Posted by: happyfan08 | January 2, 2014

2013 SeoulSisters Awards (1 of 6): Player of the Year

Hey folks! It’s time once again for the annual Seoul Sisters Awards for the best, weakest, and most interesting moments of the preceding year. Let’s get right to the action!

Player of the Year
And the Winner Is: Inbee Park

Inbee Park holds the most sought after award of all for Korean golfers: their first ever LPGA Player of the Year trophy

Usually I wait until the end to bestow this award, the highest honor of all the Seoulies. But for 2013, it is so apparent who is going to get this award that I might as well get it over with right away. Inbee Park simply was not only the top Korean player in the world in 2013, she was the top woman golfer, period, and had one of the very best years in the entire history of Korean golf, perhaps the very best (I’m not going to get into any arguments about her year vs. Se Ri Pak’s best years, but let’s just say Inbee’s 2013 stands proudly with even the greatest of the Hall-of-Famer’s seasons).

Inbee Park was our Player of the Year in 2012, but back then it was definitely a hard choice. Park was very consistent last year, but not as consistent as rookie So Yeon Ryu, who notched an astounding 16 top tens. Park had big wins, such as the Evian Masters, but did not win a Major like Na Yeon Choi, Sun Young Yoo and Jiyai Shin did. Nor was she creating history like teen phenoms Lydia Ko and Hyo Joo Kim. But what Inbee did have was two LPGA victories, the top position on the money list, and the Vare Trophy for low scoring average. That was enough to give her the edge in a tough battle.

Spoils of Success: Inbee poses with the Ferrari given to her to drive by the Italian company

In 2013, Player of the Year wasn’t even close. Here are some of Inbee’s amazing accomplishments in 2013.

  • She won six total LPGA tournaments, the most ever won by a Korean in a single season. She was responsible for more than half the total wins accomplished by Koreans on tour in 2013, with no other Sister winning more than once.
  • She won three Majors in 2013; only Se Ri Pak has ever won more than one in a season, and she never won more than two.
  • She won those three Majors in a row to start the season, an astonishing achievement that had not been done on the LPGA tour since *1950*, the first year the tour existed. She is the only Korean to have had a legitimate chance to capture a calendar year Grand Slam, which would have been literally unthinkably great had she pulled it off.  No Korean has even won a career Grand Slam, let alone all in the same year.
  • She also managed three straight wins on tour in June, the first Korean to ever manage that feat.
  • She became the first Korean to lead the money list twice.
  • She had 11 top tens, which led the Koreans on tour
  • In April she became only the second Korean (after Jiyai Shin) to become the #1 golfer in the women’s game according to the Rolex Rankings. She held that position the rest of the year.
  • In 2013, she broke two million in season earnings for the second straight year, setting a new all time Korean record of $2,456,619 (and breaking her own previous record from last year). She is the only Korean to ever break $2 million in a season, and she’s done it twice.
  • And she topped it all off by becoming the first Korean to win the LPGA’s Player of the Year award.

Three for three: Inbee after winning the US Women’s Open

The past few seasons, Inbee often proved herself to be one of the most consistent players on tour, putting herself into contention on many occasions. But wins seemed to elude her. In 2010, she managed 11 top tens, including top tens in all four Majors. 2011 was an off-year, but starting at the LPGA Championship in 2012, she went on a torrid run that saw her collect two wins and many other near misses.

Still, what Inbee did in the first few months of 2013 was to take her game to a level far above what she had previously accomplished. Indeed, she won her very first start of the year on the LPGA, although she was assisted with a timely collapse on the final hole by Thai teenager Ariya Jutanugarn. Her next few events were far from impressive, however, and it looked like this might be another ordinary year for the star.

Inbee got accustomed to heightened press interest

But when she got to the Kraft Nabisco, the year’s first Major, something clicked in her brain, and for the first time the fans were treated to the Superstar that Inbee was to become. In round 2, she played like a machine, but it was round 3 in which she truly threw the gauntlet down to the tour. Her putting was almost surreal it was so precise and accurate. By the end of the day, she only had one player anywhere close to her, American Lizette Salas, a player who had never won on tour before. It took all of one hole on Sunday for Salas to fall apart, and Park cruised to a ridiculously easy second career Major triumph. She became just the third Korean to take the dive in Poppy’s Pond.

The week after the Nabisco she rose to #2 in the world rankings, and soon after that climbed to #1, supplanting the recently crowned #1, American Stacy Lewis. Many felt that Park had not truly earned the top ranking, being that she got it in an off week. But Park soon proved she belonged on top. At her next tournament, the Lotte Championship, she finished fourth. The next tournament after that, she won again, outdueling Spain’s Carlotta Ciganda down the stretch at the North Texas Shootout. It was her first win as a #1 player, and quieted the criticism fairly convincingly.

Inbee’s first win as #1: the North Texas Shootout

Inbee had some of her worst struggles of the year in May, including a missed cut, her only one of the season. But as June started, she began arguably the most dominant run in Korean golf history.

At the year’s second Major, the LPGA Championship, Park played brilliantly again, and found herself in a commanding position as the fourth round wound down. But at that point, she began to struggle. She missed fairway after fairway, resulting in several dropped shots. She somehow managed to hang on just enough to force a playoff with Catriona Matthew. But during the playoff, it was all Inbee. She managed to regroup, refocus, and return to the dominant form she had been showing just in the nick of time. Shortly thereafter, the year’s second Major was hers.

She barely slowed down after that. A few weeks later, she won the next LPGA tournament on the schedule, the Walmart Northwest Arkansas Championship, beating good friend So Yeon Ryu in a playoff. It was her fifth win of the year.

Always more publicity: at the Ferrari sponsorship signing in July

Then came the biggest test of her career. The US Women’s Open, the year’s biggest prize, was being contested at Sebonack Golf Club on Long Island. Talk of the Grand Slam filled the air; Inbee was constantly asked about it. To make things even tougher, she was paired with her two biggest rivals, Stacy Lewis and Suzann Pettersen, in the first two rounds. Park responded by absolutely dominating them. She was seemingly making putts from everywhere, over and over again. Pettersen was so psyched out she missed the cut, while Lewis was never a factor. By the end of the second round, Park was in charge.

On the weekend, her biggest challenge came from fellow Korean star In Kyung Kim. But nothing was going to stop Inbee that week. She made a few mistakes here and there, but was always able to pull a rabbit from the hat when she needed it. The highlight of the entire year came in the third round when, after making several bogies, she sunk a downright ridiculous birdie putt from about 40 feet that traveled down a steep hill and dropped perfectly into the hole as if guided by angels. Kim tried her best on Sunday, but Park delivered the win, making history with the third straight Major win to start the year.

Inbee meets fans during a whirlwind trip back to Korea in late July

The rest of the season was a struggle for Inbee to battle the intense attention and pressure she received as she prepared to win the Slam at the birthplace of golf, St. Andrews. She didn’t in fact contend that week, and did not win another event all year. But she fought off a huge challenge from Suzann Pettersen at the end of the year by notching two more top fives to secure her #1 ranking and the first ever LPGA Player of the Year award for a Korean golfer.

Inbee even attracted attention out of uniform, like here when she attended Hee Kyung Seo’s wedding in November

Congratulations to Inbee Park on her amazing 2013 season, and allow us to add a well deserved Player of the Year Seoulie award to her mantle!

Honorable Mention: Ha Na Jang

No other Korean even comes close to what Inbee accomplished in 2013, but Ha Na Jang did have a noteworthy season that would have been in the running any other year. She led the KLPGA tour in money earned and won the Player of the Year award while capturing three wins, tied (with Sei Young Kim) for the most wins on tour in 2013. Included in that tally was one tour Major, the Hite Cup. And she wasn’t done when the season ended; she captured another win at the Hyundai China Open in December to put her atop the KLPGA money list for 2014.

Best Start to the Season
And the Winner Is: Lydia Ko

Lydia Ko early in the year

Lydia Ko started 2013 as the top Women’s Amateur golfer in the world. Her first big tournament of the season came in defense of her title at the Australian Women’s Amateur. But she played poorly in match play and lost in the second round. Her rival Minjee Lee ended up collecting that title. It would be the final amateur event Ko would ever play, although nobody knew it at the time.

When she started playing professional events after that, she quickly returned to her usual form. She first was called upon to defend her title at the New South Wales Open. She had made history there in 2012 by collecting the trophy and thus becoming the youngest female to ever win a professional event. Indeed, she had almost won the event the previous year, losing only to Caroline Hedwall. As it turned out, Hedwall won again in 2013 while Ko finished second in her defense. Ko was denied the chance to become the youngest player to ever defend a professional title, but it was still a great result.

The next week, she played in her adopted country’s biggest golf tournament, the New Zealand Women’s Open. She was under intense scrutiny, featured on all the event’s posters, yet she stayed in contention all week, finally claiming the prize when her two biggest rivals both three putted the final hole. She called it her most emotional win to date.

Lydia is beside herself after winning the New Zealand Women’s Open

Ko was on a roll, and next played in the Australian Women’s Open, the opening event of the LPGA season. Paired with world #1 Ya Ni Tseng in round one, she produced a jaw dropping 10 under par 63 that included 11 birdies, an eagle and three bogies. Jiyai Shin, another Korean star, got all the way to 14 under par after two rounds, but Ko only needed nine holes to catch her. Paired together with Shin in the final round, Ko got off to a terrible start, but recovered and hung in while Tseng made a run and Shin struggled to maintain the lead. In the end, Shin got the win and Ko faded to third, but three top-three finishes including a win in her first three pro events of the year is a great start by any standard!

Jiyai Shin and Ko share a laugh after Shin’s win over Ko at the Aussie Open

Honorable Mentions: Inbee Park wins her first event of the year

OK, it was largely thanks to Ariya Jutanugarn muffing the final hole, but Inbee did win her first LPGA event of the season, which is always a great way to start any season!

Jiyai Shin Wins in Australia

Jiyai Shin enjoys her Australian Women’s Open trophy

As we said above, Jiyai played great in claiming her only win of the 2013 season, which also happened to be her first tournament of the year.

Biggest Disappearing Act
And the ‘Winner’ Is: Char Young Kim

Char Young Kim struggled in 2013

This was a tough award to choose. Many of the top players on the LPGA tour had subpar seasons. In fact, after Inbee, the next three top ranked Koreans (So Yeon Ryu, Na Yeon Choi, IK Kim) at the end of the year (not including New Zealand transplant Lydia Ko) all failed to win in 2013. Choi saw her ranking drop from second to 7th. It’s tempting to pick her for this dubious honor, but really, she had a decent year in a lot of ways. Had things gone a little better for her, she might have won the HSBC and British Open, two of the most important events of the year. And she made nearly a million bucks during the season, with 8 top tens. So she hardly disappeared, even if 2013 was a weaker season than her last few.

Char Young Kim managed three wins on the KLPGA in 2012, and none in 2013. That in itself is significant, but what really hurt Kim is that she almost never was a factor in any event all year. She did not even have her first top ten until October at the Rush and Cash Classic, where she finished tied for third. It would be her only top ten of the season, and even there, she was never a factor, as Ha Na Jang ran away with the title. More often, she was missing cuts or struggling in the middle of the pack. She wound up 36th on the money list for the year.

Char Young

Kim did manage a fifth place finish at the second event of the 2014 season, the Hyundai China Ladies Open, which took place in mid-December. It’s probably too early to tell if Char Young’s career going forward will be more like the star of 2012 or the nonentity of 2013, but hopefully the China result shows that she’s back heading in the right direction!

Best Korean Finish
And the Winner Is: US Women’s Open: first Korean 1-2-3 finish at the Open

The past three US Women’s Open winners celebrate Inbee Park’s 2013 triumph. So Yeon Ryu (right) finished third in 2013 behind Park.

The focus that week was on Inbee Park trying to become the first player in 60 years to start the season with three straight Majors. Park succeeded in accomplishing that amazing feat. But lost in the shadows was the fact that it was also the greatest finish at a Major in Korean golf history, with the top three spots all going to Korean golfers. Park won with an 8 under total, with In Kyung Kim finishing solo second four shots behind her, and So Yeon Ryu finishing third at 1 under. Ryu was two shots ahead of fourth place, and the three Koreans were the only players to finish under par for the week.

Honorable Mention: Swinging Skirts dominated by Koreans

Inbee Park and So Yeon Ryu enjoy the Swinging Skirts tournament in December

The Swinging Skirts is an event held annually in Taiwan in December that attracts a stellar international field of top players. This year it was Korean New Zealander Lydia Ko who won the event, but the leaderboard was studded with Korean stars. Granted, being that this event is now an official one on the KLPGA tour, there are more Korean golfers here than in a typical international event. But still, the results were something else. Besides Ko winning, you had world #5 So Yeon Ryu finishing second, world #1 Inbee Park third, KLPGA Rookie of the Year Hyo Joo Kim tied with 2014 KLPGA rookie Kyu Jung Baek for fourth, and 2013 KLPGA Player of the Year Ha Na Jang tied for sixth. In other words, the top five players and one of the sixth place players were all of Korean extraction.

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