week, a 67, and still missed a playoff with Choi by a shot.  Ryu, the recent US Women’s Open champion, was looking for the first KLPGA Major win of her career.  Despite a final round 69, she ended up three shots short of Choi in third place.  She in fact would not be able to win a KLPGA Major in 2011.

Ryu didn't win a KLPGA Major in 2011, but came close at the KLPGA Championship

Other Nominees:

Ha Neul Kim, Round 1, EDaily KYJ Golf Ladies Open

Kim opened this tournament with a blistering 64.  She wound up winning the title, which secured the Money List title for her for the first time in her career.

Ha Neul had a great opening round at the EDaily, which she wound up winning

Se Ri Pak, round 2, Ricoh British Women’s Open

Pak shot a 64 in round 2 of the British Women’s Open to vault into a share of the lead.  Alas, it didn’t last, and Ya Ni Tseng ended up running away with the title.

Hee Kyung Seo’s Sunday at the US Women’s Open

Hee Kyung Seo started Sunday with two rounds of golf to play.  13 hours later, she had shot two 68s to move to 3 under and the outright lead.  Given the conditions, the start-and-stop nature of the play, and the enormity of the situation, it was a superlative day of golf turned in by the Supermodel of the Fairways.  In the end, she still lost to rival So Yeon Ryu, who shot 69 in each of her final three rounds.

Shot of the Year

And the Winner Is: So Yeon Ryu, approach shot, 72nd hole, US Women’s Open

No shot had more impact for the Koreans in 2011 than the second shot So Yeon Ryu made on her final hole in regulation at the 2011 US Women’s Open.  Simply put, it was all or nothing.  She needed to make birdie to force a playoff, or else Hee Kyung Seo would be the champion.  And she delivered, hitting an immaculate iron shot to six feet.  She drained the tricky putt minutes later, and after a three hole playoff, hoisted the champion’s trophy.  Interestingly, her approach on the final playoff hole, which also took place on hole 18, was even more impressive, but the stakes were not as high, as she had already clinched the title by then.  In fact, she birdied the 18th hole the final three times she played it.

Ryu at the Open on Monday

Other Nominees:

Na Yeon Choi,  tee shot, 17th hole, Sime Darby Malaysia

The Koreans had been trying to reach an important milestone ever since Ryu won the Open in July: their 100th win on the LPGA tour.  Time and again, however, they came up short.  Perhaps the biggest disappointment came the week before the LPGA’s Malaysia tour stop.  Na Yeon Choi had a chance to get the 100th win in front of the home crowd in Korea; what a story that would have been.  Alas, World #1 Ya Ni Tseng managed to steal her thunder with a one shot win. 

Choi was leading the Malaysia tour stop coming into the final round, but Tseng once again was charging, and on the back nine, the two traded blows in an effort to capture the crown.  After Tseng had caught Choi once again, Choi came to the 17th hole, a par 3 over water.  She hit a nearly perfect iron to about three feet, made the birdie, and went on to capture the win by a stroke.

Most Fashionable

And the Winner Is: Ha Neul Kim

Ha Neul Kim is not only a big talent on the KLPGA tour, she is also very popular, winning the fan-selected Most Popular Award on the tour this year.  She is also known as quite a fashionable player.  Here are a few of the looks she sported on the fairway this season.

Ha Neul rocking the black knee socks at the EDaily, round 2:

Ha Neul at the EDaily

In round 3, Ha Neul went with white knee socks instead:

Ha Neul Kim

Ha Neul loves wearing light blue on Sunday — Ha Neul means ‘sky’ in Korean, and also the color of the sky:

Ha Neul Kim

Here Ha Neul goes a different direction with black:

Ha Neul Kim

Ha Neul in a photo taken for an interview:

Ha Neul Kim

Ha Neul dresses up at the KLPGA Awards Show:

Ha Neul Kim

Other Nominees: Shin Ae Ahn

Shin Ae Ahn won the fan voted Most Fashionable Award at the 2011 KLPGA Awards show.  It’s pretty easy to see why.  By the way, both she and Ha Neul Kim have a clothing sponsorship by the same company, Le Coq Sportif.

Shin Ae Ahn during round 2 of the EDaily

Shin Ae’s outfit in round 3 of the EDaily:

Shin Ae Ahn

Shin Ae had a great week in France at the Evian Masters:

Shin Ae Ahn

Shin Ae at the 2011 Korean Women’s Open:

Shin Ae Ahn

 Up next: Rookie of the Year, Most Improved and Player of the Year.  Stay tuned!!

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