Player of the Year
And the Winner Is: Inbee Park
I don’t think I’ve ever had a harder time deciding who should be given the Player of the Year award than I did this year. I considered literally six different golfers (I’ll get to them all), five of whom had career years, before finally deciding that Inbee Park’s career year was the most special of all. This despite the fact that two of the ladies she beat won Majors and Park did not, and two other shattered age records. But when Inbee got going on her amazing streak the latter 2/3 of the season, she ignited the kind of suspense I haven’t seen since the salad days of Jiyai Shin, Se Ri Pak and Grace Park. Namely, it seemed like she would be in the hunt every single week, and the only question was, would she win or have to settle for a second or third place?
Park had two wins on the LPGA tour, which tied her with Jiyai Shin and Na Yeon Choi for tops among the Koreans. Those two ladies won Majors, while Inbee did not. Park did, however, win the Evian Masters, which will be a Major in 2013, and which is without question the most important non-Major on tour. She had 12 top tens, and ten of those were top fives. Besides her two wins, she had six second place finishes, a third and a fourth. Simply put, she was a golfing machine.
Her consistency enabled her to make $2,287,080 in 2012, the most money any Korean golfer has ever made on the LPGA in a single year, and the first time a Korean has broken the 2 million dollar mark. She also led the league in scoring and won the Vare Trophy, such an important honor that it earns a player a Hall of Fame point. If she had been a little more lucky, and a little more clutch, she might have walked away with several more wins. She was the top pro at the Canadian Open, behind only the teen amateur Lydia Ko. She had a great chance to win in Taiwan and at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational, leading both events for a while before falling back to the field on Sunday. She also lost in a playoff at the Manulife. Even the British Open was not out of reach on the final day, although she struggled far too much early to have had any chance of catching Shin there. Still, she managed a solo second. She had 9th place finishes at the LPGA Championship and US Women’s Open for three total Major top tens.
Statistically, she was extremely strong. She led the league in both putting statistics, was second in rounds under par and rounds in the sixties, third in birdies, and second in Player of the Year points.
Park had one of the most blistering runs of great golf in some time. Her ten straight top tens included two wins, four runner-up finishes and one third place. After missing the top ten for the first time in four months, she had a runner-up finish in her next start, and another two events after that.
As if all those runner-up finishes were not enough, Inbee also had at least four runner-up finishes on the Japanese tour, three of those in Majors. If Park would have found a way to close better, it’s not inconceivable she could have won all of those Majors, so close were her near misses.
To end her season, Inbee played on the Korean team in the Korea-Japan team competition. She won both her matches and earned the MVP award. She finished the year ranked 4th in the world.
Inbee credited her fiancé, who is also a golf teaching pro, with her newfound confidence on the course (and no doubt happiness off of it). It was a career year in every way for the sixth year pro, and thus she earns the Seoul Sisters Player of the Year award!
Na Yeon Choi
The difference between Na Yeon Choi and Inbee Park was razor-thin in 2012. The main knock against Choi is that she was not nearly as consistent as Park; in most statistical categories, Park had the edge. However, Choi had a string of brilliant accomplishments of her own.
Like Park, Choi won three times in 2012: twice on the LPGA tour and one other non-tour event. But each of Choi’s wins were just a little more impressive than Park’s. Choi won the biggest event of them all, the US Women’s Open, for her first Major, and capped her season with a triumph at the CME Group TitleHolders Tour Championship, one of the most important non-Majors on tour. A few weeks after that, she won the Swinging Skirts in Taiwan, a Silly Season event that attracted most of the top golfers in the world, including all six of the finalists for this award. Those are three pretty impressive wins; I would say it was the most impressive slate of victories of any of my six nominees for this award, including Inbee Park.
Choi did not win any post-season awards, although she did well in several statistical categories. Thanks to her big win at the CME, she finished second on the money list with $1,981,834, which was the second highest season ending money total ever accumulated by a Korean (behind only Inbee). She only finished 5th in scoring average, however, well behind Inbee, and 3rd in Player of the Year, one slot behind Inbee.
Choi managed 10 top tens on the year, with six top fives; besides her two wins, she had three seconds and a third. Those are great numbers, but again all are behind Inbee’s numbers. One of her runner-up finishes came against Inbee at the Sime Darby. At the Majors, Choi had the win at the Open, an 8th at the Kraft, and a 13th at the British. She was disqualified at the LPGA Championship (see ‘Most Controversial Moment’ for more details).
Choi finished the year ranked 2nd in the world. Like Inbee, she played at the Korea-Japan team event and was undefeated.
Choi’s Major win and more impressive tournament victories were almost enough to offset Park’s statistical superiority and greater consistency, but those things coupled with the Vare and record Money list total were enough to edge the award towards Inbee Park. It was certainly a banner year for Na Yeon Choi, however, and she seems as if she is on the cusp of becoming the decisive best Korean golfer of her generation if she keeps improving as she has been.
Shin was troubled by injuries all year. It made it difficult for her to get any kind of roll going. But despite playing fewer events than the other pros in this list, she still achieved two wins, including a Major, and for a while looked likely to win the Vare Trophy (in the end, she did not play enough rounds to qualify).
Shortly after coming back from an operation, Shin found herself tied for the lead with a round to go at the Jamie Farr, She faded to 7th there, but just a couple of events later, she was in the final group at the CN Canadian Open. She finished third, with a front row seat to Ko’s historic win – they played in the final group together. Shin was finally hitting her stride, though, and she won her next event, the Kingsmill Championship, after besting Paula Creamer in a ridiculously long 9 hole, two-day playoff. Arriving in Britain later than almost anyone else, Shin played the British Open superlatively, crushing the competition by nine shots for her second straight win less than a week after the Kingsmill victory.
So Shin did have a Major win, unlike Park, but only two world wins in 2012 to three for Inbee. Statistically, Shin managed 8 top tens in 18 events, with three thirds on top of her two wins (but no seconds). She also led the scoring average race for a while before fading to 4th, and wound up 7th on the year ending money list with over $1.2 million earned (in 4 – 6 fewer events than most of the other top players). She was also in the top five in greens in regulation and sand saves and topped the league in percentage of rounds under par.
Like Choi and Inbee, she also won both her matches at the year ending team match, and at the Swinging Skirts, she finished third. She was in the hunt until nearly the end but made a crucial late mistake to miss the playoff won by Choi.
Shin’s numbers were clearly not as good as Choi or Park, but what makes her notable was that she did all these things despite struggling with injuries much of the year. Even with that factored in, however, I have to say that Inbee Park outdid the Final Round Queen in 2012.
So Yeon Ryu
I talked about So Yeon’s season in detail in the ‘Rookie of the Year’ award. As far as this award goes, Ryu has a lot of positives in her favor. She had only two worldwide wins, one on the LPGA, one on the KLPGA, and no Majors. She finished behind Choi and Park and just ahead of Shin on the money list, and ended her season with a world ranking of #7.
What was really impressive about Ryu’s season was that she not only managed more top tens (16) than any other Korean, and more top fives as well, but that she did all that as a rookie who had a. never played most of the courses before and b. was dealing with all the challenges that come with moving to a new culture and finding your way there. On top of which, she was also finishing her college degree simultaneously.
She also had some impressive stats: 2nd in putts/GIR (behind Inbee), 2nd in scoring average (again behind Inbee), 3rd in rounds under par and rounds in the 60s, 2nd in birdies, and 5th in Player of the Year. All these results are very impressive, but she was still almost always behind my choice for Player of the Year, Inbee Park.
Like the other three LPGA players above, Ryu also won both her matches at the Team competition against Japan (she was teamed with Inbee on the first day). She finished tied for third at the Swinging Skirts, tied with Shin and behind Choi but ahead of Inbee.
Admittedly the Rookie of the Year had a much harder challenge in 2012 than Inbee Park or Na Yeon Choi in terms of getting used to her new country. But despite that, and despite her amazing consistency, So Yeon was probably a win or two short of snagging this award away from Park.
Even though Inbee Park won this award, it’s very possible that the real Player of the Year was a golfer who shattered not one but two age records, won some of the biggest events in her sphere, and garnered more attention than any other ethnically Korean golfer in 2012. I’m not arguing that Lydia Ko is better than any of the four LPGA golfers I’ve already mentioned – she’s not, at least not yet – but in terms of awesomeness, Ko’s 2012 campaign is hard to match.
I already talked about her in some detail in ‘Best Teen’, but to summarize, in 2012 she became the youngest person ever to win a professional event and the youngest to win an LPGA event. She also won the biggest amateur event in the world, the US Amateur, and drubbed the top amateurs in the world at the biennial Women’s World Team Amateur Championship. Even if she had done nothing else, that is an incredible run of golf. In addition, she was the low amateur at the US Women’s Open and Ricoh Women’s British Open, won the Australian Ladies Amateur, and played several other LPGA events, grabbing top 20s in most of those.
So why isn’t she the Player of the Year? To be honest, I’m waffling even now. But on the biggest tour, she managed only one really great performance, the win in Canada. Her other LPGA events were certainly solid, especially for a girl her age, but nothing that would stun the masses. Her amateur wins were against women and girls that, for the most part, she outclassed (exceptions noted for the Jutanugarn sisters and Hyo Joo Kim). Was she perhaps so good as an amateur that we took her for granted a bit?
Maybe. I’m certainly open to hearing arguments as to why I’m wrong! But for now, I’ll take Inbee Park’s career year over Lydia Ko’s career year.
Hyo Joo Kim
See ‘Best Teen’ for more details about this superstar in the making. Like Ko, she was great at amateur events, but where Kim shone in 2012 was playing against the big girls in the pro events. She ended up winning four professional events last year on three different tours. That’s more than any of the other women on this list managed. And she wasn’t even a pro until October! But she finished behind Lydia Ko more often than ahead of her, and was not able to win the LPGA event that would have put her over the edge (though she came close at the Evian).
In sum, it was a great year for the Korean ladies, perhaps the greatest in recent memory. From amateurs setting records to wins in most of the big events in the world (three Majors, the big US amateur events, the world team championship, the Korea vs. Japan battle), the Koreans were making their mark everywhere in 2012. Congratulations to them on a job well done, and good luck in 2013!