Posted by: happyfan08 | April 28, 2018

2018 KLPGA Primer

It’s time once again for our annual primer for the KLPGA season: who to watch and what to expect on the Korean professional women’s golf tour for 2018!

Those Who Have Left

This season sees 10-time tour winner Jin Young Ko leave the Korean tour for the LPGA.  She punched her ticket for the big tour by winning the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank last October in front of some of the biggest crowds the event had ever seen.  She joined the LPGA tour in February, and won her very first event as a member, the Australian Women’s Open.  She thus became only the second woman in tour history to win her first event.  So far she has been walloping the competition in the LPGA’s Rookie of the Year race, and seems well on her way to continuing the Korean dominance of that award.  Just last week, she managed a tie for second at the Hugel-JTBC LA Open.

Jin Young holds the 2018 Australian Women’s Open trophy

The Big Stars

There are two big names to watch in 2018, and at least at this juncture, it seems likely that one or the other of them will dominate the top awards on tour.

Last year’s big star was Jeong Eun Lee 6.  Lee was numbered ‘6’ because she is the sixth golfer in tour history with the name Jeong Eun Lee.  She embraced the number, taking it on as her trademark and creating the nicknames Lucky Six and Hot Six to go with it.

She indeed did have plenty of luck going her way in 2017, and at times she certainly was white-hot.  Coming off the Rookie of the Year award in 2016, Lee won all the big awards on tour last season: she not only led the money list with over a billion won earned, she also was Player of the Year and had the lowest scoring average.  In fact, she ended up winning six awards, which is fitting given her nickname (the others were for most wins, Most Popular (as voted by the fans) and Best Player (as voted by the Press)).

Jeong Eun Lee 6 at last year’s KLPGA Awards Ceremony

Lee also played at the US Women’s Open, where she notched a top five in her first appearance there (her final score for the week?  Yup, 6 under par.  Lucky Six indeed!).

Lee also has a touching back story.  When she was younger, her father was in a traffic accident that left him paralyzed.  As they traveled from tournament to tournament, they always had to pay more money for accommodations, because cheap hotels were not designed to allow easy access to someone in a wheelchair.  Now that she has become so successful, she is thrilled to be able to share it all with her dad.

Lee and her parents

Lee certainly entered 2018 as one of the favorites to continue her impressive dominance, but there is one player out there who may not only give her a run for the money, she is probably a favorite to top her.  That player is Hye Jin Choi.

Hye Jin Choi

Choi is only eighteen, but she is a phenom the likes of which the tour hasn’t seen in a while.  Lee did well at the 2017 US Women’s Open; Choi, however, actually led the tournament on Sunday (as a 17-year-old amateur) until she hit a tee shot into the water late to allow Sung Hyun Park to pass her and take the title.  But Choi had many other highlights in 2017.  She won two KLPGA events before even turning pro.  In September she became professional and earned a nice chunk of change playing as a guest on the KLPGA.

After the year ended, she was invited to play in the limited field LF Point Championship, known as the Queen of Queens event.  And she won it, beating a bunch of the other top KLPGA stars.  A few weeks later, she officially started her KLPGA career.   Traveling to Vietnam for the Hyo Song Championship, she won there to take an early lead in all the KLPGA races.

Shhh!  Hye Jin is a rookie now!

Choi has everything it takes to be a star.  She is long off the tee, has a great iron game, and is fairly unflappable.  In short, she has no weaknesses.  Even better, she never seems to go more than a couple of events before she contends or plays well.  Given her talent, Rookie of the Year seems a foregone conclusion.  Can she become the first player since Jiyai Shin to win the Rookie and Player of the Year award in the same season?  Stay tuned!

Fun fact: Hye Jin Choi’s nickname is Penguin.  Let’s see if it catches on for her like In Gee Chun’s ‘Dumbo’ nickname caught on for that star.

The Other Top Names

Here are a few of the other top stars on tour to watch in 2018:

Ji Hyun Kim

Ji Hyun Kim at last year’s KLPGA Awards

Ji Hyun Kim had a breakout season in 2017.  She was the surprise top player the first few months of last year before she cooled off.  During that stretch, she won three tournaments, including the Korea Women’s Open, the year’s most important Major.  She wound up second on the money list with nearly 790 million won earned; only Jeong Eun Lee 6 earned more money.

Kim has played three events on the LPGA this year.  She missed the cut badly at the first two, including the ANA Inspiration, the year’s first Major.  Right after that, she returned home and won an event on the KLPGA, the Lotte Rent-a-Car.  Being that she is a bit older (26) than the other top players on this list, her sudden success is somewhat of a surprise, and it is hard to assess how temporary it will be.  But the fact that she followed up the foul-up at the ANA with a win in Korea, then followed that with a t-11 finish at the LPGA’s Lotte event in Hawaii, it seems likely that she can contend again for the big hardware in 2018.

Ji Hyun Oh

Ji Hyun Oh

In 2017, there were four women with the first name Ji Hyun who won tournaments.  Besides Ji Hyun Kim, there was another Ji Hyun Kim who won (known on tour as Ji Hyun Kim 2), Ji Hyun Lee, and Ji Hyun Oh.  Besides the previously mentioned Ji Hyun Kim 1, Oh is the other top talent in that group.  Still relatively young (she just turned 22 earlier this year), Oh had managed two wins before 2017.  Last year was a big one for her: she won twice more, including her first Major at the Hanwha Classic.  She wound up third on the money list, ahead of Jin Young Ko.

Oh is having a bang up season so far on the KLPGA in 2018. Although she hasn’t won yet, she has two runner-up finishes and has only finished outside the top ten once in five starts.  This has allowed her to take the lead in the scoring average and Player of the Year races.  It still seems like Choi and Lucky 6 may be a bit better than she is, but if she continues to improve like she seems to be doing, that could very well change in 2018.

Seon Woo Bae

Seon Woo Bae

Seon Woo Bae is another of the rising young stars who continues to excel on the KLPGA tour.  The 24-year-old did not win on the KLPGA in 2017, but notched a bunch of strong finishes and wound up 9th on the money list.  Already in 2018, she has played one LPGA event (the Founders Cup) and finished with a respectable tie for 16th.

Bae is a consistent player who seems on the cusp of taking the next big step.  So far in 2018, her KLPGA results have not been impressive, but it might not be long before she turns that around.

Min Sun Kim

Min Sun Kim

Min Sun Kim was a rookie the same year as Jin Young Ko and Q Baek, and found herself often pitted against those two stars in the public’s mind.  But since then, both Baek and Ko have won LPGA events, while Kim is still struggling to take the next step in Korea.  Like in years past, Kim had one win and several more runner-up finishes in 2017, but also missed several cuts. She finished a decent 10th on the money list.  With her length, she periodically shows flashes of a truly talented player, but that potential remains largely untapped to date.

Ha Na Jang

Ha Na Jang is already a winner in 2018

Ha Na Jang is the ringer on the KLPGA tour.  A former Player of the Year, she joined the LPGA in 2015 and won four total events over here.  But suddenly last Spring, she announced that she was forsaking her LPGA membership and immediately returning to Korea, which is what she in fact did.  A pity: with her exuberant personality and celebrated victory moves, Jang certainly broke the mold for what Americans expected from Korean golf professionals.

Alas, Jang did not have the great record in Korea after her return that you might have expected.  It wasn’t all bad: she did have a pair of runner-up finishes, but no wins.

In 2018, however, Jang seems to have rebounded in a major way.  Besides playing at the ANA Inspiration (she finished 30th), Jang also has notched a win and a runner-up on the KLPGA tour and is among the tour leaders in most categories early in the year.  She seems ready at last to make her return to Korea in style.

Up and Comers

Last year, there were three rookie stars, all 19 years old, who stood out on the tour.  None of them have managed a win to date, but all played well enough that they deserve attention in 2018.  All three seem to be good friends as well.

The most successful of the three is Eun Soo Jang, who won the Rookie of the Year title last year.  The other two are So Hye Park and Da Bin Heo.  Park is one of the few ladies on tour sponsored by Nike, and she was featured in an excellent TV commercial for that company last season.  Heo has oodles of charisma and often has a dimpled smile on her face.  Will one of them break through in 2018?  Will all of them?  They are all still young enough that they have few years yet to establish what they can do.

Eun Soo Jang with her Rookie of the Year award

So Hye Park

Da Bin Heo

Han Sol Ji + Gyeol Park

Han Sol Ji was a promising young rookie a few seasons back.  She has had a few good tournaments over the years, but finally got her first win at 2017’s final event, the ADT Caps.  You couldn’t have wiped the smile off her face if you tried.  Time will tell if this was the first step towards stardom or not.

One of her main competitors in the rookie race in 2015 was Gyeol Park.

Park established herself by winning the Asian Games gold medal back in 2014.  This same award was the springboard for greatness for two former world #1 golfers, Ai Miyazato (she won it in 2002) and So Yeon Ryu (the 2006 champ).  Park has had runner-up finishes and a decent career so far, but she is still more known for her potential than her success.

Hye Sun Kim

Hye Sun Kim stunned the tour last season by winning a tournament late in the year.  Even more impressively, she did it by beating top star Jeong Eun Lee 6 in a playoff.  The win garnered her a lot of attention; now will come the time to see if she can back it up.

So Young Lee

So Young Lee, like Gyeol Park, won a big title as an amateur.  In her case, it was the 2014 Junior Olympics Gold Medal.  Lee had won on tour before but was surprisingly toppled in her bid to win Rookie of the Year in 2016 by Lucky Six.  She hasn’t been super strong since then, but she did manage a surprise win just last week at the Nexen Saint Nine Masters, coming from behind in the final round.

Hyun Joo Yoo

Also known as Hyeonjoo Ryu, Yoo took the tour by storm last year.  But it wasn’t her play that garnered her so much attention.  In fact, she was not able to maintain her tour membership for this year, although she did have a few good rounds here and there.  Rather, it was Yoo’s attractiveness that helped to elevate her to the top tier of popularity on tour.  Now on the Dream Tour, Yoo is working hard to return to the big leagues, and will appear from time to time in fields when the sponsors allow.  Expect the press to be paying attention when she does show up!

Stars On the Comeback Trail

Several older players are looking to return to form in 2018.  Here are a couple to watch.

Char Young Kim

Kim has had a bit of a renaissance in her game in recent years.  She won a match play event last year for her first win in years, and has contended from time to time since.  She is not one of the very best players on tour, but seems capable of reaching that level – she won three times in the 2012 season, showing that she is for real, and in her win at the Match Play event, she beat no less a player than Inbee Park in the finals.  She is another photogenic player that is usually more known for her looks than game, but with four career wins, she certainly has a decent resume as well.

Soo Jin Yang

For years, Soo Jin Yang has been known as much for her wild fashion sense and off course romances as her game.  Yang peaked early in her career, winning a bunch of times in her first few seasons.  The past couple of seasons, she became more known for her tabloid exploits, dating numerous high-profile athletes before marrying one and having a child.  She took most of last year off to have her child, but now is back and ready to compete again.

Yang is an artist who loves designing her own golf clothes.  She was fortunate that her previous clothing sponsor, Pearly Gates, was receptive to that.  She became known for her unforgettable outfits throughout the years.  Alas, she has now moved on to a different sponsor, and it seems like her clothes are far tamer than before.  But wild or mellow, it’s still great to have her back!

Rookies

The rookie race is dominated by the shadow cast by Hye Jin Choi.  Is there anyone who could conceivably challenge her for the top Rookie honors?  To be honest, it doesn’t look like it.  One name that has surfaced is Ji Yoon Kim, who received a recent profile in Golf Digest Korea.  She flexed her considerable biceps in that article, but so far she has not made much of an impact on tour.

Ji Yoon Kim

The season is underway, and the fun is just getting started!  Good luck to all the ladies, and here’s hoping to see a few of them contend on the LPGA as well this year!

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