Posted by: happyfan08 | April 7, 2021

2021 KLPGA Primer

It’s April and the KLPGA is preparing for the start of the season. It’s time once again for the SeoulSisters annual article about what to expect on that tour this year.  We call it the KLPGA Primer.

Without any question, the pandemic had an enormous impact not only on the KLPGA in 2020, but on society everywhere.  The KLPGA canceled several events at the start of the year, suspended its slate of international tournaments, and saw another group of events leave the schedule in the Fall even after they had managed to get the tour functioning again.  Fans were banned from the events and, as of this writing, still are.  But the tour also took the lead in golf worldwide by starting play in mid-May at their first Major, the KLPGA Championship.  Almost no other sports leagues were playing at the time, and no other golf tours, male or female, were.  They provided English language coverage all four days on YouTube, introducing an international audience to Korean stars like Hyo Joo Kim, Hye Jin Choi, and the eventual winner Hyun Kyung Park.

The outbreak also resulted in LPGA players from Korea staying put in Korea, which meant that KLPGA events often featured several of them in the field well into the summer and even in some cases the Fall.  Jin Young Ko, So Yeon Ryu and Jeongeun Lee6, all Major winners on the LPGA, even skipped some of the LPGA’s delayed Majors and did not return to the States until October or November, while Hyo Joo Kim went on to play her entire season in Korea, winning the scoring title and leading the money list in the process.

So Yeon Ryu won the league’s biggest event in 2020, the Korea Women’s Open

As things slowly get back to normal, what can we expect in 2021?  Let’s take a look!

Those Who Have Left

In most seasons, you can count on a few players leaving the KLPGA to try their luck in Japan or the US, but due to the pandemic, almost nobody tried that this year (the fact that there was no Q Series on the LPGA in 2020 didn’t help).  There was one notable exception:  A Lim Kim.  Kim got her LPGA card the old-fashioned way: by winning an LPGA event.  And not just any tournament, but the biggest of them all, the US Women’s Open, which took place in December last year. 

Because the qualifying for this event was also hit by the disease, they decided to open up the field to players in the top 100 on the Rolex Rankings.  As a result, a record number of KLPGA stars gave it a shot (although just as many who were eligible, such as Hyun Kyung Park, still skipped it).  One of these players was long bomber A Lim Kim, who would be playing in her first ever LPGA event in the States.  It paid off: she put herself in contention, then won the event by making birdies on her final three holes.  She was given just a week to decide if she wanted to join the LPGA for 2021.  She decided to try, and has played twice so far in 2021, missing both cuts.  But hopefully she is just warming up and will soon be putting up great results on the big tour.

A few other players lost their tour cards in 2020.  Perhaps the most notable was Char Young Kim, who has been on tour for many years.  Kim is not intending to retire, but she did announce that she would be taking a year off to retool her game in the hopes she could get back on tour for 2022. 

Yoon Kyung Heo had been a popular star on tour since joining in 2009.  At one point she was among the top players in the league, but injuries and parenthood slowed her down, and she finally decided to call it a career in 2020.  We’ll miss the Electric Smile Warrior!

Top Player(s)

The big awards this season were split between two players, only one of whom was a KLPGA regular. Hye Jin Choi won the Player of the Year award for the third straight year, although it was something off an off year for her.  LPGA star Hyo Joo Kim, who spent the entire year playing on the KLPGA, led the money list and achieved the lowest scoring average in KLPGA history, 69.56.

Hye Jin Choi

Kim will be back on the LPGA in 2021, but Choi, who probably would have left the KLPGA for the LPGA by now in normal circumstances, will be back to try for a 4th straight Player of the Year award.  She had only one win all year, and it came at the final event of the season, the ADT-CAPS (Choi was leading another event, the S-OIL, when it was canceled due to weather.  She received the trophy for it, but it was it was not considered an official event because only one round was completed).  Choi also played at the US Women’s Open in December but finished just tied for 30th.  In Korea, she grabbed an insane number of top tens: out of 17 events played, she only missed the top ten twice.

So she might not have been as dominant last year as she was in 2019, but she is still unquestionably the top gun on the KLPGA.  I would be surprised if she plays on tour past this year, so she has one more year to accumulate more wins and hardware before she is unleashed on the world.

The Sophomore Stars Who Emerged (And Those Who Faded)

The KLPGA’s 2019 Rookie Class was arguably the greatest in tour history, with fully half a dozen of them becoming legit stars that year.  As they played their sophomore year in 2020, some soared and others struggled.

The breakout star among that crop turned out to be Hyun Kyung Park.  Already popular after finishing third in the 2019 Rookie race, she came into 2020 still winless.  Over the off-season, she became friends with world #1 Jin Young Ko, who became a mentor to her.  As the 2020 season prepared to restart following the Covid stoppage, she told the press that her number one goal was to finally break through with her first win on the KLPGA tour.

It didn’t take her long: facing a field stacked with LPGA stars at the KLPGA Championship in mid-May, the first event after play resumed, she claimed the win and the hearts of the fans.  She managed a second win not longer afterwards, and her popularity soared.

Park wound up finishing 7th on the money list with around 530 million won earned.  She had only two other top tens outside of her two wins.  So she did show herself capable of hanging with the top players, but unlike in 2019, did not maintain her consistency while doing it.  Doubtless she will be looking to challenge for the top spot and post-season awards in 2021, which will require her to improve her consistency while still winning.

She won’t have to improve her popularity, though.  She has one of the biggest fan clubs of the young KLPGA stars, and has more than 45 thousand Instagram followers as of now, which puts her well above most everyone else on that tour.

Hee Jeong Lim was the #2 rookie in the 2019 class, and she finished that year with three wins, including a Major.  But her 2020 campaign was the mirror image of her good friend Hyun Kyung.  She was far more consistent than Park, but was not able to get a win.  In the end, she finished 8th on the money list, just behind Park with 526 million won earned.  She had nine top tens with no wins, two seconds and three thirds.  Two of her near misses came against Park; she looked poised to win the KLPGA Championship only to falter on the final day with a 71 after shooting 65-64 the two previous rounds. She finished second.  Her other runner up finish also came in Park’s other victory. 

But though Lim was not a winner in 2020, her world ranking ended up improving more than Park’s:  She got as high as 16th in the world in the Fall.  She has the potential to become one of the top challengers to Hye Jin Choi in 2021.

So Mi Lee is another sophomore who has become very popular in Korea, so much so that she finished second in fan voting for the Most Popular award, ahead of even Park and Lim.  She finished 10th on the money list with a little more than 400 million won earned.  Lee broke through with her first career win last season at the Huon Care Women’s Open.  She had six other top tens, including a pair of seconds.

On the flip side, there were a couple of stars from that vaunted class who struggled in 2020.  Perhaps the most perplexing case was that of Ayean Cho, the young star who had won the Rookie of the Year in 2019.  Not only had Cho won twice that season, she started the 2020 season on fire.  Playing two LPGA and one LET events in consecutive weeks in Australia, Cho got into the final group on Sunday in all three events.  She finished tied for 6th at the Australian Women’s Open, playing with none other than Inbee Park, who won.  Shortly after that, the pandemic canceled action, and when she resumed a few months later she wasn’t the same.  She did have three top tens and a few other decent weeks, her best being a 7th at the Korea Women’s Open.  But she only finished 35th on the money list, well behind her rivals Park and Lim.

Even her popularity seemed to take a hit.  At the start of 2020, she was not only featured in a weekly show with her rivals from her Rookie class, she also had a second TV program dedicated entirely to her, showing her Winter training regimen in New Zealand.  She started the year with 5,000 more Instagram followers than Park, but by the end of 2020 had about a third of Hyun Kyung’s total.

Cho seems to have all the tools to become a huge breakout star.  She showed Down Under that she could compete on the LPGA, even if she wasn’t able to get a win.  Hopefully she will right the ship and re-establish her credentials in 2021.

Struggling even worse was one-time winner Seung Yeon Lee.  Lee finished just 87th on the tour money list in 2020.  Her best finishes were a pair of tenth places.  Though a second tier talent among that incredible Class of 2019, she still did manage a win in her rookie year, and her complete collapse came as a surprise.

The Comeback that Stalled

Speaking of players who have struggled of late, we arrive at Ji Hyun Oh.  For a while, Oh had improved every year since arriving on tour in 2014.  In 2018, she was one of the top players in the league, winning the Korea Women’s Open that season by 8 shots.  But she virtually disappeared from leaderboards in 2019, and though 2020 was an improvement, her comeback was still not complete, and she remains a question mark for 2021.

Oh did have a few highlights last year.  Perhaps her best showing was at the Korea Women’s Open, where she was among the leaders going into the final day.  This was an event seriously impacted by the presence of LPGA stars.  So Yeon Ryu won it, Hyo Joo Kim finished 2nd, and Sei Young Kim tie for 4th with Oh.  What really killed Ji Hyun was not the LPGA stars, though, but the fact that she shot a 75 in the final round, which took her right out of the contest. 

Her only other top ten was a third a bit earlier in the year.  She finished 19th on the money list, better than 2019 but still not close to the top five finishes she was getting before.  So her big task will be to get back to her top form in 2021, which would put her in the hunt for the post-season awards.

Always the Star

Ha Na Jang continued to be a top presence on the KLPGA in 2020.  She seems to peak in the Fall, and last year was no exception.  From late July through to the end of the year, with the exception of one event, Jang was always in the top ten.  During that run, she collected a 4th, a third, two seconds, and a win at the SK Networks event, as well as two other top tens.  In all, she had ten top tens and made nearly 625 million won, which placed her third on the money list.  Although Jang occasionally talks about returning to the LPGA, she seems for the moment to be content in Korea, which means she should once again be a major force in 2021. 

New star

Every year there is at least one player who seems to come from nowhere to become a major presence on tour, and last year the Cinderella was no doubt Na Rin An.  A long hitter, An got her first win in 2020 with a thoroughly dominating performance at the Autech Carrier Championship.  An climbed to an insane TEN shot lead after back-to-back 65s in rounds 2 and 3.  She only shot a 72 in round 4, but still easily won the event by 4 shots over rookie star Hae Ran Ryu.  A month later, An won her second event at the lucrative Hana Financial Championship.  She finished fourth on the money list with 607 million won earned.  She also got a chance to play on the LPGA, making the cut and finishing 63rd at the US Women’s Open in December.

Na Rin is the biggest question mark in this primer.  Is she for real, or will she return to the middle of the pack in 2021?  Only time will tell.

Some more top players

Min Ji Park

Min Ji Park is one of those players who has consistently finished well on the Korean tour, has a number of wins, and yet is never really in the hunt for the big awards at the end of the year.  In 2020, she finished 5th on the money list with nearly 600 million won earned.  She had nine top tens including a win, two seconds and two thirds. She has gained some notoriety for her dancing skills as displayed at the annual KLPGA/LPGA team competition.  Doubtless she is pretty happy with her solid showings year after year, but the next step in her career needs to be to seriously challenge the top guns for the post season hardware.

Da Yeon Lee

Da Yeon Lee had a somewhat weaker season in 2020, but still finished 11th on the money list with around 385 million won earned.  For her, she will want to be getting back into the top five again like she was in 2019.  Her only win of the 2020 season actually came at the end of 2019, at the Vietnam event before the pandemic hit (this event counted towards the 2020 season).  She did have a pair of third places in 2020, but her overall results were not up to her usual standard.

Rookie Superstar

Hae Ran Ryu has quickly established herself as a force on the Korean tour.  She won the Samdasoo Masters before she even joined the tour in 2019, and in 2020, as a rookie, she defended her title despite the presence of superstars like Jin Young Ko, Inbee Park and Jeongeun Lee6.  Ryu managed to finish second on the tour money list, the highest full time KLPGAer on the list (Hyo Joo Kim won the money list, but she’s usually on the LPGA tour).  Ryu earned 628 million won.  Although she only had the one win, she had ten total top tens, including three runner ups.  She also finished tied for 13th at the US Women’s Open in December; as a result, by the end of the year she was the highest ranked KLPGA player in the world rankings, even surpassing Hye Jin Choi. 

Ryu is a fairly long hitter, consistent, and young.  She seems poised to have a massive season sometime soon, and perhaps 2021, still just her second year on tour, will be her chance.  If anyone can take down Choi, I think it will be her.

Rookies to Watch

As usual, the KLPGA is hyping several rookies who will be joining either the big tour or the minor league tours in 2021.  The one who seems to be getting the most ink is Jae Hee Kim.  Kim won the Dream Tour money list title in 2020, although in the few times she played the big tour last year she wasn’t all that strong.  Still, she has game, is just 19, and has a goofy personality that has already endeared her to fans and sponsors in Korea.  It’s not yet clear that she has what it takes to be a top player (at least not right away), but she certainly has the looks, personality and style to dazzle the fans.

Jae Hee Kim offers you a cake

Some other names: 18-year-old Ye Won Lee (will play the Dream Tour) was one of the top amateurs until she turned pro this year.  Ye Been Sohn was signed by Nike last year and might be on the big tour; she was another mainstay of the National team as a teenager. Uhjin Seo led Korea to a title at the Queen Sirikit Cup a few years ago (Sohn and Lee were also on that team, which crushed the competition by 16 strokes).  Ji Hyun Ahn has already garnered sponsor interest and at least one magazine photo shoot.

Uhjin Seo
Ye Been Sohn
Ye Won Lee
Ji Hyun Ahn

The Glamor Girls Dazzled

The KLPGA is a serious tour, one of the best in the world, but it has its fun side as well.  Like anywhere, there are popular players who are loved as much for their personalities, looks or style as for their games.  As it turned out, three of the most popular of these glamor girls also happened to have tour cards in 2020, meaning they had a chance to play a lot during the season.  It’s a pity fans were not allowed on site, as these ladies are all huge attractions to the paying customers.  And alas, they all lost their memberships for 2021, but perhaps one or more of them might make it back.

Hyun Ju Yoo is the most popular of these players.  As of this writing she has over 300,000 followers on Instagram, the most of any Korean golfer, LPGA or KLPGA.  Yoo is the sex symbol of the tour, and has attracted numerous sponsorships.  But how’s her game?  Well, she did play better in 2020 than the last time she had a tour card a few years ago, but still missed out on maintaining membership for 2021.  Her strength is her long game; she has a great swing and is decently long.  But her short game and mental strength still need more work.

The other two players, So Hyeon Ahn and Keung Young An, have considerably less fame than Yoo, but Ahn still has roughly as many followers on Instagram as So Yeon Ryu, one of the most popular Korean stars on the LPGA, while An is roughly at the same level as Jeongeun Lee6.  Ahn had her moments in 2020, including one tournament where she was in contention for a while.  An struggled a lot more, and both missed their cards for 2021.

So Hyeon Ahn
Keun Young An

Will Hye Jin Choi be able to win the Player of the Year for a record-breaking fourth time?  Will Ji Hyun Oh or Ayean Cho make their comebacks?  Is this the year Hae Ran Ryu becomes a superstar?  Which of the sophomore stars will have the best year?  The KLPGA season is starting now, so soon we will get answers to those questions and more!


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