As we do every year, it is time for the SeoulSisters.com season-ending awards, where we talk about the best (and some of the worst) performances by Korean golfers in the year gone by. Let’s Go!
Best Start to the Season
And the Winner Is: Sung Hyun Park
Sung Hyun Park could not have started the 2016 KLPGA season any better. She is the first player in my memory to win the first three tournaments for the year, making a bold statement that she would be the player to beat for all the season-ending honors on that tour.
Her year started in December of 2015, when she went toe to toe with the two previous KLPGA Players of the Year, In Gee Chun and Hyo Joo Kim, at the Hyundai China Ladies Open. Hyo Joo was not only the defending champ, she had won the past three times she had played in China. And Chun was coming off her 8-win season as the top player on the KLPGA. Park shot a 64 to take the lead right out of the gate. Chun and Kim made a game of it, with Kim catching Park in round 2 only to have Park retake the lead in the afternoon. Kim climbed to a three shot lead on Sunday, but a double bogey allowed Park back into the match. In the end, they both shot a final round 67, which gave Park the two shot win. Chun finished fourth.
Hyo Joo Kim and In Gee Chun at the Hyundai Ladies China Open in December, 2015
Park next played on tour in April at the Samchully Together Ladies Open. The event was plagued by bad weather, mostly fog, but Sung Hyun Park started with a 65 and hung in over the next two rounds, eventually taking the tournament in a one-hole playoff with Ji Hyun Kim 2.
The following week, Park played the Nexen Saint Nine Masters. By round 2, she had again climbed to the top of the leaderboard. Her third win was not an easy one, though. She struggled much of Sunday and was involved in a battle with Min Sun Kim, who luckily for Park also struggled. In the end, Park made a testy 6-foot par save to claim the one shot win. In three events, she had three wins!
Ha Na Jang
Ha Na Jang started the 2016 season just missing a top ten in the Bahamas. But at her very next start, at the Coates Championship in Florida, she made up for that, scoring her first career LPGA win thanks in part to a first round 65.
Jang followed that with a tie for 4th in Australia and a tie for 8th in Thailand. She then wrapped up her second career win at the HSBC Women’s Champions in Singapore. In her first five events she had four top tens including two wins.
In Gee Chun
In Gee started her rookie year on the LPGA in style, coming from a ways back on Sunday to notch a tie for third at the Coates Championship. A few weeks later in Thailand, she bettered that: she managed to catch up with and nearly tie Lexi Thompson in the final round before Thompson reasserted herself on the back nine. Still, In Gee managed a runner-up finish.
Chun then suffered a lower back injury that kept her out of action for several weeks. But when she returned, she picked up right where she left off. At the ANA Inspiration, the year’s first Major, Chun was right in the hunt until the final hole, when Lydia Ko made a birdie to take the title. In Gee wound up second. She had yet another tie for second at her next event, the Lotte Championship. In her first four events as an LPGA member, she had four top threes.
Biggest Disappearing Act
And the “Winner” is: Na Yeon Choi
Just a few years ago, Na Yeon Choi was the second ranked player in the world and the top ranked Korean. Last year she managed two wins on tour. She didn’t have a great start to the 2016 season, but she did achieve a tie for 4th in Singapore and a tie for third in early April. And she contended with a great chance to win at the Swinging Skirts. She followed that up with a near win in China at the Buick Championship on the LET; indeed, this one was hers to lose, and somehow she made just enough mistakes to lose to Shanshan Feng in a playoff. But though she wasn’t winning, there was no reason to expect she would not contend again and maybe even earn a trophy or two.
But after a tie for 11th at the ShopRite Classic in early June, Na Yeon’s game took a complete nosedive. She missed 7 of the next 8 cuts, including at the tournament in Arkansas where she was the defending champion. Her best finish since then has been a tie for 50th.
There is a rumor that she is dealing with back issues that have hampered her game. But she took almost no time off, playing event after event even as her results continued to be dire. Whether an injury or something more insidious is plaguing her, here’s hoping Na Yeon soon recovers from this slump and returns to her winning ways.
Inbee in Thailand at the start of the year
It’s a little unfair to include Inbee Park in this category, since, unlike Na Yeon Choi, it’s public knowledge that Inbee struggled with some severe injuries in 2016. And she did manage one spectacular result at the Olympics (which we will get to later!).
But it’s also true that 2016 was one of the worst seasons of Inbee’s LPGA career. She played more events than she probably should have, largely because she needed to play ten events to qualify for the LPGA Hall of Fame this year, and because she was still hoping to stay tuned up for the upcoming Olympics. And in those events she did play, she only managed 2 top tens and a whole lot of missed cuts and drop outs after a round.
She has been resting since Rio, and hopefully she will return to the tour fresh in 2017 and ready to return to the top.
Best Korean Confrontation
And the Winner Is: KLGA vs. LPGA, ING Champions Trophy Inbee Park
The ING Champions is a relatively new team event that pits a team of LPGA golfers of Korean nationality against a team of KLPGA golfers. On paper, this should be a rout. Only a small handful of KLPGA golfers are in the top 50 in the world rankings, while many of the LPGA golfers are.
This year, Inbee Park, still recovering from injuries, captained the LPGA team but did not play. Still, even without the resurgent IK Kim, the LPGA Rookie of the Year In Gee Chun, or three-time winner Ha Na Jang, the LPGA had a formidable team that was heavily favored. Among the stars teeing it up for Inbee’s side were So Yeon Ryu, Sei Young Kim, Amy Yang, Hyo Joo Kim, Hee Young Park, MJ Hur, Mirim Lee, and Chella Choi. Every player on the LPGA squad had won at least one LPGA tournament.
The KLPGA Squad (top) and LPGA Squad (bottom)
The KLPGA, meanwhile, had most of their tour’s top players, with the notable exception of their best, Sung Hyun Park.
On paper, this one shouldn’t be close, but the KLPGA surprised everyone by leading 4-2 after the first day. And even when the LPGA won, they had to fight: one of their two wins came on the final hole, while the other came on hole 17.
Amazingly, the KLPGA kept it up on day two. This time, the teams’ records were identical, but it was the KLPGA who won several close ones. Two of their wins came down to the final hole, while another went to 17.
The LPGA finally woke up on day three, the singles competition. The KLPGA won 2 of the first three matches, but the LPGA claimed the next three and went on to win 8 of the 12 matches to achieve a 13 to 11 victory. Chella Choi was the MVP, but it was a hard-fought match for all concerned.
The victorious LPGA Team
Minjee Lee vs. In Gee Chun, Hawaii
In Gee had a poor start at the Lotte Championship in Hawaii, but she slowly crept up the leaderboard until she was right in the hunt. In the final round, she managed to track down the leader, American Katie Burnett, and seemed ready to get her first win as an LPGA member when…
Out of nowhere, Minjee Lee shot a scintillating 64 to take the title by a shot. It was a great effort by Chun, but she would have to wait a few more months before claiming her first win of the year.
Minjee Lee does a victory hula at the Lotte Championship
Sung Hyun Park vs. In Gee Chun, at the Evian and for history
In Gee Chun was the dominant player on the KLPGA in 2015; Sung Hyun Park dominated in 2016. Although by 2016 Chun had moved on to the LPGA, there’s no doubt that these two young golfers have risen to become the two most popular golfers of their generation in Korea. And not surprisingly, their success makes them rivals of sorts, even as they have remained good friends.
For the most part, they did not clash this year at LPGA tournaments where both were playing well. In Gee outplayed Park at the ANA Inspiration, though both made top tens. At the US Women’s Open, In Gee missed the cut, and Park came close to winning. But it was at the Evian Championship, the year’s final Major, where the two really went toe to toe.
They both started out strong, shooting 63s to take a share of the lead into round 2. Chun continued her sterling golf, producing a 66, while Park stumbled just a tad with a 68. Park countered in round 3 with a blistering 67, temporarily catching In Gee, but Chun responded with a late chip in eagle and carded a 65. By this point, she had amassed an insane 19-under-par total for three rounds, but even so, because of how well Park was playing, she would still have to reach deep to make the title happen.
In the end, Chun was too much, setting the all-time record for score in relation to par at a Major (men or women!), but the intense battle over four days, which culminated in a head-to-head Sunday tiff, was one of the best Korean confrontations of 2016.
Best Korean Finish
And the Winner Is: Evian Championship
As mentioned before, we had In Gee Chun as the winner in record fashion. Sung Hyun Park tied with So Yeon Ryu for second, four shots back. Sei Young Kim was fifth, edging out In Kyung Kim, who finished 6th. Five of the top six on the leaderboard were from Korea!
Coates Golf Championship
Ha Na Jang won; In Gee Chun, Lydia Ko and Sei Young Kim all tied for third; and Julie Yang tied for 6th.
Honda LPGA Thailand
Hee Young Park in Thailand
American Lexi Thompson won, but In Gee finished solo 2nd, Amy Yang tied for 3rd, Haru Nomura/Chella Choi/Hee Young Park all tied for 5th, and Minjee Lee and Ha Na Jang tied 8th. That means women with Korean ethnic backgrounds comprised seven of the top nine spots!
HSBC Women’s Champions
Even with In Gee Chun missing the tournament due to injury, Sisters dominated here. Ha Na Jang won, Amy Yang was 3rd, and Chella Choi/Na Yeon Choi/Mirim Lee were all tied for 4th. That’s five of the top eight.