Posted by: happyfan08 | January 6, 2016

2015 SeoulSisters Awards (2 of 6): Cinderella, Breakthrough, Clutch Performance

AWARD for Cinderella of the Year

And the Winner is: Hye Jung Choi 2, KLPGA’s Chosun Ilbo Bosco Championship

HJ Choi on the red carpet at the KLPGA Awards Show in December

On the Korean tour, it is sometimes the case that multiple ladies have the exact same name. To avoid confusion, the tour affixes a number after each player. So Jung Eun Lee, who recently earned an LPGA tour card, is known as “Jung Eun Lee 5” on the KLPGA, because she is the fifth player to join that tour with that name (in fact, next year’s rookie class will have a Jung Eun Lee 6!).

Hye Jung Choi (1) is a veteran golfer with several KLPGA wins to her name. She even had a stint on the LPGA tour a few years ago. Now a mom, Choi still plays and contends on the KLPGA tour.

But this award goes to the second woman to join the tour with the name Hye Jung Choi, and her road to her unlikely win makes her a textbook example of what we call a Cinderella.

The rookie class on the KLPGA this year was a solid bunch. The names who got most of the early attention were Gyeol Park, who won last year’s Asian Games Gold Medal, and Han Sol Ji, who was a top player on the developmental tour in 2014. Both of those players did well in 2015, each contending for titles on a few occasions. But they didn’t win in 2015, nor were they the top rookies on tour.

Gyeol Park, one of the top rookies on the KLPGA in 2015

The Rookie of the Year was Ji Young Park, with second place going to Ye Jin Kim. Both of these players notched numerous top tens, but they, too, were not able to manage wins in 2015.

Indeed, only one rookie won on tour all year: Hye Jung Choi 2. And her win came at the last event of the season, the Chosun Ilbo Posco Championship.

Choi may have been a KLPGA rookie in 2015, but she has toiled in the minor leagues of the Korean system since 2009 without ever particularly distinguishing herself. She did finally make it to the Big Show in 2015, but spent the Spring, Summer and most of the Fall in the doldrums, struggling to just make cuts and earn enough money to keep her tour card for 2016.

The first time she made any kind of impact was in September, when she took the surprise first round lead at the KLPGA Championship, a tour Major. But she soon faded after that and wound up 45th.

A few weeks later, she got herself into the hunt at the Pak Se Ri Invitational. This time she managed to play well the entire week, finishing 5th, her first ever top ten. She followed that with a 17, a 26th, and then her best finish to date, a 4th, at the second to last event of the year, the ADT-CAPS.

Suddenly, the journeyman player was making a little bit of noise. So it wasn’t surprising when she shot a 67 in the first round of the Posco to put herself one shot out of the lead. When she followed that with a second round 64, however, more than a few jaws dropped. Now the rookie found herself in uncharted territory: a one shot lead over Cecilia Cho, the final group on Sunday, and a possible win in sight.

HJ Choi during the Posco Championship

This sort of thing happens a few times per year on the KLPGA, and usually the neophyte ends up shooting a terrible final round and collapsing, or making a crucial mistake at the wrong time, allowing someone else to grab the trophy. On the front nine, Choi was only even par for the day, and the outcome of the tournament was still in doubt. But she caught fire just in time on the back nine, going four under to move to 17 under total and a three shot win over the super-hot rising star Sung Hyun Park. After six years of professional disappointments, HJ Choi 2 at last was wearing the glass slipper of a Cinderella winner!

HJ Choi kisses her trophy after her unlikely win

AWARD for Best Breakthrough

And the Winner is: Sung Hyun Park, Korean Women’s Open

Sung Hyun Park is a 22-year-old second year pro on the KLPGA. She was part of one of the most impressive classes of golfers in recent years, the class of 2014. She was not one of the top rookies in 2014, however. That class was dominated by a Big Three: Kyu Jung ‘Q’ Baek, who won three events, including a Major, and earned her LPGA tour card by winning the KEB Hana Bank; Jin Young Ko, who won once last year and three times in 2015; and Min Sun Kim, who has two career wins thus far. Add onto them two other 2015 tour winners from the same class, Ji Hyun Oh and Min Song Ha, both of whom are not yet 20, and you have one heck of a class of golfers.

Park was comparatively dormant in 2014. She finished 34th on the money list, with only a couple of top tens and far more missed cuts. But when she caught fire in 2015, she launched herself onto a superstar trajectory that sets her up to be possibly the player to beat on the KLPGA tour in 2016. She may very well end up being the best golfer of all from the 2014 class.

Park had a few good finishes in 2015 early in the season, including a playoff loss to Jung Min Lee at the Lotte Cantata Women’s Open. But her breakthrough moment came a few weeks later at the year’s first and most important Major, the Kia Korean Women’s Open. Her win there changed her from another promising young player into a beast that rampaged through the latter half of the KLPGA season, winning twice more, contending at the KEB Hana Bank, and claiming the first trophy of the 2016 season to boot.

By the second round of the Open, Park had moved herself into a tie for the lead with rookie Ye Jin Kim. But it was on Saturday that Park made her big move, shooting a 70 in tricky conditions to establish a dominating five shot margin over the player who had previously beaten her in the aforementioned playoff, Jung Min Lee.

Jung Min Lee vs. Sung Hyun Park on the final day of the Kia Korean Women’s Open

Park seemed to handle the Sunday pressure well at first, but hit a major snag on holes 13 and 14, where she made bogey and triple bogey to fall back to the field. The rest of the round was a dogfight, with Lee hanging in there trying to steal the win from Park. Park bogied on 17, and her lead over Lee was now just a single shot. But Lee could not get it up and down on the final hole, and that was all Park needed: she cozied her birdie putt up next to the hole, tapped in for par, and her first KLPGA win was hers.

Sung Hyun enjoying her final round at the Open

Just like In Gee Chun, Sung Hyun Park made her first win on tour a Major. And like Chun, Park has so far used that win as a launching pad to the top reaches of the league. She truly deserves this award for having the Biggest Breakthrough of any Korean golfer in 2015.

Sung Hyun with her trophy

AWARD for Great Performance that came up short

And the Winner is: Korea losing to Japan at Kowa Queens

The Pinx Cup (also known as the Kyoraku Cup) was a team competition that pitted the best of the women Korean golfers against the best women Japanese golfers. It took place every year in December. In the early years, it could be quite a battle, but in the last few years, it had increasingly become a rout, with the Koreans sending a murderers row of superstars from the LPGA, KLPGA and JLPGA to beat up the hapless JLPGA all-stars.

Finally, someone decided to shake things up a bit. This year, the format of the tournament, and the name, completely changed. It is now known as the Kowa Queens, and features four teams: the JLPGA, the KLPGA, the Ladies European Tour (LET) and the Australian tour (ALPG).

In the past, the Korean team consisted of about half players from the LPGA and half Korean players from the KLPGA and JLPGA. But this year, they seem to have required that most of the team members be full time KLPGA golfers. One LPGA star, Sei Young Kim, and one JLPGA member, Bo Mee Lee, joined a raft of KLPGA talent, including superstar In Gee Chun and budding stars like Jin Young Ko, Sung Hyun Park and Min Sun Kim. So the Koreans were going in with a strong team, but not as prohibitively overpowering as in the past.

The KLPGA’s Kowa team before the competition began

This year, the event took place in Japan from December 4 – 6, and the Japanese team was on a mission right from the start. The first two days were team matches. On Friday, the Korean squad did well, winning two matches, halving one, and losing one. But the Japanese squad was unstoppable: they won all four of their matches, so right out of the gate, they had a 5 point lead over Korea, who was second.

Yoon Ji Cho and In Gee Chun played as a team (and won) on day one

Day two was much of the same. Once again, the Koreans won two, lost one and tied one. And once again, the Japanese were undefeated, although this time they had one tie along with three wins. Being at home seemed to have made them unbeatable: they now had an 8 point lead heading into the final day, which consisted of singles matches. It seemed like an almost insurmountable lead for Korea to overcome.

Min Sun Kim and Sung Hyun Park on day two

On Sunday, the Koreans decided to send their three best golfers against the LET, while sending their second best group against the Japanese. The strategy paid dividends: the Koreans made a huge run at the Japanese. There were eight total singles matches, and the Koreans swept all their matches against Europe and Australia. In Gee Chun, Bo Mee Lee and Sei Young Kim all had massive wins against European stars, some of whom were Solheim Cup veterans. So in the end, it all came down to the Korean matches against the Japanese. Sung Hyun Park thoroughly dominated against the Japanese captain Momoko Ueda, while Min Sun Kim edged out Japanese star Shiho Oyama.

Korean team captain Bo Mee Lee on day three

Thus, the pivotal match was the one between Yoon Ji Cho and Japan’s Ayaka Watanabe. Cho actually carved out a 2 up lead heading into the back nine; had she held on, Korea would have completed their improbable comeback. But Cho started missing short putts, and Watanabe surged to the lead. Cho came back and tied it up. On 17, they both hit great tee shots, but Cho missed her birdie while the Japanese player made hers. On 18, Watanabe had the harder putt, but she made the birdie to seal the deal for Japan.

Yoon Ji Cho and Bo Mee Lee after the narrow loss

Korea had almost managed a phenomenal comeback, but even though they lost by three points in the end, they had still won 7 of 8 singles matches on Sunday and were competitive in the 8th until the end. As a consolation, they win the Seoulie for Best Effort that Came Up Short!

Other Nominees:
So Yeon Ryu, Kingsmill Championship

So Yeon Ryu was one of the players involved in a Monday finish at this tournament. Minjee Lee had finished Sunday with a great run that put her five shots up on Ryu going into Monday. But So Yeon made three straight birdies to start Monday, and came close to stealing the tournament from Lee. In the end, despite some mistakes, Lee held on for the win.

Ha Na Jang, four runner-ups

Ha Na Jang had a great rookie season on the LPGA, but though she finished second four times, she never won. She came agonizingly close on three occasions: at the Coates Championship, she barely got outplayed by Na Yeon Choi. She lost a playoff to Chella Choi at the Marathon, which was especially tough for Jang considering the playoff hole was a par 5 and she is a long hitter, and Choi had never won an event before and so had a lot of pressure on her.

But perhaps the toughest loss came to Cristie Kerr in the final event of the year, the CME Group Tour Championship. Jang and Kerr battled head to head on the back nine, but Kerr made a late and unlikely eagle to establish the lead and soon after take the title.

Inbee Park misses out on Player of the Year

Inbee Park won two Majors this year to Lydia Ko’s one, and by August she seemed to have the Player of the Year locked up. But Ko went on a tear, winning several events, including the Evian Championship, and suddenly Park was behind. She made a great run at year’s end: she won the Lorena Ochoa Invitational to move to within three Player of the Year points, then outplayed Ko at the year’s final event. But though she finished 6th, she needed to finish a couple of shots better than she did to make up the remaining points to catch Ko.

Another way to look at it: if Sei Young Kim had not holed out twice in Hawaii to beat her at the Lotte Championship, Park would have been Player of the Year. It was an agonizingly small margin in the end!

Amy Yang losing at US Women’s Open after great comeback

Amy Yang with her runner-up medal at the US Women’s Open

Amy Yang has been a perennial contender at the US Women’s Open without ever winning. This year, she was the leader for nearly three days. But she lost the lead to a surging In Gee Chun on the 15th hole on Sunday. Chun climbed to a three shot lead just a few holes later. But Amy dug deep, made an eagle on 16 and a birdie on 17, and when Chun bogied the final hole, Yang had a chance to force a playoff. Alas, she missed a 9 foot par save and lost by a shot, but she has never come so close to capturing that elusive first Major as this year.

AWARD for Clutch Performance of the Year

And the winner Is: In Gee Chun, Doosan Match Play and US Women’s Open

In Gee Chun had a fantastic season in 2015, garnering eight trophies overall. It’s hard to say what was her most clutch performance, but I’m going to go with an early win that she managed to achieve entirely by repeatedly gutting it out over six tough rounds: the Doosan Match Play on the KLPGA tour. I’ll call this win a tie with her clutch final round at the US Women’s Open.

Match play tournaments are a weird beast. You can be playing terrific golf and run into someone who is playing even better and lose. Or you can play terribly, but still just better than your opponent and win.

In Gee Chun, despite being one of the top seeds at the KLPGA’s lone match play tournament, did not have many moments to relax. She seemed to be in for a tough battle almost every single round.
Even the opening round was a challenge. She did not get off to a good start, and found herself two down at the turn to virtually unknown So Yeon Nam. Fortunately, she turned on the jets at the right time, winning three of four holes late to claim the victory 2 & 1.

In Gee smiles during her first round match

The second round was even tougher: Chun was amazingly three down by the 10th hole to Yeon Jung Seo. Chun rallied, caught her, then missed a short putt on 17 to square the match again. On 18, Chun had a 20 foot birdie try to win, and the ball went in… and came back out. Chun did finally prevail in the playoff.

Still smiling during the tougher second round

Chun finally had an easy round next, creaming Bo Kyung Kim 6 & 5. But in the quarterfinals, Chun ended up in another playoff against another relative unknown, Cho Hee Kim. In Gee actually had the lead going into 18, but botched the hole, allowing Kim to win. Once again, she dug deep when she had to. On the playoff hole, Kim hit her approach to 3 feet, In Gee to 8 feet. Chun knew she had to make the birdie, and like a champion, she did. Kim then missed! Another win.

In Gee hung in there through two matches on day three

In Gee beat Song Yi Ahn in the semifinals in yet another match that went the distance. She claimed the one up win to advance. In the finals, she duked it out with top rookie star Han Sol Ji. It was close most of the way, but on 14 In Gee made a birdie to move to 3 up. Game over? No! Ji rallied, and the match got once again to the final hole before Chun managed the win.

In Gee made an ace early in the final, which never hurts your chances in match play!

In six matches, In Gee won two playoffs, two matches on the final hole, and one other on the 17th. Time and again, when she needed to pull a rabbit out of her hat, she did it. And thus, she won her first career professional match play championship.

In Gee with her hard earned Match Play trophy

In Gee Chun’s greatest career round came in the final round of the US Women’s Open. It was an incredibly clutch performance, but we’ll talk about it a little more later on. Consider it the co-winner of this award.

Other Nominees:

Inbee Park, Lorena Ochoa Invitational

Inbee not only held off Carlotta Ciganda when she was having the round of her life, and her perennial nemesis Sei Young Kim, but she notched a win she had to have to make it possible for her to contend against Lydia Ko for all post-season prizes

Inbee Park, HSBC Ladies Champions

Matched against the other top two women in the world on Sunday, Inbee didn’t make a single bogey and cruised to victory. In fact, she didn’t make a single bogey all week!

Hyo Joo Kim, Founders Cup

Stacy Lewis had trouble closing tournaments in 2015, but at the Founders Cup, she was playing quite well. Didn’t matter. Hyo Joo Kim was absolutely brilliant, even nearly making an albatross on one late par 5. And thus, she collected her first win as an LPGA member!

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