Posted by: happyfan08 | January 6, 2015

2014 SeoulSisters Awards (3 of 7): Clutch Performance

Clutch Performance of the Year

And the winner Is: So Yeon Ryu and Inbee Park beat Americans in sudden death playoff, International Crown

Inbee Park and So Yeon Ryu talk in the fairway during the playoff at the International Crown

This was a very tough award to decide on, but in the end I went with what I believe was the single most pivotal moment of the 2014 LPGA season. When everything comes down to how you play on a single hole, the pressure can’t get more intense than that. Add onto it playing not just for yourself but your teammates and your country, and the situation becomes more intense still.

At the International Crown, the top two favorite teams were the Americans and the South Koreans. At the start of the year, the Koreans had a huge advantage in the rankings of their four top players vs. that of any other team. But as the year went on, the Americans had one success after the other, while the Koreans had an unusually weak start to the year. By the time the Crown started, it was the Americans who had a solid lead over the Koreans, both in world ranking and in their success on the LPGA tour to that point in 2014.

However, the Americans did not score a single point on day one, and by the end of day two, the two teams on the cusp of elimination were the Koreans and the Americans, with only one of them allowed to advance to the singles portion on day three. A playoff was held, featuring two players from each team playing a par 5 hole. If the low scores of the two teams matched, the second players’ scores would be used to break the tie.

Interestingly, the Americans did not send their top player, Stacy Lewis, out to play this playoff. Instead, they sent Christie Kerr and Lexi Thompson. The Koreans sent their top guns, So Yeon Ryu and Inbee Park, who had been basically carrying their squad to this point.

More playoff action at the Crown

The nature of the playoff definitely favored the Americans. Both American players had the ability to reach the green in two, while it was far more unlikely that either of the Koreans would. As it turned out, So Yeon came close, but her ball stopped just short, while Inbee needed three shots to get close to the hole. Kerr was on in two, but Thompson’s second shot stopped just short.

Who would blink first? Ryu hit a great chip to a few feet, giving her a short birdie try. But Thompson was not able to get her ball to the flag. If Kerr were able to hit her long eagle try, the Americans would win, but Kerr two putted for birdie. Inbee then did what Inbee does, sink a masterful breaking birdie putt, and everything was tied.

After Thompson missed her birdie, it all came down to So Yeon Ryu making her short birdie attempt. Ryu nailed it! Korea advanced, and the Americans, despite the home field advantage, were eliminated. Inbee later said it was the ‘most nervous’ she had ever been on a golf course, including her four (at that time) Major wins.

So Yeon Ryu celebrates after holing her birdie in the playoff

This win was not only clutch, it changed the entire nature of the LPGA season for the rest of the year. The Koreans had only won a single event before the Crown, but afterwards, they went on to win over and over again for much of the rest of the season. Included in their wins following the Crown were two Majors, and both Ryu and Park went on to win tournaments.

Other Nominees: MJ Hur, Yokohama Tire Classic (see ‘Cinderella of the Year’ for more details)

Inbee Park, final two holes at LPGA Championship

Inbee Park won her fifth career Major at the LPGA Championship

Inbee was two shots down on Brittany Lincicome with two holes to play at the year’s fourth Major, the Wegman’s LPGA Championship. On the 17th, she hit a fantastic iron to ten feet and drained the must-make birdie. But on the 18th, she hit her approach into the rough near the green. She did get the ball out of the thick grass onto the green, but still had a ten-footer for par to have any chance to win. She drilled it, and a few minutes later, Lincicome missed a must-make putt of her own, forcing a playoff, which Park won.

Hyo Joo Kim, final two holes at Evian

Hyo Joo’s masterful performance in the final round of the Evian Championship was very close to grabbing this award; it’s virtually a tie in my eyes. 19-year-old Kim had never played in a Major before, but was in the midst of a great week in France. But Karrie Webb had grabbed a one-shot lead by the 17th hole on Sunday, and Kim had just duffed her second shot. She could not afford another mistake. Miraculously, she hit an incredible pitch shot from about 60 yards to within a foot of the hole to save par. On the 18th, she drove her ball right down the middle, put her approach to within ten feet, then drilled one of the most clutch putts of the year for a birdie to force a tie with Webb. Webb missed a par save moments later, and the win belonged to Kim.

Baek makes five straight birdies at Hana Bank

Kyu Jung Baek missed a putt for the win at the Hana Bank, but she would still gut out the win in the playoff

Another KLPGA teenager had another mega-clutch performance in an LPGA event. Leading going into the final round, Kyu Jung Baek had fallen a bit behind the leaders by the 11th hole on Sunday, but she turned it up a notch, making five straight birdies to grab a share of the lead. On the final hole, she had a short putt for the win, but missed. She looked completely devastated. Somehow, she collected herself, and during the playoff moments later, she hit a fantastic approach to five feet. This time she did not miss, and gave a glorious fist pump to celebrate her incredible come-from-behind win.

Biggest Disappointment

And the ‘Winner’ is: Inbee Park, Ricoh Women’s British Open

Inbee Park at the Women’s British Open

Inbee Park had just one LPGA win in 2014 when she arrived in July at the Ricoh Women’s British Open. The British was the only Major tournament she needed to win to finish the career Grand Slam. And she put herself in great position to do just that, securing the lead after the third round. On the back nine, she was in contention, and at several points, in the lead.

But she kept making mistakes, and somehow was managing to hang onto the lead or stay in contention despite everything.

Meanwhile, a few holes ahead, extremely unlikely contender Mo Martin hit an incredible approach on the par 5 which clanked against the flag and stopped within eagle range. She made the eagle putt and got into the house at one under par, instantly leaping from pretender to contender. Suddenly, Park needed to find a way to stop the bleeding in a hurry.

Alas, she couldn’t, made several more mistakes, and fell all the way to 4th after shooting a 77. She was so close to making history, but just couldn’t get control of her game when it counted the most. (Fortunately for her, she won the next Major a month later, and recaptured her #1 ranking in the world not long after that. That must have certainly helped her mood after this disappointment).

Other Nominees: So Yeon Ryu, Portland (see Great Performances that Came Up Short)

Chella Choi, Australian Women’s Open

Chella Choi in Australia

Chella Choi continued all through 2014 trying to get that elusive first LPGA win, but it still didn’t happen, despite several close calls. Her best chance probably came at the Australian Women’s Open. Choi played in the final group on Sunday with Minjee Lee, the Australian amateur sensation, thanks to setting a tournament record in the third round to capture a share of the lead. But Karrie Webb, playing ahead of them, posted a low score, and though Choi had four more holes to try to catch her after that, she couldn’t do it. She missed a ten footer to tie on the final hole and wound up second.

Most Dominating Performance

And the Winner Is: The Korean Team vs. the Japanese Team, Korea-Japan Women’s Golf Team Championship

Sun Ju Ahn, the top player on the JLPGA; Hyo Joo Kim, the top player on the KLPGA; and Inbee Park, the #1 player in the world. Yup, the Koreans had a killer squad!

For more than a dozen years, the best women golfers from South Korea and Japan have met in an annual team competition in December. At the start of this rivalry, it used to be a fairly tense and close affair. The Koreans tended to have the best players in the field, but the Japanese squad was deeper, so their second tier golfers would win enough of the remaining matches to make the outcome a real tossup. As a result, the teams pretty much split the wins in the event.

But in the past four or five years, the Koreans have become so deep on the international scene that the teams they would field for this event became a murderer’s row of world-class golfers. Top to bottom, they were tough. Last year, the Japanese tried their best, but were thoroughly trounced by a Korean squad that included the likes of three-time Major winner Inbee Park and KLPGA Player of the Year Ha Na Jang.

After that result, there was talk that the Korean team would be limited in the future to only include golfers who played full-time in Korea. Given that the KLPGA had an amazing season in 2014, with eight golfers notching multiple wins and two collecting LPGA trophies, even a squad like that would have been top-notch. But for whatever reason, they decided to send a team of top golfers from the LPGA, JLPGA and KLPGA as usual. And as can be expected, the Koreans absolutely dominated; even the fact the event took place in Japan this year made little difference, and the Koreans took the cup yet again by a score of 25-11.

More team members. (L to R): Na Yeon Choi, So Yeon Ryu and Inbee Park

How lopsided were the teams this year? The top Japanese player in world ranking, Shiho Oyama, would have been only the 13th best player if she had been on the Korean team. In other words, 12 of the 13 Korean players were higher ranked than the top Japanese player.

For the record, the Korean team included this jaw dropping collection of talent. From the LPGA, world #1 Inbee Park; Canadian Open champ So Yeon Ryu; 7-time winner Na Yeon Choi; two-time winner Mirim Lee; and Chella Choi, who had ten top tens in 2014. From the JLPGA came Sun Ju Ahn, Bo Mee Lee and former world #1 Jiyai Shin. Those three players were ranked 1,3 and 4 on the JLPGA last year, higher than any of the Japanese players on Team Japan! From the KLPGA came Evian champ Hyo Joo Kim; Hana Bank champ Kyu Jung Baek; three-time winner In Gee Chun; three-time winner Min Young Lee; and KLPGA #3 ranked Jung Min Lee. Whew! (As amazing as that team is, they still left off such stars as IK Kim, Amy Yang, 2014 winner MJ Hur and Hee Young Park from the LPGA; Ha Na Jang, Sei Young Kim (who were at LPGA Q-School that week) and Yoon Kyung Heo from the KLPGA; and Mi Jeong Jeon (who has a great record of wins in this event) from the JLPGA)(oh, and Se Ri freaking Pak. Just saying!).

Team Korea. All 13 players were ranked in the top 50 in the world.

In the team portion of the competition, In Gee Chun and Min Young Lee teamed for Korea’s only loss, with, amazingly, Inbee Park and So Yeon Ryu, Korea’s top team, only tying in their match. In the singles, Korea suffered three losses, including world #1 Inbee Park. It says something about this team that their top gun Park only earned one point, and Na Yeon Choi, another top player, earned none, and yet they still mopped the floor with Japan.

Mirim Lee had a great week, winning both of her matches

As incredible as it is to see such an awesome group of women come together on one team, perhaps it would be better to limit the squad to just the KLPGA golfers in the future. Especially given the exodus of top players from Korea at the end of this season, the 2015 edition of this might end up being pretty close. But without question, the 2014 Korean team earns honors for biggest blowout of the year.

Team Captain Sun Ju Ahn accepts the trophy for South Korea

Other Nominee: Hyo Joo Kim, Hanwha Classic

Hyo Joo Kim reached the Hanwha Classic in late July on an incredible roll. She had won two of the previous three events, including her first Korean tour Major, the Korean Women’s Open. Her last start had not been so impressive (still a top ten, though), but it didn’t take long for her to seize control at the Hanwha, the tour’s most lucrative event (top prize 300 million won, or roughly $280,000).

Kim started the final round after having given up a few strokes at the end of the third round (while still maintaining her lead). Any notion that this was going to be close, however, was quickly quashed, as Kim made birdies on holes 2, 3 and 4 to establish a lead no one could come close to threatening. The rest of the day was a walk in the park, and Kim claimed her third win of the year by a comfortable six-stroke margin.

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