Posted by: happyfan08 | June 11, 2014

Baek to the Future

Last week, 18-year-old KLPGA Rookie Kyu Jung Baek shot a blistering 64-65 to open the Lotte Cantata Ladies Open, giving her a six shot lead going into the final round. On Sunday she was heavily challenged by two of the biggest stars on tour, Hyo Joo Kim and Ha Na Jang, but managed to hold them off to claim the trophy. It was already the second KLPGA win of her young career. Baek is on a rocket trajectory towards the top of the game; the win not only solidified her lead atop the Rookie of the Year standings, it put her firmly into contention for all the top prizes on tour this year.

Kyu Jung Baek with her trophy from the Lotte Cantata Ladies Open

Baek started playing golf at the age of 7. She was born in October, 1995, and is part of a new wave of great young Korean female golf talents who were born around the same time. As an amateur, she played for several years on the Korean national team with contemporaries like Hyo Joo Kim (last year’s KLPGA Rookie of the Year); In Gee Chun (the winner of last year’s Korean Women’s Open); and Min Sun Kim (who is also a rookie in 2014). Perhaps her greatest amateur achievement came in 2012, when she teamed with Hyo Joo and Min Sun to capture the team title at the Espirito Santo World Women’s Amateur Team Championship.

Team Korea won the 2012 World Women’s Amateur Team Championship; Kyu Jung Baek (left) poses with her teammates Min Sun Kim (center) and Hyo Joo Kim (right)

In 2013, the 17-year-old star turned pro and joined the KLPGA’s developmental tour, the Dream Tour. Not too long after that, she played in the Korean Women’s Open, the biggest event on the Korean golf circuit. She led that event after three rounds, and, playing in the final round with old pals Chun and Hyo Joo Kim, wound up third behind Chun.

Baek at the 2013 Korean Women’s Open. She finished third.

Baek’s performance at the Open raised her profile in Korea, and many were now looking to her as perhaps the most promising player in her class. She did not disappoint. Playing on the Dream Tour in the Fall, she won twice and managed to earn a spot on the KLPGA for 2014. At the end of the year, she was invited to play at the Swinging Skirts, a tournament in Taiwan that often attracted a field of top women pros. Baek finished fourth, tied with her old pal Hyo Joo Kim, who had just won the KLPGA’s Rookie of the Year award for the season just ended. The only three players who beat Baek that week – Inbee Park, So Yeon Ryu and Lydia Ko – were all ranked in the top five in the world rankings. By this point, Baek had earned a new nickname: Super Rookie, and a gaggle of sponsorship deals, including a clothing deal with Elle Golf and a major sponsorship with CJ Shopping. But could this girl, still only 18-years-old, live up to the expectations she was generating?

Baek in December, 2013

Baek’s first two events as a rookie were nothing special, although she made the cut in both. But the third event, the Nexen Saint Nine Ladies Masters, contested in late April, at last saw the rookie star put herself into the mix for a title. The week actually started well for another rookie star, Baek’s good friend Min Sun Kim. Kim took a three shot lead after round one, with Baek in second. Kim struggled more in round 2, but held onto a share of the lead. Baek took advantage, and moved into a share of the lead with Kim. The two rookies would be going toe to toe with one other player who was tied atop the leaderboard: Ha Na Jang. Jang was the biggest superstar on the tour, having won the previous year’s Player of the Year and money list titles. Two star rookies and Jang, all together in the final round – it promised to be an epic battle.

Baek at the Nexen Saint Nine Ladies Masters

On Sunday, Kim was for the most part out of it, leaving the battle to be waged between Jang and Baek. Baek struck first, clawing her way to a three shot lead. But at that point she made a double bogey, and the leaderboard was once again tight.

Baek awaits her next shot in the final round of the Nexen

On the 14th hole, Jang made birdie while Baek bogied. Now Jang had the one shot lead and seemed in control. But on the next hole, Jang inexplicably missed a short putt for birdie that would have put her up by two. Then on 16, she wailed her drive into the trees, and was not able to save par on the par 5.

Baek took advantage, drilling a 20 foot birdie putt to move into a one shot lead. On 17, Jang had another shot at birdie but again missed, so it all came down to 18. Jang put her approach closer to the flag, but Baek had a 20 foot birdie putt first to win. And she drained it, seizing the title before Jang could do a thing! Baek didn’t even make it to the hole to pick up her ball before she broke down in tears. The Super Rookie had won her first KLPGA title, and had faced down two of her biggest rivals to do it.

Baek drills the winning putt at the Nexen Saint Nine Ladies Masters

Baek begins to cry as her first victory on the KLPGA tour sinks in

Her first KLPGA trophy

Just when it looked like Baek was en route to the Rookie of the Year, however, she hit a speed bump. She missed the cut in her next event. Then at the next tournament after that, she seemed fine until a terrible second round 81 caused her to miss another cut! The next event after that was the Doosan Match Play, and who should Baek draw as her first round opponent? None other than her rookie friend/rival Min Sun Kim!

No way! Kyu Jung Baek draws her good friend Min Sun Kim as her first round opponent at the Doosan Match Play

It was a close match, but Kim managed to defeat Baek. Baek was clearly torn up about it, needing a little consolation from the very woman who had taken her down! Although Kim lost in the next round to In Gee Chun, she still earned enough points to overtake Baek for first place in the Rookie standings. It was incredible how quickly things had soured for the Super Rookie Baek.

Kim consoles a crushed Baek after their match, which Kim won

Just when things were starting to look dark, however, Baek dusted herself off and returned to her former glory. She managed a third place finish at the next event to return to the top of the rookie standings. And then came last week’s tournament, the Lotte Cantata Ladies Open.

Coming into the event, there were three players who seemed on a roll: the previous week’s winner, Yoon Kyung Heo, who had also finished third at the Match Play; Ha Neul Kim, who had two straight runner-up finishes; and Baek. Baek would be teamed with Kim in the first two rounds of the Lotte, and both golfers absolutely lit up the course. In the end, Baek had the first round lead following a 64, while Kim was second with a 65.

Baek during the first round of last week’s Lotte Cantata Ladies Open

Baek did not let up in round 2. While Kim struggled to a 72, the rookie star shot a 65 to cruise to a dominating 6 shot lead going into the final day. But the third day would prove to be more difficult than at first seemed likely. Baek was challenged by two superstars who both went ultra low: Hyo Joo Kim and Ha Na Jang, looking for payback from the loss to Baek the previous month. They started the day 7 shots back.

At first, everything went Baek’s way. She pitched in for birdie on the first hole, and was three under at the turn.

Baek drives in round 3

But Jang and Kim would not go away. Kim ran out of holes and wound up at 15 under in third place, but Jang kept making birdies. Baek made a bogey on the 16th thanks to a lipped out par save, dropping the margin to just two strokes. A few holes ahead, Jang was in the process of making birdie on the final hole. Could Baek keep her nerve and not give away the tournament?

Things are looking up for Baek after taking a huge lead at the Lotte Cantata

Indeed she could and did. On the par 3 17th, she saved her week with a brilliant iron shot to a foot for an easy birdie. When she made par on the last hole, she claimed her second career win by two strokes. With the win, she earned a ticket to next year’s Lotte Championship in Hawaii (this event is on the LPGA tour). It will be great to see the rookie star go toe-to-toe with the best players in the world!

Baek is congratulated by her rookie rivals Min Sun Kim (left) and Jin Young Ko (right)

Meanwhile, Baek became the first KLPGA rookie since Jiyai Shin in 2006 to win multiple events in her rookie season. Think about that: Hyo Joo Kim, In Gee Chun and So Yeon Ryu were only able to win once in their rookie years; Ha Neul Kim and Soo Jin Yang didn’t win at all in theirs. And the season is not even half over yet. It will be awesome to see what this superstar rookie does when the Majors start just a few weeks from now!

Baek with her second KLPGA trophy of 2014

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