Cinderella of the Year
And the Winner Is: Chae Lin Yang, Mirae Asset Daewoo Classic
The KLPGA is usually good for a Cinderella story or two each season, but the two they had this year were truly special. In the end, I gave the award to Chae Ling Yang, whose win was even more improbable than the other main contender (whom we’ll talk about below).
Going into the final round of the KLPGA’s Mirae Asset Daewoo Classic in September, one of the two players tied for the lead was Sung Hyun Park, the superstar who would dominate the season on tour. She was looking for her 8th win of the year, and it certainly looked like nothing was going to get in her way: not the rookie she was tied with heading into Sunday (Ji Young Kim), and certainly not a player named Chae Lin Yang, who was tied for third two shots back. Yang was the textbook definition of a journeyman player: before this week, she had missed ten cuts in 2016, and her best previous finish all year had been a tie for 20th.
But Sunday was a classic Cinderella day for Yang. Park, the Terminator of KLPGA golf, had a completely unexpected collapse, shooting a 78, one of the worst rounds of her season. She not only didn’t win, she fell out of the top ten.
LPGA star and Mirae sponsored athlete Sei Young Kim was also in the field, and made a run up the leaderboard at the title. But she stalled at 9 under, which was just one shot worse than she needed.
Meanwhile, Yang played well, making a birdie on the final hole to force a playoff with Hee Won Jung. Jung is no Sung Hyun Park, but she has still won several times on tour and was the prohibitive favorite to beat Yang. Not this day. The Cinderella hung in through three holes to beat Jung and claim easily the most unlikely KLPGA win of 2016.
Other Nominee: Seong Weon Park, Lotte Cantata Ladies Open
Almost as big of a Cinderella was Seong Won Park, who won the Lotte Cantata Ladies Open in early June. Park has been a journeyman player who has bounced back and forth between the KLPGA and minor league Dream Tour the past four years. In 2016, she had played six KLPGA events before the win, making three cuts, with her best finish an 11th.
But for one week in June, she was a superstar, handling both Sung Hyun Park and Jin Young Ko, the number two player on tour, and coming up with a staggering five shot victory over Min Song Ha. It’s unclear if she will ever be heard from again, but she sure got the job done when it counted!
Seong Weon Park was such a Cinderella in her win, she even got to ride in a horse-drawn carriage!
And the Winner Is: Ha Na Jang
Ha Na Jang had a solid LPGA rookie season in 2015, but her breakthrough year was 2016. Jang won three times during the season and made over $1.3 million dollars, which placed her 8th on the season ending money list.
She got her year off to a bang with tie for 11th at the Pure Silk Bahamas LPGA Classic. The very next week, she carded her first career win at the Coates Golf Championship in Florida. After a few more top tens, she won again in Singapore at the HSBC. See Best Start to the Season for more details!
At this point, Ha Na Jang got embroiled in one of the biggest controversies of the year, involving a suitcase and an injury to fellow player In Gee Chun (more on this later!). The fallout from this incident affected her for months. She skipped nearly two months of action, which probably prevented her from making the International Crown or Olympic teams. Eventually she made her comeback to action, and by early July, she was slowly returning to her early season form. She then made a top five at the Ricoh Women’s British Open.
At the Fubon in Taiwan, she shot a third round 62 to rocket to a 6 shot lead, and held on for her third win of the season. She nearly won a fourth time in Japan, settling for second place behind Chinese star Shanshan Feng.
Jang all in all made 8 top tens, a bunch more top twenties, and did not miss a cut despite her struggles mid-season.
Other Nominee: Haru Nomura
Haru Nomura is a Japanese golfer with a Korean mother. Nomura speaks Korean about as well as she speaks Japanese, and spent much of her childhood in South Korea.
2016 was a breakthrough year for her. She made over $1.2 million, 11th on the money list. She made just six top tens during the season, but two of those were wins. Her first victory (also the first win of her LPGA career) came at the Australian Women’s Open, where she stared down Lydia Ko. Her second win came a couple of months later in San Francisco at the Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic. She also had a second place finish in June at the ShopeRite and represented her country at the International Crown (where she beat Amy Yang in the singles, which was pivotal in preventing Korea from winning) and the Olympics.
She did not miss a cut all year and made ten additional top twenty finishes on top of her 6 top tens.
Great Performance that came up short
And the Winner Is: So Yeon Ryu all season
Usually, this award goes to a player who played extremely well at a tournament but was not able to get the win. But this year, I am going to give it to a player who has played at a super high level not just this season, but her entire career, and yet somehow only rarely finds herself in the winner’s circle. That player is So Yeon Ryu.
So Yeon Ryu joined the LPGA in 2012 after winning the 2011 US Women’s Open to earn her tour card. In her first four seasons, she notched an unbelievable 51 top tens, 38 of which were top fives. But only two wins.
This year, she continued her torrid pace. She has not missed a cut in more than two years; the last time she prematurely left a tournament was the 2014 Evian, where she was disqualified for using a club that had been damaged during the round. Her streak of made cuts is the longest on the LPGA currently.
She ended up earning over $1¼ million dollars in 2016, good for 10th on the money list. She had 11 top tens during the season, meaning she has had double-digit top ten totals in all five of her seasons on tour. Six of those finishes were top fives. But no wins.
Why doesn’t So Yeon Ryu win more often? Most top quality players can be counted on to win at least a fifth of the time they get top fives. By that measure, Ryu should have more like 8 wins by now.
With Ryu, it always seems to be something. Two examples from this season will illustrate. At the Evian, the year’s final Major, Ryu was so consistent that she only made one bogey all week. ONE. No one in the field came close to that. But this was the week In Gee Chun shot the lowest score at a Major in the history of the tour. As great as So Yeon was, she just ran up against someone who was even better.
At the CME Tour Championship, it looked like it might finally be So Yeon’s week. She found herself in a final round battle with Charlie Hull, a promising youngster who had never won on tour before. Hull and Ryu both played well on Sunday, and on the 16th hole, Ryu finally caught Hull. On the next hole, a par 5, So Yeon hit a perfect drive, then an approach that wound up smack against the wall of a five foot tall bunker. Had her shot gone two feet farther, it would have rolled within eagle range. Had it been five feet shorter, she would have had a straightforward up and down for birdie. She ended up, however, in the one place she absolutely could not be, and that was that. She finished second.
Sooner or later, the breaks have to start going So Yeon Ryu’s way. Given her talent and great consistency, don’t be surprised if we see her have a monster season soon, perhaps next year!
Other Nominees: In Gee Chun at the ANA Inspiration
The year’s first Major came down to a battle between world #1 Lydia Ko, soon-to-be superstar Ariya Jutanugarn, and Korean superstar In Gee Chun. Ariya took a lead into the final few holes, and seemed poised to run away with her first win on tour. Meanwhile, both Ko and Chun struggled, but managed to make one miraculous up and down after another to stay in the hunt.
Chun didn’t pay for her mistakes until she duffed a chip on the 16th hole. At that point, she dropped one behind Ko.
Then Ariya dumped her drive on 18 into the water, and suddenly Ko had the lead and Chun was just one back. Chun decided to go for the par 5 18th in two, but wound up in perhaps the one spot near the green where eagle was impossible: just behind the bridge one crosses to get to the green. Ko laid up and hit her third to inches for a sure birdie. So Chun needed the eagle from behind the bridge to fall. Amazingly, she gave it a good run and made a tap-in birdie, but moments later Ko tapped in for the win. In Gee was so close to getting that second Major! Fortunately for her, she would get her next Major trophy later in the year at the Evian.