Rookie of the Year
And the Winner Is: In Gee Chun
This was the easiest award to give in several years. There simply were no other rookies on any tour who had such a massive and immediate impact as In Gee Chun had in her rookie year on the LPGA. We’ve already given some of her highlights, but here is the overview.
In Gee started the year in the top ten in the world rankings, vying for a spot on the Olympic team. It looked to be a tough battle, as she was competing not only with her old rival Hyo Joo Kim but also So Yeon Ryu, Ha Na Jang, Amy Yang, Sung Hyun Park, Bo Mee Lee, and Na Yeon Choi. But Chun established herself immediately as a force to be reckoned with. She notched a third place finish in her very first LPGA event, and followed that with a second place in the next event. She seemed poised to win when the luggage injury happened that affected much of the rest of her season (see Most Controversial Moment).
But even after missing several tournaments, her momentum was barely slowed. In her first event back, she again notched a runner-up, then made yet another second place in her next finish. By this point she had already established a lead in the Rookie race that was never seriously threatened.
Chun did eventually qualify for the International Crown and the Olympics. But the summer was a bit of a struggle for In Gee, who is also known by her nickname Dumbo. She had a lackluster KPMG, and missed her only cut of the year at her title defense at the US Women’s Open. She finished tied for 13th at the Olympics, not bad, but considering she was tied for fifth going into the final round, a bit of a letdown. Her play at the International Crown was also below her standards.
But starting with the British Open, she made a comeback. She had an eighth there, then notched her 6th top three of the season with a third at the Canadian Women’s Open. Her next event was the Evian Championship, where she smashed the all-time record for best score with relation to par at a Major, male or female (21 under par). She also became only the second golfer to make her first two LPGA wins Majors, after Se Ri Pak. Given In Gee’s propensity for winning Majors on tours all over the world, this should hardly come as a surprise.
In Gee greets fans at the airport after returning from her Evian win
In Gee only had that one win in 2016, but she still had one more surprise up her sleeves. She won the Vare Trophy for low scoring average, beating Lydia Ko with a birdie on the final hole of the year (see Clutch Performance of the Year). She became the second woman in tour history to win both the Rookie of the Year and Vare Trophy in the same season, after Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez.
Her stats were very impressive for a rookie, especially given her injuries. Besides leading the tour in scoring average with an incredible 69.58, she had 11 top tens, seven of which were top three finishes. She made over $1.5 million dollars, tops for all the Koreans on tour in 2016, and finished fourth on the money list with just 19 events played (and one of her second place finishes did not count as official money, or her total would have been even higher). She finished the year ranked third in the world, again tops among all the ladies from South Korea.
In Gee at the Evian
Her other stats include: 2nd in putts per greens in regulation, third in rounds under par with 52, first in rounds in the 60s with 37 (keep in mind – she played a lot fewer events than most of the top players. Brooke Henderson had 13 more official events!). And she was 4th in the Player of the Year race, and just behind Lydia Ko in percent of top ten finishes, with 58% of her starts at that level.
And of course, her Rookie of the Year win was among the most dominating in history. She had 1,358 points, with second place Megan Khang at 526 points.
Hopefully she will rehabilitate her back and return in 2017 to build on this amazing start!
In Gee Chun at the KLPGA’s season-ending award show
Most Improved Player
And the Winner Is: IK Kim
In Kyung Kim was once upon a time one of the best Korean golfers on the planet. As recently as 2014, she was still good enough to qualify for the International Crown team, which featured the top four Koreans in the world. But Kim’s game has taken a massive downturn in the two years since then, and it began to look like she might be heading for an early retirement.
Not so fast! Inky had a major return to form this year. The first signs of her revival came at the ShopRite Classic in June, where she notched her first top ten of the year, a tie for 6th. She then disappeared again for a while, but surprised everyone by winning the ISPS Handa Ladies European Masters in Germany the week before the Evian Championship. Although this wasn’t an LPGA tournament, it was still her first win in some time.
She played well at the Evian, carding a 6th, then rode that momentum to an impressive victory at the Reignwood Classic in China. It was her first LPGA victory in six years and the fourth of her career. After another top ten at the KEB Hana Bank in Korea, Inky disappeared from the tour for the rest of the year. Possibly she was injured, or maybe she was just enjoying a well-deserved rest after her comeback!
Player of the Year
And the Winner Is: Sung Hyun Park
Several ladies were in the running for this award, but Park had the most overall impact, not only on her domestic tour, where she rose to superstar status, but also on the LPGA, where her mere presence started fans and media buzzing about the long bomber with the stoic nature. No doubt she will be a much-anticipated addition to the LPGA next year.
Park’s year on the KLPGA was one of the most impressive in memory. She started her season with three straight wins (see Best Start to the Season), and would go on to win 7 times in total. Indeed, she had 7 wins so early that many were talking about her becoming the first player in history to win a double-digit number of events in a single season. That didn’t happen, but her record was still stellar. Besides the 7 wins, she had:
13 top tens in 20 starts. That included two seconds, a third, and two fourths. Five of her other finishes were top 20s.
Her scoring average was an astronomical 69.64. I’m not sure where that ranks in history, but I cannot remember more than a handful of KLPGA golfers in the past ten years who even came close to breaking 70 for a scoring average, and she shattered it. Also, the second place golfer, who herself had a fantastic season (Jin Young Ko), had an average of 70.41. That’s a good average for the KLPGA, but nothing compared to Park.
She made 1,333,090,667 won for the season, the all-time record for most money made in a single season. Adding on her LPGA earnings, she probably made more money on the course than any other Korean in the world this past season.
She was also the longest hitter in the league. One of her few statistical losses came in the KLPGA’s Player of the Year category, where she finished second by one point to Jin Young Ko. That’s kind of inexplicable considering she won 7 events to Ko’s 3, but happened nonetheless.
About the only other knock on her KLPGA record was that she didn’t win a Major this season (Ko did). But considering how record shattering her money total and scoring average were, that is a small criticism indeed.
Park also played on the LPGA and JLPGA this season, and though she managed no wins there, still made impressive showings. She was in contention until the last hole at the US Women’s Open and finished third. She was not able to catch In Gee Chun at the Evian, but still finished tied for second. And she managed a tie for 6th at the ANA Inspiration, her first ever Major.
She also finished tied for 4th at the Kia Classic and tied for 13th at the Founders Cup and the KEB Hana Bank.
Park did not win on the LPGA, but earned enough money to earn a tour card anyway. She made $682,825 in seven starts, which would have placed her 25th on the LPGA money list. Non-members who would have finished in the top forty on the money list earn cards, so she did that easily.
Park’s nickname in Korea is Namdalla, which loosely translates as ‘She’s Different’. The Different Lady certainly showed she has the game to be the best, and with her amazing year wins our SeoulSisters Player of the Year.
In Gee Chun
In Gee had a fantastic rookie season. We’ve mentioned her highlights above. The main reason she didn’t win the Player of the Year is that, unlike last year when she did win this award, she only had a single win in 2016. But in every other way she was superb, and as the highest ranked Korean in the world, looks poised to continue her rise to greatness, especially if she can get totally healthy for 2017.
Inbee Park did not have an Inbee Park-like year, but is included on this list because she won the most important event of the year and did it in dominant fashion: the Rio Olympic Gold Medal. That achievement alone was not enough to win this award, but certainly enough for her to make the final cut of top nominees!
Eun Jeong Seong
Eun Jeong Seong had one of the most impressive amateur records we’ve seen from a Korean in some time. As mentioned previously (see Best Amateur), she is the only female to ever win the US Girls and US Women’s Amateur in the same year. That, and her impressive run at almost winning a KLPGA event, gets her on the list, but she did not have the overall presence and success Park had, with some severe slumps especially late in the year.
Bo Mee Lee
Bo Mee Lee is a superstar in Japan
Once again, Bo Mee Lee led the money list in Japan and had another incredible season. Her year was not quite as good as 2015, though, and she has yet to succeed outside of Japan. And in Japan, her year was not as impressive as Park’s was in Korea. So, she gets an honorable mention only.
At the end of the year, the New Zealand wunderkind seemed to be in a tailspin. At the start of the LPGA’s Asian swing, she led the money list, Player of the Year and scoring average race, yet won none of those awards by the end of the year. She fired her caddie, switched coaches and moved to new equipment.
But is all the panic premature? Possibly. Ko doesn’t win our award, but she still managed four wins including a Major, plus a second place in another Major. She also contended at the US Women’s Open and won the Silver Medal at the Olympics. And she won the Annika Award for best record in the Majors. For most people, that would be a career year. For Ko, it is cause to reassess her entire approach. Some people just think differently I guess!