AWARD for Most Improved Player
And the Winner is: Sung Hyun Park
Sung Hyun Park is a 22-year-old second year player on the KLPGA tour. There hadn’t been much in her rookie year that would lead one to believe she was about to become one of the best players in the league. She did manage two top tens, including a third, in her first season, but that was only good enough for 34th on the money list.
Everything changed for Park in 2015. The newly crowned longest driver on tour, Park started the year much like she ended 2014, but early in the season began to show signs she had more in her. Her first notable achievement was contending at the NH Financial Ladies Championship in May. But it was at the Lotte Cantata in early June that she started to really make noise. She took a three shot lead after two rounds, but felt the heat in the final round, shooting a 74 to fall into a playoff with Jung Min Lee. Lee won, but Park was gaining confidence.
Two weeks later came Park’s breakthrough, at the biggest tournament on the KLPGA schedule: the Korean Women’s Open (see Best Breakthrough). In tough conditions, Park hammered her way to a five shot lead entering the final day, and though Sunday was tough for her, she hung in there and this time beat Jung Min Lee, capturing her first win and first Major.
From there, Park went from strength to strength. For the rest of the season, she only finished outside the top 20 four times. Park proved she was no flash in the pan by taking down the top player in the league, head-to-head, in her next win. That was the KDB Daewoo Securities Classic in mid-September. In Gee Chun, the defending champion, was tied with Park entering the final round. But Chun couldn’t get anything to go her way on Sunday, and Park shot a 69 to capture a two-shot win.
Just two events later, Park captured her third win, at the Pak Se Ri Invitational. Park put herself into the final group on Sunday, and shot a sometimes challenging 68 to claim a one shot victory.
Park had two more good chances to win but came up just short. At the final event of the season, the Chosun Ilbo Posco Championship, Park entered the final day four shots behind the untested rookie HJ Choi 2. Park played well on Sunday, shooting a 67 to finish second, but Choi amazingly held it together to get the surprise win (See Cinderella of the Year award for more details).
Park’s other amazing tournament came at the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank Championship. She opened with a blistering 10 under par 62, giving her a four shot lead over a field of LPGA stars while outplaying Michelle Wie and Lexi Thompson in her pairing. Park stayed in it until Sunday, but she just couldn’t get crucial putts to fall, and Thompson took the title, with Park finishing tied for second.
In the end, Park finished second on the KLPGA money list with over 736 million won earned. Quite an improvement over 2014!
Even after the season ended, Park continued to impress. She destroyed Inbee Park in a KLPGA vs. LPGA team competition, played well at the Kowa Queens team event, and won the first tournament of the KLPGA’s 2016 season, the Hyundai China Ladies Masters, taking down In Gee Chun and defending champ Hyo Joo Kim in the process.
And she was voted the Most Popular Player on the KLPGA tour in 2015 to boot, edging out even uber-popular Chun. All signs point to a sensational career developing for Sung Hyun Park, and it all started with her epic improvement in 2015.
Jin Young Ko
Ko was the runner-up in the KLPGA Rookie of the Year race in 2014, so she already proved herself a strong player. But she only won once that year. This season, she won three events, and came within a few holes of winning the Ricoh Women’s British Open, one of the LPGA’s five Majors. She was not as consistent as Sung Hyun Park, nor was her improvement as great, but she is still trending upward in a big way.
Sei Young Kim
See Rookie of the Year for more details. Kim was a five-time winner on the KLPGA tour before this year, but in 2015 she managed to win three LPGA events, contend in two Majors, and achieve the Rookie of the Year award against arguably the greatest rookie class in history. That’s a major improvement!
In Gee Chun
Chun won three times in 2014 and was a top five golfer on the KLPGA. But this year she won 8 times on three different tours and dominated the KLPGA to boot. And, oh yeah, earned her LPGA tour card by winning the biggest event in women’s golf, the US Women’s Open.
AWARD for Player of the Year
And the Winner is: In Gee Chun
In 2015, there were more great performances by ethnic Korean women golfers than at any other year in history. But four players in particular stood out for their historic achievements last season. Those outstanding women were Lydia Ko and Inbee Park on the LPGA, In Gee Chun on the KLPGA and other tours, and Bo Mee Lee on the Japanese LPGA. A good case could be made for any of those four being the Player of the Year. It’s interesting that two of these players, Ko and Chun, are ‘young guns’ in their late teens/early twenties (Ko is 18, Chun 21), while the other two, Lee and Park, are from the Se Ri Kids Generation and are in their late twenties.
Keep in mind that this award does not go to the player who is indisputably or even arguably the best in 2015; that is what we have Rolex rankings for. Rather, it goes to the player who dominated the news in her sphere, while simultaneously achieving beyond what we might have thought she was capable of. IE, if a KLPGA golfer does transcendently on her tour, she can win this award over a strong LPGA player, even if the LPGA player had tougher fields to contend with week after week.
My choice for 2015 Player of the Year is In Gee Chun. I’ll give the reasons below, and in sections about the other three players, I will list the achievements that made them special and the reasons I decided to choose Chun over them.
What She Achieved
In a nutshell, In Gee came into this season as a very strong KLPGA star with four tour wins to her credit. Given that the KLPGA lost five big stars this season, there was reason to expect that Chun, one of their few stars remaining, would have a better year in 2015 than previously.
On the KLPGA in 2015, In Gee won five tournaments, the most on tour (next closest was three wins). She won two of the three Majors she played. She won the Doosan Match Play, one of the toughest events to win on tour because it requires six match play wins (see Most Clutch Performance). She also won her sponsor’s tournament, and successfully defended a title for the first time in her career.
She achieved the second highest money total in tour history, in excess of 913 million won. She also won the Player of the Year award and the title for low scoring average (her average, 70.56, was more than half a stroke better than the number two on the list). She even nearly won the Most Popular Award, just being outvoted by Sung Hyun Park.
It could be expected that Chun would do well due to the exodus of talent this year. But not only did Chun dominate, she did so while playing a LOT of events outside of the KLPGA. She was constantly having to skip important domestic tournaments, or showing up to play after flying in from halfway around the world, or playing a bunch of weeks in a row, or dealing with fatigue. For instance, she missed both of the highest money tournaments on tour this year, and still crushed everyone in the money list race.
In Gee’s achievements on the KLPGA were great, but what made her season so amazing is that she played so many international events and managed three additional wins. She had essentially played nowhere but the Korean tour her first two years as a pro, so it was all new for her to play elsewhere. And boy, did she expand her horizons. Among the places she teed it up this year were France, Scotland, Singapore, the US, and Japan, all for the first time as a pro.
JLPGA: She played her first three events ever on the Japanese tour. In her first event, she dominated, winning the tour’s first Major of the season, the Salonpas Cup. She also won her second ever Japanese event, also a Major: the Japan Women’s Open, this time triumphing in a four-hole playoff. Even while struggling with an injury at yet another JLPGA Major, her third JLPGA event of the year, she managed a tie for 6th.
As if all that weren’t enough, In Gee also won the US Women’s Open, only the single most important event in all of women’s golf. If that were all she did this year, it would have been an incredible year. And of course, that win earned her an LPGA card for next season as well.
Eight wins in total, the most of any of the four women under consideration.
The history she made
- In Gee’s win at the Salonpas made her the youngest woman to win that tournament by almost a year
- She also became the youngest player to win multiple times in a single season on the JLPGA tour.
- She almost certainly has to be the only woman to ever make her first two events played on a single tour (the JLPGA again) both Major victories.
- In Gee managed five Major wins on three different tours in 2015. She is the only woman to ever win Majors on three different tours in a single year.
- In Gee was the third youngest winner of the US Women’s Open. The youngest are Inbee Park and Se Ri Pak, both Hall of Famers (Inbee a Hall of Famer-to-be)
- She might be the only golfer who has won the national opens of Korea, Japan and the US; she’s certainly the youngest.
Arguments against her
The main argument against In Gee was that, other than the US Women’s Open, she did not finish in the top 30 in any of the other LPGA events she played outside of Korea (she did manage a 15th place finish at the KEB Hana Bank in Korea).
While this is true, most of those events were at the very start of her season, before she caught fire. She played the HSBC Ladies Champions, the Founders Cup, the Kia Classic and the ANA Inspiration before her first event of the KLPGA season (and her first win, which came at the second KLPGA event of the year). After that, she caught fire, winning frequently. Her next LPGA event was the US Women’s Open. The Women’s British Open came the week after she won a Major in Korea, so she had a large jetlag to deal with. Really, the only inexplicable bad performance she had on the LPGA was at the Evian Championship, where she missed her only cut all year. But everyone is entitled to a bad one now and again.
If I hadn’t given the award to In Gee, I probably would have given it to Inbee Park. The uber-talented star had another monster LPGA season in 2015, but in the end I felt like Chun was just that little bit more impressive.
What She Achieved
Inbee played most of her year on the LPGA, although she did manage a couple of KLPGA events and one LET event. But all her wins were on the LPGA, five in total.
Two of Inbee’s wins were Majors: the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and the Ricoh Women’s British Open. It was her third win at the former and first at the latter. She also notched a third at the US Women’s Open and a tie for 8th at the Evian. The only time she finished outside a top ten at a Major was at the ANA Inspiration, and she finished 11th there!
Inbee wound up winning the Vare Trophy for low scoring average for the second time (her average was a scintillating 69.41), finishing second on the money list with $2,630,011, and second on the Player of the Year list with 278 points, just 2 behind Lydia Ko. Her achievements allowed her to become the second Korean golfer to qualify on points for the Hall of Fame, although she needs to wait until she plays ten events next year to officially qualify.
She had 15 total top tens in 2015, second only to Lydia Ko.
The History She Made
- Inbee’s money list total was the highest ever earned by a golfer representing Korea; it’s the third straight year she’s broken $2 million in earnings. No other golfer representing Korea has ever broken $2 million.
- Inbee became one of the only golfers in history to win a specific Major three times in a row when she won the KPMG. And she did it on three different courses!
- She is the only Korean to ever win the Vare Trophy twice.
- Her run of 90+ holes without a bogey across three events was one of the best mistake-free runs in Korean golf history.
- Her 7 Majors makes her the Asian with the most Majors in history, breaking the tie she was in with Se Ri Pak at the start of the year.
- She is only the second Korean to qualify for the Hall of Fame
- Her 17 wins is the second most by any Korean golfer (Se Ri has 25)
Arguments Against Her
The main knock against Inbee was that she finished second to Lydia Ko in several categories. She did barely beat Ko in scoring, but barely lost to her in Player of the Year. To be honest, although she did lose to Ko in that race, she won 2 Majors to Ko’s 1, and Ko actually had a missed cut and a 51st place finish in two Majors, while all of Inbee’s Majors were top 11s. This seems to be one case where the point totals don’t tell the whole story, and I think many people, if given the choice, would choose Inbee and her Major track record over Ko in 2015, especially since the actual margin was so small.
But Inbee still legitimately lost to Ko on the money list; Ko’s total was the highest ever achieved by any ethnic Korean woman. And Inbee’s winning margin for the Vare Trophy was ridiculously small. Ko also won the CME $1 million bonus. So one factor against Inbee vs. Chun is that, unlike Chun, Inbee was not even the best in several categories in her own league.
The other factor is that Inbee did not have to travel around nearly as much from tour to tour as In Gee, and she’s been doing it over a decade, so it was nothing new to her. To me, that was the real factor that edged In Gee over Inbee.
What She Achieved
Lydia Ko so regularly breaks records for youngest to do something that it almost seems a weird week when she has not achieved such a mark. Ko had five wins on the LPGA in 2015 and another in New Zealand on the LET for 6 total. One of those was a Major, the Evian Championship, which also was her first Major win. She also had 17 top tens on the year.
Ko won the Player of the Year barely over Inbee Park, and lost the scoring title barely to her. She led the money list and also won the $1 million bonus at the CME Group Tour Championship.
The History She Made
- Youngest to ever reach the #1 world ranking, and she did it before her 18th birthday.
- Youngest to win a Major at the Evian Championship.
- Her $2,800,802 total is the highest money list total ever achieved by any golfer of Korean descent, including Inbee Park.
- Youngest to win five times in a season
Arguments Against Her
As I said above, I feel, despite the numbers, that Inbee Park was the true Player of the Year on the LPGA, because she had two Major wins and a far better Major record than Ko did. Inbee beat Ko at four of the five Majors; at the CME, arguably the most important non-Major; and at the HSBC, which is sometimes called “Asia’s Major”. And the same caveat I had about Park I have with Ko: she did not sweep all her season awards like Chun did.
I’m also not quite as impressed by all her youngest to do things records as some are. Ko started golfing when she was 6 years old. By contrast, In Gee Chun started when she was 11. By the time Ko was that age, she was less than a year away from contending in professional events. Yes, it’s amazing that a kid so young could be so good, but Ko actually has more years of experience under her belt than Chun does. She has also played in world class pro events since she was 12, and LPGA events since she was 14. Chun only started doing that this year (with very few exceptions, such as the KEB Hana Bank).
Bo Mee Lee
What She Achieved
I believe that what Bo Mee Lee achieved in 2015 on the JLPGA was unprecedented for any non-Japanese golfer on that tour. She actually started the year as an exercise in frustration. At one point she had four straight runner-up finishes, but couldn’t seem to close the deal. But playing with In Gee Chun at the Salonpas Cup (which Chun won) helped her; she claimed she saw the key to winning by watching what In Gee did there.
Whatever happened, it worked. Lee ended up winning seven times on tour in 2015, and finished 2nd an additional seven times. She not only won the money list, she shattered the record for most money earned (see below). She also won the Player of the Year and Scoring title, with her only competition coming from Theresa Lu in the latter. She was first in greens in regulation, second in birdies. She played 32 events and made all the cuts.
She finished near the top of the leaderboard so many times that it was a rare event in Japan when she wasn’t on the leaderboard.
Bo Mee Lee was also first in greens in regulation and putts per green in regulation.
What’s truly impressive about Bo Mee Lee is that, without question, she is the most popular player on the Japanese tour in addition to being the best. Imagine a Korean golfer achieving that on the LPGA! It’s never been done, although Se Ri Pak did have a brief period where she was close. How do I gauge Lee’s popularity? Usually, it’s fairly remarkable when a Sister appears on the cover of a golf magazine, even in Korea. With Lee, she is on so many covers in Japan that it’s literally impossible to count. And that doesn’t include all the other magazines that she is featured inside without being on the cover. But her appeal has gone beyond that; she appears in mainstream media over there. I’ve seen her in hour-long travel shows where she takes the viewer to Korea; game shows; wacky talk shows; you name it, she’s probably done it. That she balances all this media exposure with her golf and still plays so well is truly special.
The History She Made
- Bo Mee’s money list total for 2015 was 230.5 million yen, more than 80 million yen ahead of Lu in second. She shattered the previous record of roughly 175 million yen. That total in dollars is roughly $1.8 million, which would put her in the top six on the LPGA money list.
- Bo Mee became the first woman to ever break the 200 million yen mark on tour.
- Her money total even beat the all-time record for the men’s tour in Japan.
- Her 7 wins in a single year is probably the most a Korean has ever achieved on the JLPGA, although this I’m not sure about.
- Her scoring average of 70.19 was the third lowest since 1990.
- Her greens in regulation stat (74.5%) was the best since 1990, perhaps ever.
Arguments Against Her
For all Bo Mee Lee did in 2015, she did not manage to win one of the four JLPGA Majors. This is especially noteworthy, considering Koreans won three of them: In Gee Chun with two and Jiyai Shin with another (and the fourth was also won by a non-Japanese player, Taiwanese star Theresa Lu).
Of course, this is doubly significant considering that we are comparing her to In Gee Chun for this award. Chun came in, having never played in Japan before, and beat Lee on her home ground twice for two Majors crowns.
The other big knock against her is that, unlike Ko, Park and Chun, Lee did no traveling outside of Japan to play (that I’m aware of). Consider how many different places Chun played, how often she was out of her comfort zone and how it affected playing on her home turf when she returned. Lee, by contrast, was in her perfect bubble all year.
So, as impressive as Lee’s year was (and it was very impressive), Chun seems to me to have topped her in terms of challenge to get to where she wound up.
That concludes this year’s awards. Hope you enjoyed reading them as much as I enjoyed compiling them!