Most Controversial Moment
And the Winner Is: “LuggageGate”
Wow, this year there is simply no contest for this award. The controversy that came to be known as “LuggageGate” wins this one in a walk.
The Set-Up: In Gee Chun and Ha Na Jang were among the six or so Korean superstars who were slugging it out for two available spots on the Korean Olympic and International Crown teams. The competition was fierce: Chun had started the year with a third place and a runner-up finish, while Jang had already notched a win.
The Incident: Chun and Jang arrived in Singapore to play the HSBC Women’s Champions, one of the most important LPGA events played in Asia, and an event guaranteed to help a player’s world ranking and thus chances to make the Olympic team. Chun was riding down an escalator at the airport. At the top of the escalator were Ha Na Jang and her father. Apparently her dad got distracted when Jang bent down to tie her shoe, and accidentally released a 15 pound hard-shelled carry-on case he was pushing. It went plummeting down the escalator and struck Chun in the back. Chun’s lower back was injured enough that she was forced to drop out of the HSBC and the next few tournaments.
The First Repercussion: Jang would go on to win the HSBC, moving onto the Olympic team for the moment while knocking Chun off. Jang did one of her patented celebratory dances. This rubbed Chun fans, of whom there are many in Korea, the wrong way. Not only had Jang benefitted by Chun’s absence, she seemed to be rubbing her nose in it. Chun posted on her homepage that she felt the Jangs had not adequately apologized for what had happened, and apparently her dad was even more angry. This inflamed things further.
Little did Ha Na Jang realize how her celebrations in Singapore were being received back home
What Happened Next: While In Gee recuperated, Ha Na Jang was relentlessly attacked online by internet trolls and angry Chun fans. The Korean media also weighed in with some negative comments. This affected Jang to the point where she not only publicly apologized at the next event she attended, but she also began to play worse and worse. She lost her appetite and couldn’t sleep. She finally took a several month break from the tour to get herself together.
Chun returned at the ANA Inspiration and notched second place finishes in her next two events. She moved ahead of Jang again in the rankings. She also announced that she felt that the Jangs had now adequately apologized and she wanted to put all the drama behind her.
The Pairing: In June, In Gee and Ha Na were paired together for the first two rounds of the KPMG Championship, the first time they had played together since the incident. The Korean press turned it into a huge deal. Having watched them play in person at this event (they wound up playing together in round 3, too), I can say that they were hardly friendly, but there was no overt tension, either. Chun expressed happiness that they had finally gotten this pairing out of the way.
The Fallout: Chun ended up making the Olympic and International Crown teams, while Jang did not. It’s especially puzzling that Jang was not on the Crown team, since she was fifth in the rankings, the top four qualified, and Inbee Park could not play due to injury (sixth place So Yeon Ryu took Park’s place).
Both Chun and Jang recovered and did amazing things late in the season. In Gee won the Evian Championship and the Vare Trophy, while Jang managed one more win in Taiwan and nearly won in Japan as well. They both were top ten on the LPGA money list. But In Gee still suffers from the after effects of the injury, and hopes that offseason rest and treatment will finally get her back to 100%. And Jang still has to deal with trolls and criticism, although to a lesser extent than before.
Other Nominee: Jenny Shin’s Accent
When Jenny Shin won the Volunteers of America North Texas Shootout, she surprised everyone by giving her winner’s interview with a thick Australian accent. Which is interesting, since Shin is from South Korea, and grew up in the US. She has never lived in Australia.
She later admitted that she and her friends, for fun, had started imitating Australian accents. Before she knew it, it had become second nature for her to speak that way.
When next she gave an interview, her normal American accent had returned.
And the Winner Is: In Gee Chun rarely praised as one of the up and coming stars of the game
In Gee Chun with some of her hardware
To hear the American press and the LPGA tell it, the big stars in the women’s game are #1 Lydia Ko (no doubt), #2 Ariya Jutanugarn (Player of the Year, makes sense) and #8 Brooke Henderson. Wait, how’s that? OK, she won a Major, but long before that happened, they had been setting the Canadian teen up as the next big thing.
Which would be OK, except that Henderson’s ascension seems to always come at the expense of In Gee Chun, another young player who has done remarkable things. Chun came into this season a Major winner, yet didn’t get half the attention of much less accomplished players like Megan Khang, let alone Henderson. She never got a Rookie profile on the Golf Channel. She was not getting articles talking about her ability to challenge Ko for top dog status (note that articles like this have constantly been written about Henderson, even before Henderson had won a single event).
And even with a Vare Trophy in her pocket, still Chun gets little play. Here’s hoping In Gee gets a fairer shake from the American press n 2017!
And the Winner Is: Inbee Park in the Hall of Fame!
They handed out Inbee Park masks at the KPMG to celebrate her official qualification for the Hall of Fame
Inbee reached the magical 27 point level by winning last year’s Vare Trophy. This qualified her for the Hall of Fame, which she would be able to enter once she played ten events in her tenth season, 2016. It turned out that finishing those ten events would be one of the toughest aspects of the whole thing, owing to a troublesome thumb injury that made it painful for her to swing a club.
But she finally did it, completing her tenth (and as it turned out, final) event of 2016 at the KPMG Championship in June. A gaggle of Hall of Famers were there to greet Inbee on the 18th green as she finished her first round. She joins Se Ri Pak (who was also there to greet her) as only the second Korean golfer to enter the Hall. Congratulations to her!!!
Other Nominees: Shi Hyun Ahn Wins Korean Women’s Open, Jin Joo Hong also wins
For all that has been made about youngsters winning events these days, two of the happiest victories of 2016 were achieved by thirty-something moms who had not won tournaments in a decade or more.
In June, Shi Hyun Ahn ended a long winless streak by winning the Korean Women’s Open, the most important event on the KLPGA schedule. It was her first win anywhere in twelve years. She had won an LPGA event as a 19-year-old and joined the tour the following year. She was the 2004 LPGA Rookie of the Year. She played on the LPGA until 2011, when she got married to a TV celebrity named Marco and had a daughter. She retired for a while from golf, but the marriage went south and she returned to golf in 2014, this time on the KLPGA. After two years on tour, she finally got her next win, with her 4-year-old daughter there to see it happen.
Jin Joo Hong has a similar story. She also won the same LPGA event as Ahn did, albeit a few years later, to earn an LPGA card, and played on the LPGA tour for a few years. She returned back to Korea in 2009, got married in 2010, and after a stint in Japan, had a son in 2014. She was injured and had to sit out for a while, but returned to golf in 2015. She won the Fantom Classic in November, her first win since the win that had sent her to the LPGA a decade earlier.
Maybe the players we should be looking out for are not the teenagers but the thirty-something moms?
Most Touching Moment
And the Winner Is: Se Ri Pak retires
After 18 years on tour, Se Ri Pak finally hung up her cleats in 2016. Her final event was the KEB Hana Bank Championship, fittingly in front of her Korean fans. They staged a lavish retirement ceremony after her round, with a children’s choir, an incredible video, and a gaggle of the women she had inspired wearing ‘Thanks Se Ri’ caps in tribute. Just about every Korean golf star you can think of, from Grace Park through Inbee Park to young guns like In Gee Chun and Hyo Joo Kim, were there to say goodbye.
The video was tear jerking and totally appropriate. I include a link to it here. Thanks Se Ri!