The Korean Ladies Professional Golf Association, or KLPGA, is about to start the main part of their 2016 season with their opening event in South Korea. Time once again for our annual primer, where we will preview the season and profile some of the players to watch.
The KLPGA is entering a transitional phase this year. For the first time, foreign born players are allowed to maintain membership on tour. At the end of last year, there was a Qualifying School for non-Korean golfers, won by an 18-year-old player from Japan. And this season there have already been two events in China, one in Vietnam, and another 2-day special tournament in Vietnam. But despite all this new international action, the meat of the tour will still be the Korean golfers and the events that take place in South Korea.
The big change this year will be the departure of last year’s dominant Player of the Year, In Gee Chun.
Chun won 8 total events in 2015, including 5 on the Korean tour, and claimed all the tour’s top prizes: Money list (where she was amassed the second greatest money total in history, roughly 910 million won); Player of the Year; and Scoring Average. She also won two Majors on the Japanese LPGA tour. But her shining moment came not in Asia but in Lancaster, PA, where she won the US Women’s Open, the most important women’s golf event in the world. That win earned her membership on the LPGA, and this year she is playing on the American tour. She has already managed three top three finishes in three starts, and seems well on her way to becoming a big star over here.
The Emerging Superstar – Sung Hyun Park
With Chun gone, who will be the next big name to emerge from South Korea? The most likely candidate is a 21-year-old powerhouse named Sung Hyun Park. Park will be a third year player in 2016. She didn’t make much noise in her rookie year of 2014, but she made a big splash last year when she won the biggest event on the KLPGA, the Korean Women’s Open, for her first victory (In Gee Chun also made that event her first win, in 2013). A few months later, Park grabbed two more wins, and contended most of the week at the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank before fading to second place (she started the week with a bang by shooting a scintillating 62).
Park wound up finishing second on the KLPGA money list with 736 million won earned. She had three total wins. She led the tour in driving distance, and at the KEB, when paired with Michelle Wie and Lexi Thompson, managed to hold her own against them with her distance off the tee.
Park wasted little time establishing herself as the player to beat in 2016. At the year’s first event, the Hyundai China Open, she faced down Chun and defending champion Hyo Joo Kim to grab the win. She sits atop the tour money list so far. She has also played three events on the LPGA, and has managed a 13th, a 4th and a 6th. She has moved into the top 25 in the world rankings and is the prohibitive favorite to take the big prizes this year in Korea.
Other Rising Stars
Jin Young Ko
Jin Young Ko had a wonderful rookie year in 2014. In her second year in 2015, Ko managed three wins and 8 top tens. She finished fifth on the money list. Her biggest highlight also came on the LPGA tour, where she took the final round lead at the Women’s British Open, but in the end made a key mistake and finished second to Korean superstar Inbee Park.
Ko hit the caddie jackpot this year when Dean Herden agreed to be on her bag. Herden has caddied for some of the biggest stars in Korean golf. He has helped So Yeon Ryu, Jiyai Shin and In Gee Chun to Major wins, and also worked with Hee Kyung Seo and Hyo Joo Kim (when she won earlier this year). Ko is clearly preparing for her transition to the LPGA, but first she wants to make a big mark on the KLPGA.
Ko has the talent, but is not to date as consistent as Sung Hyun Park. Can she overcome Park’s power and become the tour’s top gun?
Min Sun Kim
Min Sun Kim is also a third year player. She has two career wins to date. Kim finished in the top ten on the money list last year and, like Park, is fairly long off the tee. She is one of the big names on tour to be sure, but her short game is much more erratic than Park’s or Ko’s. If she can learn to tame those short putt jitters, she could have what it takes to make it to the top.
Ji Hyun Oh
The 2014 class yielded a bounty of young stars. Yet another name to watch from that year is 20-year-old Ji Hyun Oh. Oh broke through for her first career win towards the end of last year, and finished 17th on the money list. Already in 2016 she has contended twice, finishing 5th and 2nd.
Oh is known as the Yuna Kim of the KLPGA due to her resemblance to the famous Olympic Figure Skating Gold Medalist. She joined the tour a bit younger than some of the other young stars and is only now starting to reach her potential.
Cecilia Jeong Min Cho grew up in New Zealand, where she rose to be the #1 amateur in the world while still in her teens. She set or broke almost every record you could imagine there – and then another, better, younger golfer came along by the name of Lydia Ko. While Ko rose to the world #1 ranking in the professional ranks, Cho languished in the minor leagues of the Korean system. But she made it out onto the big tour, and just a couple of weeks ago, stunned Ji Hyun Oh to claim her first career KLPGA victory.
Could Cho be on her way to becoming a force on tour, or was it just a blip in an otherwise undistinguished career? Given her amateur track record, she does bear watching at least!
A couple of veterans on the KLPGA tour had wonderful renaissances in 2015 after several fallow years.
Shin Ae Ahn
Shin Ae “Sharon” Ahn is known as the “Sexy Queen” of the KLPGA. She has spent some time in the tabloids as rumors link her to various pop stars. But Ahn is not just a glamor girl; she was the 2009 KLPGA Rookie of the Year and had multiple wins back in the day. More recently, she seemed to have settled into being a middle of the tour player when, seemingly out of the blue, she won the 2015 KLPGA Championship, one of the tour’s four Majors. Although she did not do much else of note in 2015, this win showed that she has it in her to return to her star form. The cameras will be watching; can she impress again?
Hye Youn Kim
Hye Youn Kim is another long time veteran with multiple wins who had not been in the winner’s circle for several years until a resurgence in 2015. Her win came at the Seoul Economy Ladies Classic in late October. She finished 11th on the money list, and given her history, she bears watching in 2016 for sure.
Jung Min Lee
At the start of 2015, it was Jin Young Ko who most pushed In Gee Chun. After Ko started to cool down, the mantle of top challenger was taken up by Jung Min Lee. She had 11 top tens last year and three wins, and finished 4th on the money list. Her first win came in May, followed by a 17th, followed by two more back-to-back wins. She cooled off after that, though, and except for two 2nd place finishes at the Korean Women’s Open and KLPGA Championship (two of the tour’s Majors), wasn’t often in the hunt. Still, she is a veteran who had won multiple times before this season, is fairly consistent, and is still young enough that her best might be yet to come (she is 24).
Lee has started out 2016 well, winning the KLPGA-LET jointly sponsored Mission Hills Women’s World Championship in China last month. She currently sits 2nd on the tour money list behind Sung Hyun Park.
Yoon Kyung Heo
Yoon Kyung Heo was one of the top players on tour in 2014, but injuries sidelined her much of 2015. She still hasn’t returned to action, although the rumor is that she is healthy and ready to go. If she returns to anything like her top form, she could contend for the #1 spot on tour.
Yoon Ji Cho
Yoon Ji Cho has slowly but surely become one of the top players on the KLPGA tour the past couple of seasons. In 2015, she finished 3rd on the money list with over 650 million won earned. However, that number is skewed somewhat by the fact that her only win of the year came at the tour’s most lucrative event, the BMW Championship. That win alone earned her 300 million won. Still, she had other good results, including two runner-up finishes and two third places. It seems unlikely she will be the top player on tour this year, but a top five on the money list is not out of the question.
Some of the biggest stars on the KLPGA tour are known more for their looks, fashion or personality than their games, but three of them are noteworthy in that they do win occasionally, even if they are not these days competing for the wins too often.
Char Young Kim and Chae Young Yoon are long term veterans who fit that mold perfectly. Kim won three times in 2012 but has not won since, while Yoon managed her sole win on tour in 2014.
Chae Young Yoon
Yoon finished 33rd on the money list in 2015. Her best finishes were a pair of fifth places. Last week, she played in a JLPGA event (perhaps for the first time?) and was the tournament leader after 36 holes. She faded in the final round, but still notched a respectable tie for third.
Char Young Kim
Char Young Kim finished 34th on the money list in 2015. Her best finish was a third, and she made the final four at the Doosan Match Play as well. Like Yoon, she has a fair amount of talent, and she rarely misses cuts, but she also rarely contends.
Soo Jin Yang
Soo Jin Yang is the tour’s top fashionista. There isn’t even a contest in this regard. Yang not only breaks the internet with one daring and different outfit after another, she also designs some of them for her own clothing line made by her sponsor Pearly Gates. Yang also gets more tabloid ink than any of the other KLPGA golfers, including Shin Ae Ahn. Last year she was dating the top player on the KPGA, but it seems that relationship has ended and she is now seeing a top pitcher in the Korean Major Leagues.
With all these outside interests, it’s not surprising that Soo Jin has not been up near the top of the golf standings lately. But make no mistake, she’s a big talent. She’s won multiple events in her career, and until a couple of years ago was usually in the top five on the money list. Last year she finished 38th, though, with her best result a third at the Korean Women’s Open. Yang’s strength is that she is surprisingly long off the tee for her size. If she returns to focusing on her game over her extracurricular activities, she could easily become a top five golfer again.
Second Year Stars
Last year’s Rookie Class was not particularly distinguished, especially when compared to the classes of the two previous years. Only one rookie won a tournament in 2015, and she was a player who had played fairly poorly the rest of the season and had one magic week.
The Rookie of the Year was Ji Young Park, but the two players who continue to look the most promising from last year’s crop are Gyeol Park and Han Sol Ji.
Park won the 2014 Asian Games Gold Medal in front of her home country fans in Inchon. Her rookie year was not super great, but she did finish 22nd on the money list with over 230 million won earned. She finished second twice in 2015, including at the Hite Cup, the year’s third Major. She was third in the Rookie standings.
Han Sol Ji
Han Sol Ji had her moments in 2015 as well. She finished 25th on the money list, earning about five million won less than Gyeol Park, and was 4th in the rookie standings. Her best finish came at the Doosan Match Play, where she was the runner-up to In Gee Chun in a close final match (Chun won 1up).
Ji has already had a great start to 2016, collecting a 2nd place finish at the World Ladies Championship and another second behind Cecilia Cho in Vietnam. With her calm demeanor and ready smiles, she looks likely to improve a lot in 2016.
This year’s rookie crop is not full of big names as in recent years. Hyo Rin Lee had a great career in the minor leagues last year and comes in as the rookie most expect to win Rookie of the Year.
Ji Young Kim 2 was the second leading scorer on the Dream Tour in 2015 and finished 5th at Q-School.
So Hye Park made waves by signing a lucrative deal with Nike. The 18-year-old won twice on the Dream Tour last year.
2016 will be an interesting transitional year for the KLPGA. Odds are we will see a new star, a dominant player, and some more great guest appearances by KLPGA stars in LPGA tournaments. KLPGA Fighting!