Clutch Performance of the Year
And the Winner Is: Inbee Park at the Olympics
Inbee Park has done many amazing things in her Hall of Fame career, but perhaps the greatest moment of all came this year in Rio at the Olympics, when she defied all the odds to win the Gold Medal.
The Korean Olympic Squad: (L to R): Sei Young Kim, Inbee Park, Amy Yang, In Gee Chun, and Captain Se Ri Pak
Coming into this season, Inbee would have been one of the favorites to win that medal. No woman golfer over the past five years has been better at winning big tournaments than Park. However, she was hit with several nagging injuries in 2016, most worryingly a thumb problem that made it hard for her to grip a club without pain. After a couple of good results early in the season, she started to really struggle. Inbee was determined to play at least ten events so she could officially enter the Hall of Fame, but playing injured as she did, even finishing a tournament became a challenge. In the process, she shot some truly dire rounds, including an 84 at the Volvik Championship in May that was probably the worst round of her career. After shooting a 79 at the KPMG Championship to miss the cut, she would not play another LPGA event the rest of the year.
Inbee at the KPMG
The Korean press began to get nervous. There were a good dozen Korean golfers vying for the four spots on the Olympic team. They openly questioned why Park would take one of those spots instead of giving it up to a healthier golfer with a real chance of winning a medal. Inbee didn’t help her case when she played a KLPGA event a couple of weeks before the Olympics and missed the cut.
But Park was more fired up than she had been in a long time. She hired a second swing coach to help her work around the injury. She skipped two Majors to prepare. When she got to Rio, she immediately established that she was not just there for the experience, she was there to win. She shot back to back 66s to put herself into the lead. She struggled a bit more on day three, but even with the tough weather conditions, she produced a 69 to take a two shot lead into the final round.
Now with the medals on the line, Inbee found herself paired with Lydia Ko, the woman (girl?) who had taken her #1 ranking away. Ko had won two of the previous five Majors and finished second in another one; certainly her form in 2016 had been light years above Park’s.
Didn’t matter. Inbee quickly and decisively established that nobody, absolutely nobody, was going to deny her that gold. She whipped off three straight birdies starting from hole 3 to balloon her lead to five shots. A moment later it was 6, and Inbee was never threatened again. A couple of hours after that, she was raising her hands in triumph.
What is the definition of ‘clutch’? If it means rising to the occasion when it counts the most, well, consider this: the final round of the women’s Olympic golf tournament was shown live on all three major Korean TV networks. Nearly a quarter of all Koreans tuned in to watch, despite the fact the tournament ended at 1:30 AM local time. To put this in perspective, that is many times the number of Koreans who watched the Masters, and is believed to be the most watched golf event in Korean history. The pressure was on like it had never been before.
Playing the worst golf of her career, criticized for taking a spot a healthy player could have taken: of all the Koreans on the Rio golf team, Inbee was under the brightest spotlight. And she responded with a five shot victory over the top player in the game, tying the largest margin of victory she had ever achieved.
That, my friends, is clutch.
Inbee meets the mob of reporters on her return to Korea after the Olympics
Other Nominee: In Gee Chun just manages to win Vare Trophy
The week before the Evian Championship, In Gee Chun was half a stroke behind Lydia Ko in the race for the low scoring title on tour. That is an enormous gap to make up in just a couple of months, particularly against a player who rarely shot a bad round.
Chun cut the gap in half after her record shattering performance at the Evian. She continued to beat Ko in the following events, and cut into the lead until, coming into the final event of the year, she trailed by less than .04 strokes.
The roller coaster continued all week. In Gee actually took the scoring lead after her first round at the CME, but Ko shot a 62 in round two to seize a .07 lead. Chun reduced that lead after round 3 so that she just needed to shoot a 70 and beat Ko by one shot to win the Vare Trophy.
They were paired together on Sunday. Neither golfer played well at first. But on the back nine, Ko made a run and seemed to lock up the Vare Trophy. That’s when In Gee produced some of the most clutch golf of her career. Kicking it into another gear, she birdied 16, then tapped in for birdie on the par 5 17th. Meanwhile Ko made bogey there, and her lead was, insanely, incredibly, .001 strokes with one hole to play!
Chun had a one shot lead in the tournament over Lydia, but a par would give her a 71, and she would need to beat Ko by two shots if she scored that. So it came to this: if In Gee made birdie on the final hole, she would win no matter what Ko did. But if In Gee made par, then Ko could make birdie or par to win the Vare. It was all in In Gee Chun’s hands.
Chun put her approach to 9 feet, then coolly drained the birdie putt to clinch the Vare Trophy. Her final scoring average of 69.583 was .013 strokes better than Ko, the second smallest margin in the history of this award. In Gee became only the second rookie, after Nancy Lopez, to win both the Rookie of the Year and Vare Trophy in the same year. And it all came down to three straight birdies when she absolutely had to make them. Clutch!
In Gee Chun and her Vare Trophy for low scoring average
And the Winner Is: Sung Hyun Park, US Women’s Open
Sung Hyun Park had an incredible season going in 2016 when she reached the US Women’s Open in July. Given the way she had been playing to that point and the history of Korean success in this event, it seemed quite likely that she could walk away with the trophy. And indeed, she set herself up nicely, shooting a second round 66 to take over the 36 hole lead.
Even after Lydia Ko shot a 70 in round 3, Park still was just a shot back and well positioned. And when Ko made a big mistake on the ninth hole on the final day, Park, with her booming drives wowing the crowds, looked ready to get the glory.
She reached the 18th hole, a par five, needing a birdie to join a playoff with Brittany Lang and Anna Nordqvist. With her length, reaching the hole in two should have been easy, meaning a birdie was almost a guarantee. But amazingly, she pulled her drive into the water on the left of the fairway, ending her chances there and then.
It was a huge disappointment, but Park still earned enough money to earn her tour card and will have another chance for the title next year.
The Korean International Crown Team: (L to R): So Yeon Ryu, Sei Young Kim, Amy Yang and In Gee Chun
The Koreans had a fantastic team at this year’s International Crown and were looking for redemption after coming up just short in 2014. In the end, it came down to the singles, where all four Koreans fought the best players from the opposing teams. So Yeon Ryu managed to top Lexi Thompson of the US, and Sei Young Kim trounced Charley Hull of England, but In Gee Chun lost to Taiwan’s Theresa Lu, and Amy Yang was not able to beat Haru Nomura of Japan. If either one of those last two ladies had won, the Crown would have been Korea’s. Better luck in two years, when the Crown will be played in… South Korea!
In Gee Chun Meets the Press at the International Crown
Most Dominating Performance
And the Winner Is: The KLPGA Annihilates the JLPGA at the Kowa Queens to take the title.
The Kowa Queens is a four team competition in its second year. It pits teams from the JLPGA, KLPGA, LET and ALPG against one another. The first two days are team competitions, and the third day is singles competition.
The KLPGA Team from the Kowa Queens
The Korean squad last year was formidable, featuring player like In Gee Chun, Bo Mee Lee and Sei Young Kim. Despite the star power, they lost to Japan. Japan had swept the team events the first two days. Korea managed to win all but one of the singles matches, but that one loss came to a Japanese player, and that’s all it took for the JLPGA to win the Cup.
Cut to this year, and a Korean squad determined to get payback. The KLPGA team was not as tough as 2015’s edition: only one top player from outside the KLPGA, Jiyai Shin, was on the team, and they were missing their best player, Sung Hyun Park.
But this KLPGA group had already nearly shocked the LPGA squad the previous week at the ING Champions Trophy (see Best Korean Confrontation), so they were not to be taken lightly. The Japanese continued their team domination on day one, once again sweeping the matches. But on day two, Korea played the Japanese teams twice, and this time it was Korea who swept all four matches, including their two tilts against Japan. That left the Koreans with a 12-11 lead after two days. On to the singles!
The format changed this year, with the top two teams playing all eight singles matches against each other with the title in the balance. And like last year, once they got to singles, the Koreans were an unstoppable juggernaut. They won 7 of the 8 matches and tied the last one. Even when the Japanese seemed to have an advantage, the Koreans rallied. In the Ritsuko Ryu-Su Yeon Jang match, for instance, they were all square when they reached the 16th hole. Korea’s Jang put herself into a seemingly hopeless situation, down a hill behind trees, while Ryu hit her tee shot to within 6 feet. But then Jang hit an insane up-and-down to square the hole (See Shot of the Year for details). On 18, Ryu hit her approach into the water and lost 1 down. It was that kind of day for the Japanese.
Captain Jiyai Shin celebrates her team’s dominating victory
So the trophy was Korea’s, thanks to one of the most dominating displays of golfing excellence seen in some time!
Inbee Park at the Olympics
See Clutch Performance of the Year for more details!
In Gee Chun at the Evian
See Best Korean Confrontation for more details!
In Gee Chun’s rookie season
We’ll talk more about In Gee during our Rookie of the Year discussion later!