Posted by: happyfan08 | April 9, 2012

The 2012 KLPGA Primer

This week marks the start of the main part of the 2012 season for the Korean Ladies Professional Golf Association, or KLPGA. Thus, once again, it’s time for our annual KLPGA preview. Here’s where I’ll talk about who’s back, who’s gone, who’s likely to emerge, and who might reign supreme as the season swings into action.

(Helpful footnote: the first event of the season, the Hyundai China Ladies Open, took place last December. But the main part of the KLPGA schedule starts this week at the LotteMart Ladies Open).

Moving On
Two big stars are leaving the KLPGA in 2012 for other pastures. Bo Mee Lee was the 2010 KLPGA Player of the Year. She qualified for and joined the Japanese LPGA last year, but after the tsunami in March caused the cancelation of a number of events, Lee spent much of the rest of the year shuttling between Korea and Japan. She played well enough in Korea last year to earn the award for lowest scoring average. But she didn’t do so well in Japan, so this year she has vowed to focus on that tour, appearing only rarely on the KLPGA. This idea has already paid dividends: she won an event earlier this year in Japan for her first victory on that tour.

Bo Mee hoisted her first JLPGA trophy in in March

The other big name who won’t be on tour in 2012 is So Yeon Ryu. Ryu won 7 events on the KLPGA from 2008 – 2011, although she never won a Major or a Player of the Year award. She finished third on the money list in 2011, and might have stayed in Korea in 2012 until she finished college this year, but for the fact that she won the US Women’s Open last July, thus earning full privileges on the LPGA. In 2012, she has gone to America full time, and has already taken the lead in the Rookie of the Year race, with a second and fourth place finish among her results thus far.

So Yeon is ready to do battle on the LPGA tour in 2012

The Superstar
The top player on the KLPGA in 2011 was Ha Neul Kim. Personable, beautiful, fashionable, spunky, and uber-popular, Kim won three events (and another invitational event) on tour last year, including her first Major, to capture the Player of the Year, Money list, Most Wins, and Most Popular Player awards. Without question, she is the biggest gun on tour in 2012, and she will be looking to repeat as Big Kahuna. But she also intends to take as many opportunities as she can to play abroad, hoping to win an event on the LPGA to qualify for that tour without having to go to Q-School. That’s not as farfetched a scheme as it might seem, as former top KLPGA stars Jiyai Shin, Hee Kyung Seo and Ryu all got their tour cards that way. But it does make one wonder how focused she will be when playing the KLPGA. This might make it harder than she might think for her to repeat as Player of the Year.

Ha Neul Kim and her many trophies at the 2011 KLPGA Awards Show

She has already made a little noise abroad in 2012. She finished tied for second, just one shot out of the lead, at the RACV Ladies Masters in Australia, and also just missed a top ten at the year’s first Major, finishing tied for 11th at the Kraft Nabisco Championship.

If Kim plays with anything like the same level of skill and focus in 2012 as she brought to the tour last year, she’s going to be tough to topple for the big awards. Based on her international results of late, she is certainly showing that her level of talent has become world class. But will she still put the same level of commitment into an average KLPGA event as an LPGA Major? Time will tell.

Ha Neul finished tied for 11th at the year's first Major, the Kraft Nabisco

The breakout stars
Two ladies made a big name for themselves in 2011. The question this year is: will they be able to build on that and become superstars, or were they just flashes in the pan?

Hyun Hwa Shim (sometimes spelled Sim) is a 23 year old player in her fourth year on the KLPGA. She had a decent rookie season in 2009, finishing 23rd on the money list, and produced 5 top tens to finish 30th in 2010. But in 2011, she took a quantum leap forward. She won her first and thus far only career event, and followed that with 5 top tens in her next six starts. She hovered near the top of the money list for most of the first part of the season. When the season resumed in the fall, she faltered somewhat, but towards the end of the year rebounded with several more strong finishes, including a second place finish at the year’s final event. She wound up second on the money list behind only Kim.

So who is the real Hyun Hwa Shim: the journeyman of 2009-2010, or the proto-superstar of last year? Can she live up to the new pressure in 2012, or will she return to the middle of the pack?

Hyun Hwa at this year's Kraft Nabisco. She missed the cut.

The other breakthrough star of 2011 was Yeon Ju Jung, the runaway winner of the Rookie of the Year award. The teenager won the year’s first Major, the Korean Women’s Open, for her only career victory to date. She had 7 total top tens in 2011 and finished 5th on the year’s money list. One notable finish came at the LPGA’s Hana Bank Championship, where a final round 65 vaulted her into the top ten. Jung has certainly shown great promise based on those results. But she will have to step up her game to challenge Kim for the top spot.

Yeon Ju Jung showed she could dance at last year's KLPGA Awards Show

The returning big names
Several long time players have established themselves as names to watch on tour. So let’s watch them!

Hye Youn Kim is one of those players that never seems to get the attention she deserves. Kim is primarily known in Korea for being very cute and for her unusual swing sequence, which involves her taking a step towards the ball in the downswing. But last year she had another very strong year. She won the first event of the season, the Orient China Ladies Open, beating Ha Neul Kim AND So Yeon Ryu down the stretch. She compiled six other top tens, including a second and a third, finishing 6th on the year’s money list.

Kim successfully defended her title in China in December, claiming the only win to date in the KLPGA’s 2012 season. So, she sits on top of the money list as the year gets going in earnest. With four career wins and a lot of moxie, Kim is definitely a player who could vie for the year’s top honors.

Hye Youn Kim at last year's KLPGA Awards Show

Now 20 and entering her fourth season, young gun Soo Jin Yang led the tour in driving distance last season. She plays well year after year, and 2011 was no exception. She achieved her only 2011 win at perhaps the year’s toughest event, the Doosan Match Play Championship, where she beat Hyun Hwa Shim in the finals. She also managed a second place at the KLPGA Championship, the year’s second Major, and is a former winner of the Korean Women’s Open as well.

Yang made more noise by capturing the lead at the Hana Bank Championship after two rounds, before fading to a tie for third, three shots behind champion Ya Ni Tseng. She ended up 4th on the year’s money list.

Soo Jin had a great week at last year's Hana Bank Championship

Yang is a great player who has gone from strength to strength, finishing in the top five on the money list the last two seasons. If any one player is poised to break through to superstardom on the KLPGA this season, my money would be on her. Despite being slight in stature, she hits the ball far, a quality that should hold her in good stead whenever she leaves Korea for international tours. She could well end up being Ha Neul Kim’s biggest threat in 2012.

Shin Ae Ahn beat Soo Jin Yang as the Rookie of the Year in 2009, and had a great 2010 season as well. But she struggled somewhat in 2011. She had a 2nd and a 3rd place finish last year, but only three total top tens. Thus, she finished only 22nd on the money list. She did much better abroad, where she contended much of the week at the LPGA’s Evian Masters before ending up tied for 9th. Ahn is known in Korea as the Sexy Queen, given that nickname after she was chosen the ‘sexiest Korean golfer’ in an internet fan poll. But make no mistake about it, this lady is more than a pretty face; she has game. She needs to return to the form she displayed in 2010, but if she does, she could be a big winner in 2012.

Cover Girl: Shin Ae Ahn on the cover of JGolf Magazine

LPGA Transplants
Once upon a time, Grace Park was the second best golfer on the LPGA tour. That year, 2004, she won two events and became the first Korean to ever win the Kraft Nabisco Championship (and until two weeks ago, the only one). But just when she was at the height of her powers, infirmities got the best of her. She has spent the last decade struggling with severe back problems that have at times threatened to end her career entirely.

Last year, Park successfully qualified for the KLPGA tour, and intends to play on that tour quite a bit this season (she still has membership on the LPGA tour and will also play a few times in America). Grace has never played on the KLPGA tour beyond a few isolated events, so it will be interesting to see how she fares. If she brings any of her monstrous talent to bear, she could upset the entire calculus of the year-end races. But, if she continues to struggle with her game, she may not make much of an impact at all. Of one thing there is no doubt: Grace Park will be noticed, either through her play or through her mere presence.

Grace Park last December

Park joins a number of players who, in the past few years, have transplanted themselves from America back to Korea. Sarah Lee, Gloria Park, Jin Joo Hong and Sung Ah Yim are all former LPGA players who made that move. None of them have managed to win in Korea since coming back, but there’s always the chance that could change this year.

The one transplant who HAS made a big splash is HJ Choi.  Choi stunned the tour by shooting a final round 62 at the KLPGA Championship to blitz the field and capture the Major victory.  She didn’t do much else of note in 2011, but it shows that these LPGA veterans do still have plenty of game in them.

Rookies to watch
Every year, a new crop of young hopefuls join the tour, and this season is no exception. Two names seem to be getting the most buzz at this point.

In Ji Jeon is a former member of the Korean National team who very nearly won last year’s Hite Cup, the year’s third Major, as an amateur. She had a three shot lead in the final round at one point, but nerves got the better of her, and Ha Neul Kim wound up capturing the title. Jeon’s consolation prize was snapping up a sponsorship with Hite, the company who sponsors that Major as well as LPGA star Hee Kyung Seo.

Rookie In Ji Jeon signed a sponsorship deal with Hite Beer earlier this year

Ji Hee Kim comes into the league with a hefty sponsorship of her own: Nefs, the same company that sponsors Soo Jin Yang, LPGAer Kyeong Bae and Char Young Kim. Kim was also a national team mainstay the last few years, but made her biggest splash at 2010’s Asian Games when she won the individual Bronze Medal in women’s golf as a 16 year old (and also helped South Korea win the team gold medal at the same event).  The gold medalist, Hyun Soo Kim, is not yet on the big tour.

Rookie Ji Hee Kim signed a sponsorship deal with Nefs earlier this year

Another name to watch is Hye Rim Kim, who led the Dream Tour Money List last year (the Dream Tour is the KLPGA’s developmental tour).  She is 22 and will be playing her first full season on the KLPGA in 2012.  She, too, is sponsored by Nefs.

Will one of those two star rookies capture the Rookie of the Year? Or will another player trump them both? Stay tuned!

Other Notables
Some of the other returning stars who could make noise in 2012 include:

He Yong Choi. The 2008 KLPGA Rookie of the Year (beating Ryu and Hye Youn Kim), Choi has not played great golf the last few years, but she hasn’t been bad, either. She was 8th on last year’s money list without a win.

Ran Hong. Glamorous Ran Hong had a weak season on the KLPGA in 2011, but made a big splash when she contended at the LPGA’s Evian Masters and wound up 6th in the end.

Ran Hong cohosted last year's KLPGA Awards Show

Hyun Hee Moon. Moon won in 2011, but only finished 14th on the money list, a weaker than average year for the perennial starlet.

'Honey' Moon (the best nickname in golf?) at the 2011 KLPGA Awards Show

Ha Na Jang. The can’t-miss rookie prospect in 2011 did in fact miss. She had a frankly disappointing year, but she’s still young. She is very long off the tee and contended at multiple KLPGA Majors when she was still in high school. Sooner or later she’ll figure it out and become a force. 2012 might be her breakout year.

Posted by: happyfan08 | April 4, 2012

It Had to Be Yoo?

Back in 1840, America celebrated the election of a war hero to the White House.  William Henry Harrison, known as ‘Tippecanoe’ for a victory against the Indians, was at the time the oldest man to ascend to the presidency.  He decided he wanted to do his inauguration in a big way, and gave an extremely long speech, outside, to the folks who had come to celebrate.  It might not have been the best idea.  He caught a cold during the speech that, over the next month, got worse and worse.  Just 41 days after he became president, Harrison died, and Vice President John Tyler found himself in the White House.  Nobody was particularly thrilled; even his own party kicked him out.  Tyler earned the unhappy nickname ‘His Accidency’, a play of words on ‘His Excellency’, owing to the utterly surprising and seemingly random way by which he had come to power.

Cut to 2012, and it’s another election year.  But this article is not about Republicans or Democrats, but rather women’s golf.  At the recently completed 2012 Kraft Nabisco Championship, a pitched battle occurred on the final day to see who would come out on top and claim the year’s first Major.  Several players held the lead for a while, several others were a bit back.  But one player was consistent  all day.  In Kyung Kim finally seized the lead on the 17th hole after hanging tough all day, and it looked like she would cruise to the win.  She duly hit the green on 18, setting up a 20 foot birdie try.  She just missed that one, leaving herself a one foot long comebacker.  She carefully examined the hole, stepped up, and inexplicably missed the gimme putt, dropping into a tie for the lead with fellow Korean Sun Young Yoo.  One playoff hole later, Yoo was the champion, but in many ways she was as much an accidental Major champion as Tyler had been an accidental President.

In Kyung after missing a one foot putt to win the Nabisco

The Korean golfers had had a highly unusual 2012 season on the LPGA tour up to that time.  As detailed in the previous blog entry, they had had several great chances to win tournaments, but repeatedly fell just short.  On two separate occasions, Korean golfers even had the lead going into the final hole, only to have bizarre circumstances interfere with their trophy grabs.  Meanwhile, Taiwanese star Ya Ni Tseng took off where she left off last year, winning or coming darn close to doing so pretty much every time she teed it up.  She came into the Nabisco having won her two previous events, and it looked like another Major title would soon be in her hands.

Making things tougher for the Korean golfers is the fact that they have only won this particular Major once; they have at least three wins in every other Major.  Even Se Ri Pak, the greatest Seoul Sister of them all, has never won the Nabisco, although she has made it her number one goal for about a decade to do so.

Se Ri on day four. Another close call at the one Major she has yet to win

The first two days of the tournament went Tseng’s way, and by Friday evening she was not surprisingly in the lead.    There were a gaggle of Koreans on the leader board, though, something that is not usually the case at this event.  Top Sister was unheralded Haeji Kang, who was only a shot behind Tseng and would get the honor of going toe to toe with her on Saturday.  A shot behind her was Sun Young Yoo, while Pak and world’s #2 Na Yeon Choi were three shots back and three more Koreans were four back.

In round 3, the winds didn’t just blow, they howled, turning the course into an adventure even for the best players in the game.  Tseng was not able to mount any kind of big run, and Haeji Kang did herself proud by hanging with the game’s top player, even gaining three shots on her in a single hole when she made eagle on the par 5 11th.  At the end of the day, Tseng was still at the top at 9 under par, but tied with another obscure player, Karin Sjodin.  Sjodin’s main claim to fame is that she’s wicked long off the tee, and Mission Hills, where the Nabisco is played, is generally a great course for long hitters.  Kang was two back and still the top Korean.  But behind her were a who’s who of most of the top Korean golfers on the LPGA tour.  Three shots back were Hee Kyung Seo, the 2011 LPGA Rookie of the year;  3 time winner In Kyung Kim; 2009 US Women’s Open winner Eun Hee Ji; and Choi and Yoo.  Pak and Vicky Hurst were a shot behind them.  With all that Korean firepower, Tseng was going to have to get out to a strong start or risk being swamped.

Haeji Kang on day three

On Sunday, however, Tseng got out to an uncharacteristically weak start, bogeying her first hole and not making birdie on the par 5 second.  Within just a few holes, she found several golfers breathing down her neck.  Meanwhile, Sjodin, the co-leader, made eagle on 2 to seize the lead.  A few holes later, Sjodin’s lead stood at three strokes, and it looked like the virtually unknown Swede might pull off one of the biggest upsets of recent times.

But that pack of great Korean stars were hanging tough, and before long, one of them made a run up the leaderboard.  That player was Hee Kyung Seo, the glamorous star nicknamed the Fashion Model of the Fairways.  Seo had come achingly close to winning a Major last year, when she held the lead on Sunday evening at the US Women’s Open, only to see her arch rival So Yeon Ryu catch her and beat her in a playoff.  Ryu was having an off week, though, and Seo, who was playing with Ji and IK Kim on this day, was playing brilliant golf.  She birdied the second and fifth to move to 8 under, then, after missing a makeable birdie on the 7th, nailed a curving birdie putt on the par 5 9th to move to within a shot of Sjodin.  Meanwhile, Sjodin began to struggle, and Seo made back to back birdies on 11 and 12 to seize the lead by three shots.  After watching Ryu take the Open crown with caddie Dean Herden on her bag, Seo, who now employed Herden herself, was in the driver’s seat.  She had yet to make a bogey or any significant mistakes.

On day four, Hee Kyung Seo seized the lead at the Nabisco

The wheels started to come off for Seo on the crushingly hard 15th hole.  The par four was almost ridiculously narrow, and the accurate Seo hit a great looking drive that still somehow drifted right towards the trees.  She was sitting with a clear look at the flag, but her approach skipped over the green into the back bunker, where she was left with just about the hardest lie you could imagine.  Somehow she got it out of there, but could not save par.  Her first bogey of the day reduced her lead to one.

Hee Kyung on day four

While this was going on, Yoo had made her own birdie on 15, and quietly had climbed to 9 under, just a shot back.  Next, In Kyung Kim made a move on the 16th hole, claiming a birdie to also climb to 9 under.  Seo again struggled on that hole, making another bogey to also fall to 9 under.  When Sjodin climbed to 9 under, there were suddenly four golfers tied for the lead with just a few holes to go.

Unfortunately, Seo was never able to get back on track.  She continued to struggle, making bogies on her final two holes to fall to 7 under and an eventual tie for 4th.  Certainly a great result, but considering how close she was to getting the big prize, it was bound to feel like a crushing disappointment.

Meanwhile, In Kyung Kim hit a great tee shot on the par 3 17th, then drilled a beautiful 25 foot birdie putt to move to 10 under.  Sjodin and Seo fell back, and with one hole to play, Kim suddenly found herself in the lead for the first time all week, holding a one stroke lead over Yoo.  Normally, this would be great news.  But with the recent Korean propensity to cough up a sure win on the final hole, fans were keeping their fingers crossed that Kim would not do likewise.

Inky in round 4

Inky’s situation was hardly unexpected.  Year after year, she has been one of the strongest Koreans at Majors, and this week, she had surpassed even herself.  Her final round to that point had been flawless: 17 holes, 17 greens in regulation; 4 birdies, no bogies.  She was putting together one of the greatest final rounds in a Major in Korean golf history.  She was also coming off of two straight birdies.  Everything was pointing to glory.

Yoo made par on the last and finished at 9 under while Inky continued to charge.  She hit a great drive, laid up nicely, then put her third shot about 12 feet from the flag.  All she had to do was two putt and she almost certainly had the win.  The only person who could beat her if she made par was Tseng, who had just made birdie to move to 8 under.  But when Tseng landed her drive on 18 in a fairway bunker, she was no longer able to go for anything better than a birdie.  The entire tournament now came down to Kim and her putter.

She hit a great birdie try, narrowly missing the hole, and leaving herself a one footer for par.  And then disaster struck.  Even with all the bizarre ways the golf gods have snatched victory from the Koreans this year, the missed par save on 18 was far and away the most cruel.  It’s hard to comprehend how any pro golfer, let alone one who had been so strong all day, could have missed such a short putt.  But she hit it, and it horseshoed in and then out of the hole.  Kim was literally dumbstruck.  She tapped in the bogey and walked off the green in a daze.  Suddenly she was tied with Yoo, and Tseng could make birdie to join them in the playoff.  Tseng did have her chance, but narrowly missed the thirty foot birdie try, falling to the green in disbelief.

After the miss, Inky tried in vain to shut the world out

So Kim and Yoo wound up in a playoff, but to be honest, Inky was barely there.  She was lucky not to hit her drive into the water, and walked down the fairway, her face still painted with a look of utter shock.  Somehow she hit the green with her third, but Yoo got closer, and after Kim missed her birdie, Yoo drilled her own birdie putt to snatch the title out of Kim’s hands.

Yoo won the Major in a playoff

Yoo had played some great golf all day, but had never been in the lead until the second to last hole.  She also kept her head and performed brilliantly in the playoff.  Yoo has been underrated by most everyone for a long time, but she has quietly amassed a strong record since joining the LPGA tour in 2006 by snagging the last tour card from the previous year’s Futures Tour money list.  She proved her chops when she won the 2010 Sybase Match Play, beating some of the greatest golfers in the game in the process.  Among her victims that week were Tseng, then current number one player Jiyai Shin, and Cristie Kerr, who would also be #1 that season.  That is an impressive example of what Yoo is capable of when she gets going.

Yoo and her caddie taking the traditional victory jump in the lake

But as great as her week was, fair or not, she will always be looked at as ‘her Accidency’ whenever anyone recalls this year’s Nabisco.  Whoever said that history only remembers the winners was probably wrong in this instance.  Kim had simply played an immaculate four rounds of golf.  She has a far better record in Majors, has more career wins and has been a higher ranked player her entire career than Yoo.  And on that Sunday, she managed an amazing 19/19 greens in regulation, including one in the playoff.  But it all came down to one ridiculous, inexplicable missed putt, arguably the most painful missed opportunity not only for the Koreans, but perhaps in the history of women’s golf.

It’s a horrible way to make history, but Kim, as saddened as she was, was still happy that she had played so well, had scored her best ever finish in a Major, and seemed eager to get up off the matt and give it another go.  Here’s hoping this is the impetus for her to take her game to the next level, and that before long people will remember her not for the missed putt, but for the string of victories she achieved in its wake.

The most important putt didn't fall, but Inky is sure to be back!

Posted by: happyfan08 | March 23, 2012

The Runner-Up Jinx?

Korean golfers have been playing very well at the start of the 2012 season, but a trend has developed that is all the talk of the press back in their home country.  Namely, though the Seoul Sisters have repeatedly put themselves in contention at LPGA tournaments, they have not yet been able to grab so much as a single win.  This phenomenon is known as the ‘Runner-Up Jinx’ in Korea, and has pundits speculating what it will take for one of their golf stars to break through and get a win.

The roots of this problem started showing up at the end of last year.  Several times in the latter half of the 2011 season, Korean golfers were in a good position to win an event, only to falter or see someone else surge to the victory at the last moment.  At the Safeway Classic, for instance, Na Yeon Choi had the lead going into the final few holes, but made some mistakes and fell into a playoff with Suzann Pettersen.  Choi then hit an approach into the water on the first playoff hole to lose the tournament.  At that same event, Hee Young Park had a share of the lead going into the final hole, but bogied to miss the playoff by a shot.  At the Ha Na Bank in Korea a few weeks later, Soo Jin Yang and Na Yeon Choi both had great chances to win, but world’s #1 Ya Ni Tseng ended up taking the title by a stroke.  But those frustrating near misses were offset by two wins by Choi and Park, so in the end, it wasn’t so much a jinx as a string of missed opportunities followed by some successes.

Hee Young Park helped prevent a jinx last year with her win at the Titleholders

In 2012, too, there have been a few notable international achievements for the Koreans.  Perhaps the most startling happened in late January, when 14 year old Korean-New Zealand amateur Lydia Ko stunned the world by becoming the youngest player in history to win a professional event when she claimed the title at the ALPG’s New South Wales Open.  Also, the Korean players have played well on the Japanese tour.  Bo Mee Lee broke through a few weeks ago with her first win on that tour, beating fellow Korean and top player on that tour Sun Ju Ahn in a playoff.  Last week, the JLPGA’s T-Point Ladies Event was won by Korean Ji Hee Lee, after another Korean, Eun Bi Jang, had held the 36 hole lead.

Bo Mee Lee won her first JLPGA career event a few weeks ago

But on the LPGA and Ladies European Tours, the Koreans are still nil for 2012.  It was the same last year at this time, but what has changed is that in 2011, the Koreans were not for the most part even close to winning events.  This year, Koreans have had a chance to win every single event going into the final few holes, and in all but two cases, were even leading the event on the final hole and failed to claim the wins.  Results like this go beyond the breaks of the game into the realm of the bizarre.

In February, the Ladies European Tour had back to back events in Australia.  The second of these events, the Handa Australian Women’s Open, was also the opening event of the LPGA season, while the first one, the RACV Ladies Masters, was an LET-ALPG co-sponsored event.

The Masters by and large featured European tour regulars, but a few special guests were present, including 2011 KLPGA Player of the Year Ha Neul Kim and last year’s US Women’s Open winner So Yeon Ryu.  Ryu wasted little time making her presence felt.  She was among the leaders after round one, but in round two shot a blistering course record tying 61 to zoom to a four shot lead.  She struggled a bit more in round three, but still managed to hold on to a three shot cushion going into the final round.  The only player who looked likely to cause problems for Ryu was Cristel Boeljon, a top Euro player who also had finished runner up to Hee Kyung Seo in last year’s LPGA Rookie of the Year race.  In the final round, Ryu tried her best, but Boeljon kept hanging in there, eventually catching Ryu with a few holes to go.  Meanwhile, several other players, including Ha Neul Kim, charged from behind and finished at 20 under par.  When Boeljon and Ryu reached the final hole, they, too, were tied for the lead at 20 under.  It was a par five, and Ryu needed a birdie.  But she only made par.  Meanwhile, Boeljon made birdie and won the event outright.  It was the first time she had led the event by herself all week.  For two and half days, it looked like Ryu had the trophy in her hands, but in the end, she went home with a nice check but no top prize.  Jinx result: two Koreans tied for second, no win.

So Yeon Ryu delights in her *12* birdies in round 2!

Ryu talked to her coach over the next few days, and decided that her problem at the Masters was that she “was thinking about just winning the trophy” and maybe she had “lost concentration” as a result.  She felt much more relaxed entering into the next week’s tournament, the Handa Australian Women’s Open, which was also the opening event of the LPGA season.  And it paid dividends, for just like at the Masters, after two rounds, Ryu once again had the lead.  One shot behind her was her old rival Hee Kyung Seo, who shot a 66, the best score of the week, to zoom into second place.  The two of them struggled a bit in round three, but still stayed just a shot out of the lead going into the final round.  The leader was Jessica Korda, a second year player who had never even managed a top ten in her rookie season.

In that final round, the lead switched back and forth several times.  But when Korda began making big mistakes towards the end of the day, Seo and Ryu zoomed into the lead.  Going into the final hole, the two rivals were tied for first, with a one shot lead over four other players.  Surely at least one of those two Korean stars would post a par on the hole!  But then the jinx struck again.  Both players hit the green and had longish birdies putts to win outright.  And both missed, blowing the putts about three or four feet past the hole.  Then, incredibly, both players missed the par saves as well!  The idea that two superstars like Seo and Ryu could both three putt the final hole of a tournament was almost beyond imagining, yet it happened.  In the end, there was a record tying six way playoff which Korda won.  So not only did the two Koreans fail to win in regulation, they were also not able to get the job done in the playoff, either; and they wound up losing to the least experienced player in the entire playoff.  It’s hard to imagine there will be a more disappointing result for the Korean ladies this year.  Jinx Result: Two Koreans tied for second.

The 72nd green of the Australian Women's Open was tough for Ryu and Seo

Next came the Honda (not to be confused with Handa!) Thailand LPGA tournament.  This one came down to a slugfest between Ya Ni Tseng, Ai Miyazato and Jiyai Shin.  All three players had chances to win, but in the end Tseng outlasted the other two, with Miyazato finishing second and Shin third.  This was probably the least unlikely Korean loss of the five results we will examine, but even here, a few breaks might have produced a very different result.  For instance, on the final hole, Tseng hit a terrible drive into the trees, but got a lucky bounce back into the fairway.  That easily could have gone the other way, which might have meant a very different result.  But she still grabbed the win, and the Koreans were left in the cold again.  Jinx Result: Korean in solo third.

The next tournament, the HSBC Ladies Champions in Singapore, produced another heartbreaking finish.  The Korean who rose to the top that week was Jenny Shin, a teen in her second year on the LPGA tour.  Unlike Korda, Shin had had a pretty decent rookie season on tour, although she had never come very close to winning an event before.  She had already managed two top tens in the year’s first two events, but after the third round, she was tied for the lead with Americans Angela Stanford and Katie Futcher, thanks to a clutch 18th hole birdie.  In the fourth round, Shin played some truly amazing golf.  Every time it looked like she would crumble, she would come up with a clutch birdie or par save to keep the momentum going.  She had a great birdie on the final par five to maintain a one shot lead over Angela Stanford, and made another lengthy par save on 17 to hold onto a one shot lead with one hole to play.  Yep, that’s right: once again, a Korean had the lead going into the final hole.

Unbelievably, at that moment, the weather took a major turn for the worse, and they had to suspend play for 90 minutes.  Imagine being in the position to win for the first time; you are playing well, and need to just complete one more hole to get the trophy.  Then, suddenly, you have to stop for an hour and a half and think about what’s happening.  It’s hard to imagine a worse break than that!  When they finally returned to action, Shin immediately put her drive into the trees and had to take an unplayable lie.  Na Yeon Choi and Shanshan Feng had earlier finished at 10 under par, and Stanford was at 11 under in the same group as Shin, who was at 12 under.  All Shin needed was a bogey and she would probably do no worse than a playoff.  But she struggled to a double bogey, and had to watch while Stanford had a chance to win it all.  Amazingly, Stanford missed the short putt and made bogey herself, causing a four person playoff.  Feng made bogey on the first playoff hole, and then there were three left, two of whom were Korean.  But it was the one non-Korean, Stanford, who wound up winning.  Jinx result: Choi and (Jenny) Shin finished second.

Young Jenny Shin made double bogey on her final hole to fall into a four way tie for the lead

The most recent LPGA tournament was also the first one in America this season, the RR Donnelly Founders Cup in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Koreans had a fabulous week.  After three rounds, Na Yeon Choi was a shot behind the leaders, Miyazato and Tseng.  But So Yeon Ryu, In Kyung Kim, Inbee Park, Hee Kyung Seo, Hee Won Han, Jennifer Song and Se Ri Pak were all within six shots of the leader and had a theoretical chance of taking the crown.  In the final round, most of the golfers were not able to make a significant move, and some, like Inky and Inbee, struggled.  But Ryu played great and hung close to the leaders before a spate of pars knocked her out; she finished fourth.  Hee Young Park finished fifth, Seo sixth.  Choi, meanwhile, hung in with the other two leaders in a spectacular battle that seesawed all day.

The weather gods threw everything imaginable at them.  Hail, rain, fierce winds, you name it.  Yep, you read that correctly: hail in Arizona.  Choi took the lead, then hit an approach into the water and made double to fall behind Miyazato.  She clawed her way back. The weather stopped play three times.  Finally, with darkness descending, Tseng made birdie on the par 5 15th to take a two shot lead.  On the next hole, both Choi and Miyazato striped their irons to a few feet and made birdie, and the gap was one stroke.  But Choi, who was struggling against a back that was seizing up due to the cold, was not able to make birdie on the final two holes, and she wound up… tied for second with Miyazato behind Tseng.  Jinx result: for the second straight week, Choi finished second.

The weather outside was frightful, but the golf was still delightful! Na Yeon Choi in round 4.

How much longer will the jinx last?  Hopefully Korean golf fans will see it end in the next two weeks, either at the Kia Classic or the year’s first Major, the Kraft Nabisco Championship.  Choi, Ryu, Seo, Jiyai Shin and Jenny Shin have all come agonizingly close to collecting a trophy already.  With luck, one of them, or another of the Sisters, will be putting the jinx to rest soon, and for a long time to come!

Posted by: happyfan08 | January 13, 2012

2011 Seoul Sisters Awards (Part 2 of 2)

And now, the conclusion of this year’s Seoul Sisters Awards!

The ‘It’s About Time’ Award:

And the Winner Is: Hee Young Park wins her first tournament on the LPGA tour.

Even before she turned pro and joined the KLPGA back in 2005, Hee Young Park was a golfer who had a superstar trajectory.  She first burst onto the scene by winning the Hite Cup while still in high school; fellow superstars Jiyai Shin and Na Yeon Choi also won their first KLPGA event before joining the tour.  She continued on script by winning in her rookie year and securing the tour’s Rookie of the Year award, beating Na Yeon Choi for the honor (Choi is currently the highest ranked Korean golfer in the world).  In 2006, she finished second on the money list to Shin, and continued to be a top player on that tour over the next two seasons.  Even her fellow golfers on the KLPGA recognized her potential: they voted her as having the best swing among all Korean female golfers, even Se Ri Pak.

Hee Young Park and Na Yeon Choi in 2007

Park finished in third place at the 2007 LPGA Qualifying School, and joined the LPGA full time in 2008, the same year as Ya Ni Tseng and Choi.  It seemed like it would just be a short while before she would join the elite Koreans on tour as another force from that golfing powerhouse.

Well, she didn’t exactly play poorly, easily maintaining her tour card each year and contending from time to time.  But she didn’t win tournaments, either.  For whatever reason, the Sure Thing had some growing pains when she arrived on the big tour.  Meanwhile, her rival and friend Na Yeon Choi, who had not even gained full tour status at 2007 Q-School, played brilliantly right out of the gate.  She battled Tseng for the Rookie of the Year award right until the year’s final event, and won twice in her second season and twice again in 2010.

Park became known as Rocket for her ability to make bunches of birdies at a time and shoot up the leaderboard.  But like a rocket, when she fizzled she often crashed, producing terrible rounds.  And whenever she got in contention, she was never able to keep her nerve and close the deal.

Hee Young in 2009

She came agonizingly close to winning her first event at the 2011 Safeway Classic.  She needed a par on the final hole to get into a playoff with Choi and Suzann Pettersen.  But she made bogey and finished third.  That finish qualified her for the season ending CME Titleholders Championship, and it was there that Rocket finally got her first win, four years after joining the tour.

In the end, it was her ability to stay focused, once one of her liabilities,that won her the trophy.  She was chased all day by many of the big names in the game, including Choi, Tseng, Sandra Gal and Paula Creamer.  But she kept making big putts to maintain a slim lead over Gal.  On the final hole, she was left with a tricky up and down from off the green.  Missing that might have opened the door for Gal.  But Park hit a great chip and drained the short par save to put the win away.  For the super talented Rocket, this win might be the spark that lights the fuse for greatness at last!

Hee Young Park in December


Most Improved Player

And the Winner Is: Ha Neul Kim

Ha Neul Kim had a great career trajectory going her first two years as a professional.  She won the KLPGA’s Rookie of the Year award in 2007.  In 2008, she managed three victories en route to a third place finish on the money list.

Ha Neul was the 2007 KLPGA Rookie of the Year

But just when it looked like Kim was going to become a superstar, she began to have trouble with her swing.  2009 was not a terrible year, but she did not manage a victory.  2010, however, was a bit of a scare for those who admired the talented golfer.  That year, she did not even finish in the top 20 on the money list, and had few top finishes to give her hope.

But 2011 proved to be a major comeback season for her, and so she wins this award for Most Improved Player.  It started in the very first event of the season in China, when she came just a shot away from getting into a playoff with winner Hye Youn Kim.  A few months later, she claimed her first win in two years at the Hyundai Construction Seoul Economy Women’s Open.

That would have been a pretty satisfying comeback in and of itself, but Kim had much more in store for her fans.  Towards the end of the season, she went on a tear, winning her first Major at the Hite Cup, notching a second place finish behind Amy Yang at the year’s fourth Major, corralling a third win at the EDaily KYJ Golf Ladies Open, and losing a seven hole playoff for her fourth win at the ADT-CAPS, the year’s final event.  By the time she won the EDaily, she had secured her first ever Money List title.  She added Player of the Year with her second place finish at the ADT.  As a punctuation, she added a fourth (unofficial) title when she claimed the Queen of Queens trophy in a year ending special event that pitted her against several other top players on tour.  In her final five events played in Korea in 2011, she had three seconds and two wins. 

Ha Neul with her third KLPGA trophy of 2011

With her heroics, Kim established herself as the top player on tour without any question.  Quite an improvement from her struggles of 2010, and good reason to hope that her 2012 season will be even more amazing.


Rookie to watch in 2012: So Yeon Ryu

In 2011, I had the following to say about a Rookie to watch for 2011:

(Hee Kyung) Seo is the player I think is most likely to be the Rookie of the Year by the end of the season…  For me, the one variable is, how long will it take Seo to get used to living and traveling in the States?  If it doesn’t hit her too hard, I don’t doubt she will be making noise on tour by the end of the season.  And though there are many solid rookie prospects, all Seo’s pro experience will hold her in good stead in her battle for Rookie of the Year. 

A good call by me, I’d say.  Hee Kyung Seo did not have a fabulous year by her high standards, but she was consistent, and ended up winning the LPGA’s Rookie of the Year award pretty easily.

So, who are the Korean rookies to watch for the coming year?  One name leaps out at me, and I have to say I probably don’t deserve too much credit if I predict great things for her.  Her name is So Yeon Ryu, and she is a 21 year old college student who earned her status on the LPGA tour by winning a tournament.  That in itself would be pretty impressive (it’s how Jjiyai Shin and Hee Kyung Seo got on tour), but it gets better: that tournament happened to be the US Women’s Open, inarguably the most important event in all of women’s golf. 

So Yeon at the US Women's Open

With a pedigree like that, the expectations on Ryu will be high.  But she should be able to meet them if she can acclimate to the rigors of living and traveling on the LPGA tour.  In her previous few years on the KLPGA tour, she has managed seven career wins and finished in the top five on tour multiple times.  Unlike Seo and Shin, she never won a KLPGA Major or finished first on the money list.  But her consistency should make her tough to beat for the LPGA’s top award nonetheless.

So Yeon Ryu

Another factor in her favor is that the field of her fellow rookies is not as deep as it generally is.  The most well known of Ryu’s rivals is Alexis Thompson, who has also already won an LPGA tournament.  Thompson does have a ton of talent, and is very long off the tee, which always helps.  But she will only be 17 years old when she joins the tour, and amateurs or pros with limited professional experience, even great ones, tend to take a little longer to get up to speed on tour than pros from other tours do.  Another notable rookie is two-time US Women’s Amateur champ Danielle Kang – who struggled to get her card at Q-School, but who certainly has the talent to be a star at some point – and several other strong amateurs such as Stephanie Kono and Cydney Clanton also merit mention. 

Several interesting names, to be sure, but if Ryu plays up to the level she has already demonstrated, or even comes remotely close, she should still be the rookie to beat on the LPGA in 2012.


Rookie of the Year

And the Winner Is: Hee Kyung Seo

To my mind, there were two Korean golfers this year who could legitimately be considered the best rookies on their respective tours, and both of those golfers won Rookie of the Year awards.  They were Hee Kyung Seo, the 2011 LPGA Rookie of the Year, and Yeon Ju Jung, the KLPGA’s top rookie star.  The competition for the Seoulie between these two was definitely fierce.  Both had solid years, with the edge going to Jung.  But Seo succeeded on the tougher tour, against harder competition, so I give her the edge for the honor.

Hee Kyung Seo with her 2011 LPGA Rookie of the Year trophy

Seo had a decent if mostly unspectacular rookie year on tour.  After winning the 2010 Kia Classic to gain tour membership, in 2011 she duked it out with a group of strong former amateur stars for top rookie.  She wound up beating them by a sizable margin for that award, despite not winning in 2011.

She came close to a win, though, and never closer than at the US Women’s Open, where she held the lead as play stopped on Sunday.  Were it not for a phenomenal birdie on the final hole by her old Korean rival So Yeon Ryu, or perhaps an ill timed bogey at the 17th hole by Seo as light faded on Sunday, Seo would have had the trophy.  That was really her best shot at a win, but she did notch two other top tens: a fourth place at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational that clinched the Rookie of the Year award for her, and a tie for 6th at the Avnet Classic. 

Seo at the US Women's Open

Seo’s secret weapon was her consistency.  Though she had few other great finishes, she had an awful lot of solid ones.  In fact, she had 8 other top 25 finishes, each one moving her a little closer to her goal.  She did miss three cuts, including at the Kia Classic in defense of her title.  Her money total of $619,429, more than half of which came at the Open, earned her 21st place on the money list.

Jung, meanwhile, had her own Major moment in 2011.  It came when she won the Korean Women’s Open, arguably the most important event on that tour.  It was her only win last season, but Jung had a bunch of other great finishes throughout the year.  She racked up 7 top tens, 4 of which were top fives, and did not miss a single cut all year.  Quite an achievement for a gal not yet out of her teens.  She wound up 5th on the year ending money list.

Jung accepts her 2011 KLPGA Rookie of the Year award

In a lot of ways, Jung had a better season than Seo.  She finished higher on the money list, had more top tens and top fives, and won the biggest event on her tour, where Seo only finished as the runner up in her tour’s biggest event.  Both ladies dominated their respective Rookie of the Year races.  But I’m still picking Seo narrowly over Jung as our Rookie of the Year.  There’s no doubt that Seo had the tougher competition, but she also had the bigger learning curve.  She had to travel all over the world to play in events, while Jung played almost exclusively in Korea.  True, Jung is a young kid in her first season on a major tour, so she had her own learning curve, but you can’t underestimate how tough it can be to live in a new country where you don’t speak the language fluently, and where you have to get used to far longer traveling distances, different culture, customs, and food.  I might still have given Jung the nod if she had been a little stronger on the KLPGA or Seo had been a little weaker.  But given the facts as they were, Hee Kyung Seo is our 2011 Rookie of the Year.

Other Nominees: Yeon Ju Jung


Player of the Year

And the Winner Is: Sun Ju Ahn

If the Rookie of the Year was a tough choice, this one was really tricky.  There were no obvious candidates for this award like in years past.  Na Yeon Choi, Danielle Kang, Ha Neul Kim, So Yeon Ryu – you could make a case for any of those ladies as the Player of the Year.  Almost every one of them did something historic in 2011.  But my choice is Sun Ju Ahn, who also made history in 2011 by becoming the first foreign born player to ever lead the Japanese tour money list for two years.

It’s a bit challenging for me to talk about Ahn, because I don’t really follow the JLPGA all that closely.  But the numbers speak for themselves.  Though she gets almost no coverage in the States, she is as of this writing the second highest ranked Korean golfer in the world rankings, behind only Na Yeon Choi and ahead of former world #1 Jiyai Shin (for the record, Ahn is currently ranked #6).  She is also the only golfer in the top ten not playing full time on the LPGA tour.  She reached these lofty heights by being a superstar in Japan from virtually the moment she landed there as a rookie in 2010.  Last season, she became the first Korean and only the second non-Japanese player to ever lead their money list, winning four times in the process.  This year, she won four more times, including her first Major, the Salonpas Cup, to again lead the money list and break the 100 million yen barrier.  (Even more amazingly, Ji Hee Lee was second on the money list, the first ever foreign 1-2 finish on that tour).  Her four wins make her the Korean golfer with the most wins on any tour in 2011.

Sun Ju Ahn

Ahn joined the KLPGA tour in 2006.  She had a great rookie season, winning once and finishing in the top ten 8 other times, including two second place finishes.  But she was thoroughly outclassed in the rookie race that year by Jiyai Shin, who had three wins.  Shin would continue to overshadow her friend over the next few seasons, winning the Player of the Year award from 2006 – 2008.  But Ahn quietly amassed an impressive record of her own.  If there is a Korean superstar in all the world with a lower profile than Ahn, I’m not sure who it would be.  But a superstar she certainly has been and continues to be.

For instance, in 2007, she notched top tens in both Australian events she played, then won the Korean Women’s Open, beating Cristie Kerr among others in the field.  That win put Ahn (temporarily) in first place on the KLPGA money list.  It wouldn’t last: Shin reasserted her dominance with three straight wins and nine total, but Ahn still managed two more wins in 2007 and 12 total top tens.  She finished third on the money list. 

Ahn in the winner's circle in 2007

By that point, Ahn was considered one of the Big Three on the KLPGA tour, along with Shin and Eun Hee Ji.  Ji left the KLPGA in 2008 to join the LPGA, and within a couple of years had won two events, including the 2009 US Women’s Open.  Shin, meanwhile, not only won the KLPGA money list title for a third straight year in 2008, she also won three LPGA events to boot, including the British Women’s Open.  By comparison, Ahn’s season was a bit slow to get off the ground.  She did eventually win an event late in the year, and contended a few other times.  But the birth of a new superstar, Hee Kyung Seo, impacted Ahn at the St. Four, an event jointly co-sanctioned by the KLPGA and the European Tour.  Seo made birdies on her final four holes to catch Ahn and beat her after Ahn had led most of the week.

With the new generation of KLPGA stars rising, Ahn decided it was time to join Ji and Shin on the LPGA.  She went to 2008 LPGA Qualifying School, winning her sectional.  But at the Finals, she suffered an injury and had to bow out.  Deflated, she returned to the KLPGA in 2009.  That season, most of the focus was on Seo and another new superstar, So Yeon Ryu.  Those two finished 1-2 on the money list, but Ahn hardly had a poor year: she won twice, amassed 14 top tens, and finished third on the money list.  But all the press coverage went to the big Seo-Ryu rivalry and tended to ignore the jovial big woman.

Ahn found herself in the shadow of Hee Kyung Seo in 2009, when Seo won 5 times

Ahn then made an interesting decision.  Instead of trying to qualify again for the LPGA, like she had in 2008, she chose to join the Japanese tour instead.  She made it through Q-School with little problem, and sent a message that a new force had arrived by winning her very first tournament by five strokes.  Included in that field were two other golfers who now had membership on that tour: Jiyai Shin and Inbee Park, the winner of the 2008 US Women’s Open. 

Ahn went on to win the money list on the 2010 Japanese tour by an impressive margin.  Ahn dyed her hair red and began referring to herself by the unusual nickname of ‘Ahn of Green Gables’ (being a fan of that story), although I suspect ‘Raggedy Ahn’ might have been more appropriate. 

Sun Ju Ahn is known for her red hair -- though this is obviously a wig!!!

In any event, she definitely came into the 2011 season with a target on her back, but she went on to do in 2011 what she had done in 2010.  She won four times, including a Major, broke the 100 million yen barrier for the second straight year, and beat the second place Lee by ~25 million yen.  In addition, her win at the Sankyo Ladies Open In October was the 100th win by a Korean on that tour, a victory that mirrored the 100th Korean win on the LPGA achieved by Na Yeon Choi at about the same time (interestingly, the first win on both tours by a Korean was achieved by the same golfer, Ok Hee Ku).  She made more history as the only foreign born player to ever repeat as money list leader.

Sun Ju Ahn is the 2011 JLPGA Player of the Year

Keep an eye cocked towards Japan in 2012, to see if Sun Ju Ahn can continue her dominating ways in the Land of the Rising Sun!

Other nominees (and why I didn’t choose them):

Ha Neul Kim

Ha Neul Kim

Ha Neul Kim had a fantastic year on the KLPGA, winning the Player of the Year and money list titles, claiming her first Major, and generally establishing herself as top cat over there.  Her achievement was all the more impressive considering she was competing with So Yeon Ryu, who had become a Major winner in 2011 by capturing the US Women’s Open.  Ryu had a great season in Korea, and even led many of the categories listed above for a time, but in the end she just couldn’t stop Kim.

I was tempted to give Kim the award, since I consider the Japanese and Korean tours to be similar in terms of competitiveness.  Kim had one fewer win than Ahn, but she did win an unofficial All-Star event at the end of the season, barely lost the ADT-CAPS in an interminable playoff, and finished second to Amy Yang at the year’s final Major (Yang being a bit of a ringer, in that she does not usually play on the KLPGA tour).  But Kim gets to play most of her tournaments in her home country, while Ahn has to deal with living in a foreign country while she does her thing.  And her historic achievement as the first two time foreign money list leader is another important consideration.  So Ha Neul gets credit, but Ahn gets the award.

Na Yeon Choi

Na Yeon in Taiwan in December

Na Yeon Choi is the highest ranked Korean in the world (#3 as of this writing).  She had a few struggles early in the year, including just her second missed cut at the US Women’s Open.  But she righted the ship after that and had some great tournaments.  She beat world #1 Ya Ni Tseng head to head in Malaysia, barely lost to her in Korea, and had a great chance to claim a win in Portland as well before her game fizzled in the final few holes and the playoff.  She had 12 top tens in all and finished third on the LPGA money list.

That may not be as impressive as her 2010 performance, when she led the money list and won the Vare Trophy, but it was certainly a great job nonetheless.  As if that were not enough, she also achieved the 100th win on the LPGA by a Korean or Korean American when she won in Malaysia.   This historic moment was a BIG DEAL in Korea.

Na Yeon at a celebration of 100 Korean wins on the LPGA tour in December

So why is she not the Player of the Year?

The main factor, as I see it, was number of wins.  Choi had only one win on the LPGA tour and a second win on the Korean tour.  It’s arguable how to compare those two wins against the four Japanese tour wins (one Major) Ahn had.  My feeling is that Ahn’s record was a little more impressive.  So, I give it to Ahn in a close contest.  But no question, it was another Player of the Year caliber season for Na Yeon Choi.

So Yeon Ryu

So Yeon Ryu

So Yeon Ryu was not as consistent as Na Yeon Choi or even Ha Neul Kim in 2011, but she did have the single biggest win of any Korean all year when she took the US Women’s Open crown.  This not only made her the first Korean in two years to win a Major, and the third youngest to win that particular event, it also made her the first Korean to ever earn her tour card by winning the most prestigious title in women’s golf.  She was also the winner of the first ever playoff between two Koreans for a Major title.    Her performance the entire week, and particularly in the playoff, was the best any Korean produced in 2011.

Ryu also won an event on the KLPGA, but found herself finishing well behind Ha Neul Kim in the season ending award race in Korea.  It’s arguable whether Ryu would even be considered to have had a better season than Kim, let alone Ahn.  Sure, the Open title goes a long way towards forgiving any other shortcomings she had in her battle with Kim for supremacy.  But in my opinion, she needed just a bit more consistency, or one or two more wins, to have deserved the title over Sun Ju Ahn.

Danielle Kang

Danielle Kang at the British Women's Open

Danielle Kang’s golden moment came in winning the US Women’s Amateur for the second straight year.  She is the only woman of Korean ethnicity to ever manage that feat.  Grace Park never did it; nor did Jennifer Song.  And her performance all week, and particularly in the final round, where she utterly destroyed her worthy opponent, Moriya Jutanugarn, was one for the ages.  Nor was it her only moment of brilliance in 2011; she was also the low amateur at 2011’s Ricoh British Women’s Open. 

But Kang struggled a good deal more towards the end of the year, barely earning a tour card for the 2012 LPGA tour.  And as impressive as her Amateur win was, winning that tournament was not as impressive as Ryu winning the Open.  If Ryu doesn’t rate the Player of the Year, it seems like Kang shouldn’t either.

Posted by: happyfan08 | January 6, 2012

2011 Seoul Sisters Awards (part 1 of 2)

It’s that time of year again.  No, I’m not talking about Christmas, Kwanza or New Year’s.  It’s the time each year when I award the annual Seoul Sisters awards, aka the Seoulies.  For a bunch of years running, I have named nominees and winners in a host of categories.  But this year I’m going to do something a little different.  Instead of spreading the awards out over several posts, I’m going to condense them into two posts.  The first one will talk about some of the notable achievements and moments for Korean female golfers in 2011.  The second post will focus on the big awards: Rookie of the Year, Most Improved, and Player of the Year.

So without further ado, let’s get to the awards!

Biggest Disappearing Act

The Winner Is: The Koreans on the LPGA tour

It’s hard to explain why the Korean golfers had such a crummy year on the LPGA tour in 2011, but that’s exactly what happened.  In 2010, the Koreans managed 10 wins on tour, and in 2009 they had 12 (if you include the Korean Americans), their best totals in LPGA history.  2010 saw a nice mix of veterans recapturing their form (Jimin Kang, Se Ri Pak) and the younger generation coming into their own.  For the first time in history, Koreans occupied the first and second spot on the LPGA tour money list (Na Yeon Choi and Jiyai Shin, each of whom won twice in 2010).  The Koreans also captured the Vare Trophy (Choi again), and a Korean finished the year for the first time as the #1 golfer in the world (Shin).  Even the stars who had yet to capture wins, like Amy Yang and Song Hee Kim, seemed poised to do that in 2011.  Everything pointed to a phenomenal season in the making.

Na Yeon Choi was #1 on the 2010 LPGA money list

But in fact, the exact opposite wound up happening.  Koreans only managed three wins in 2011, their lowest total since 2000 and second lowest in the Se Ri Pak era.  The last time the Koreans had a similarly weak season was 2007, when they managed only four wins.  However, that was in many ways a transitional season, where the veterans were struggling and the young guns were new to the league and had not yet acclimated to the tour (Shin and Choi were not yet members; In Kyung Kim, Inbee Park, Eun Hee Ji and Ji Young Oh, all of whom have won on tour since, were all rookies).

There were a few factors that affected the Sisters in 2011.  Ya Ni Tseng, who had never won more than a few times in a season, suddenly was winning practically everything in sight.  She had by far her best season, taking a quantum leap up in her results.  Jiyai Shin, the Korean’s top player, struggled with injuries, as did many of the veterans, including Se Ri Pak and Grace Park.  But there were other golfers who should have been ready to take the next step who simply didn’t, and they didn’t have the excuse that they were newcomers to the league like in 2007.  As Tony Jesselli noted in a recent post on his blog, three of the four biggest losers in the world rankings this season were Korean, and they were also three of the biggest stars the Koreans have.  Among the 10 players with the biggest ranking drops, five were Korean or Korean American.  That is not a positive trend.

The biggest loser of them all was Jiyai Shin, the Korean who started the year as the #1 golfer in the world, but finished the year ranked 7th.  She did not win an event on any tour in 2011, the first time in her professional career that this had happened.  If you eliminate the final event of last year from the calculation, Shin managed an under-70 scoring average for 2010.  Her average in 2011 was nearly a FULL STROKE worse than that.  No wonder her results were so much poorer.

Shin and Choi share laughs in 2010

Song Hee Kim had the second largest drop, falling from 9th to 30th.  Kim has never won an LPGA tournament, but her record the past three years was very impressive, with umpteen top tens and runner up finishes to her name.  She still had a couple of great tournaments in 2011, but her consistency was missing.  The 4th biggest drop belonged to Inbee Park, who had been strong on both the LPGA and JLPGA in 2010, but struggled a bit more in 2011 (though she did win in Japan).

Even the Koreans who had relatively good years, however, had their struggles.  In Kyung Kim was the strongest Korean the first half of the year, but had a major slump in the second part of the season.  Na Yeon Choi was very erratic from the start of the year through the middle of the summer, where she missed her second career LPGA cut at the US Women’s Open.  She improved markedly after that, and played brilliantly much of the rest of the year, finishing third on the money list.  But even so, she had only one win all year (plus another win on the Korean tour).

In Kyung Kim in March of 2011

In the first half of the season, not only were Koreans not winning, they weren’t even contending all that often.  It was once upon a time common to see Koreans all over leaderboards, but in the first half of 2011 there were several events where only one or two Koreans finished in the top ten, and none were in the mix trying to win the title come Sunday.  It took until March and the Kia Classic before the Koreans had their first real chance to win. Jiyai Shin cruised into the lead in the second round and stayed at or near the lead the rest of the week.  But German Sandra Gal, who had never won an event, refused to lose, hanging in close for three rounds.  In the final round, Shin made many uncharacteristic mistakes, but still held onto the lead.  It all came down to the final hole, when the Final Round Queen hit a fabulous approach shot, then botched a short birdie putt to hand the trophy to Gal.  The entire performance had been most un-Shinlike.

Jiyai Shin misses the crucial putt at the Kia Classic

There were a bunch of other disappointments along the way.  When Tseng wasn’t blowing away the field, the Koreans still would come up short.  Na Yeon Choi blew a lead at the Safeway Classic, then dunked her approach shot in the water in the playoff.  Hee Young Park needed a par on the final hole to get into that playoff, but made bogey.  Song Hee Kim being edged out by Maria Hjorth at the Avnet Classic.  Only one Korean in the final four at the match play (last year, three of the final four were Korean).  Ran Hong and Shin Ae Ahn were not able to get the win at the Evian.  Despite a fantastic day two by three great Korean golfers, the British Women’s Open turned into another Tseng blowout.  The Koreans didn’t even win the tour event in Korea, though most of the top five were Korean.  Amy Yang lost by a shot in Arkansas. Catriona Matthew suddenly found her form in Mexico and denied In Kyung Kim a great chance to repeat her title.   Etc., etc.

KLPGA star Soo Jin Yang had a good week at the Hana Bank, but still came up short

How bad was this year?  The Koreans did not have their first win on tour until early July at the US Women’s Open.  In almost every other season in the Se Ri Pak era, the Koreans won for the first time much earlier than that. And that win was by a non-tour member; an actual Korean member of the LPGA did not win an event until OCTOBER. 

Hopefully this was just a weird aberration.  You may recall that in 2007-2008, there was a streak of nearly a year without a Korean win on tour.  But the latter half of 2008 was one of the most successful seasons in history for the Sisters, totaling nine wins.  So perhaps they are loading up for a fantastic burst in 2012.  Here’s hoping!

Other nominees: Jee Young Lee

What has happened to Jee Young Lee?  Once upon a time she was among the top Koreans on tour.  These days she’s struggling to maintain a tour card.  It’s a mystery.

Best Korean confrontation:

And the Winner is: So Yeon Ryu vs. Hee Kyung Seo, US Women’s Open

It has all the makings of a Hollywood movie.  Two longtime rivals from the local Korean golf tour playing in the US Women’s Open, the biggest women’s golf tournament in the world, where they wind up in a playoff for the trophy.  It may have been the most improbable result of the year, but sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. 

So Yeon Ryu and Hee Kyung Seo during the US Women's Open playoff

Hee Kyung Seo won the Kia Classic in 2010 to gain full membership on the LPGA tour.  She had been having a lackluster 2011, but still managed to win her sectional qualifier to gain entry into the field at the US Women’s Open.  Meanwhile, her longtime KLPGA rival So Yeon Ryu earned her way in by virtue of her finish on the 2010 KLPGA money list.  The event was plagued by terrible weather, and it turned into a test of survival.  On Sunday, Seo played 2 full rounds, 13 hours of golf.  She started the day in 21st place, but after two brilliant rounds of 68, she carded a 3 under total just before darkness fell and play ceased.  She would have to watch on Monday morning to see if anyone could catch her.  Only three golfers still had a mathematical chance to do so.  Her biggest threat was none other than her old friend Ryu.  The 21 year old was only one shot back with three holes to go.

Ryu did not get out to a good start: her tee shot on the 16th hole found the greenside bunker.  But she got up and down from a tricky lie to keep her hopes alive.  She had a great chance for birdie on the par 5 17th, but her putt burned the edge.  But on the 18th hole, she hit a phenomenal approach to five feet, then drained the tricky putt to catch Seo.  Making a birdie on the 72nd hole of the biggest event of the year to tie the leader is the stuff dreams are made of, and Ryu did it with the confidence of a veteran.

So Yeon Ryu made some clutch putts during Monday play at the Open

The playoff was a three hole aggregate affair.  Both players made par on the 16th hole.  On the 17th hole, however, Seo hit a poor drive into a fairway bunker and could only advance her next shot 100 yards.  There would be a two stroke swing when Ryu birdied and Seo bogied.  Ryu put the exclamation point on the win with an even more brilliant iron on 18 than the one she had hit an hour earlier.  In the six holes she played on Monday, Ryu had three birdies and three pars.  On a tough Major level course with everything on the line, that is astounding.

So Yeon Ryu, the third youngest to ever win the US Women's Open

But though Seo ended up losing, she could still hold her head high.  She had played fantastically on Sunday to even give herself the chance for the win, and it took a truly special effort from Ryu to beat her.  And they both contributed to a bit of history: the first ever playoff between two Koreans for a Major title.

Other Nominees:  Ha Neul Kim vs. Young Ran Jo, ADT-CAPS Championship

This playoff at the KLPGA’s final event of the season seemed like it would go to Ha Neul Kim, who had two wins and a second in her previous three events.  But Jo would not go away, and won the battle of attrition after seven holes.

Ha Neul Kim after losing the 7 hole playoff at the ADT CAPS

Lydia Ko vs. Cecilia Cho, many times

These two Korean teenage amateurs, both living and playing in New Zealand, have been writing and rewriting the record books for the past few seasons.  They are good friends, but also fierce rivals, and by the end of the year, they were the ranked #1 (Ko) and #2 (Cho) in the world in women’s amateur golf.  Whether they really are the two best amateurs in the world or not is debatable, but the battle these two waged for titles in 2011 provided some of the best drama of the year.

Cho, 16, started the year as the higher ranked player, but Ko got the best of her most of the times they met this season.  And boy, did they run into each other a lot!  In March, they battled for the Australian Stroke Play championship.  Of course, it wound up as a playoff, with Ko beating Cho on the second playoff hole to become the youngest ever winner of that title.  The two were 7 shots ahead of the third place golfer.

Cecilia Cho poses in 2010

In April, they were the top two players on the leaderboard at the North Island Stroke Play, but Ko wound up edging out Cho by a shot to grab the title (Cho was 9 shots ahead of the third place golfer). 

Then came the New Zealand Stroke Play Championship.  Ko and Cho soon distanced themselves from the field.  Ko took a five shot lead, lost it, then cruised to a nine shot victory over her rival in the final round.  She became the first golfer to ever hold both the Australian and New Zealand Stroke Play titles in the same year.  The next day, she turned 14.

Lydia Ko with another of her many 2011 trophies

Next came the New Zealand Match Play Championship, which was seeded based on the results of the Stroke play championship.  Cho was the two time defending champion (she had beaten Ko in the finals in 2009, when Ko was 12 years old (!!) ).  To no one’s surprise, both players made it to the finals for yet another epic clash.  And once again, it was Ko who came out on top, decisively defeating her rival 4 & 3.

We eagerly look forward to the next chapter in this amazing rivalry!

Round of the Year: HJ Choi, MetLife KLPGA Championship, final round

The year’s second Major on the KLPGA tour, the MetLife KLPGA Championship, was contested under difficult conditions, and low scores were few and far between.  After three rounds, no one was able to score better than 69, and very high score were far more common.

Then came the final round, and one golfer was so on fire that she shot not only the best round of her career, but one of the very best rounds in KLPGA history.  Hye Jung ‘HJ’ Choi had been playing on the LPGA tour the past few seasons, but decided to focus on the KLPGA tour this year.  In her first three rounds, she played decently, and was five shots back entering the final day.  But right from the get go, she was unstoppable on Sunday.  She had five birdies on the front nine and five more on the back to shoot an unbelievable 10 under 62.  To put this in perspective, no other golfer was able to beat 67 all week.  She herself had not been able to beat 70.

HJ Choi with her KLPGA Championship trophy

Two of the golfers who started the day ahead of her, Soo Jin Yang and So Yeon Ryu, were a bit shellshocked by Choi’s run up the leaderboard.  But both stars had great days themselves on Sunday.  Yang shot the second best round of the week, a 67, and still missed a playoff with Choi by a shot.  Ryu, the recent US Women’s Open champion, was looking for the first KLPGA Major win of her career.  Despite a final round 69, she ended up three shots short of Choi in third place.  She in fact would not be able to win a KLPGA Major in 2011.

Ryu didn't win a KLPGA Major in 2011, but came close at the KLPGA Championship

Other Nominees:

Ha Neul Kim, Round 1, EDaily KYJ Golf Ladies Open

Kim opened this tournament with a blistering 64.  She wound up winning the title, which secured the Money List title for her for the first time in her career.

Ha Neul had a great opening round at the EDaily, which she wound up winning

Se Ri Pak, round 2, Ricoh British Women’s Open

Pak shot a 64 in round 2 of the British Women’s Open to vault into a share of the lead.  Alas, it didn’t last, and Ya Ni Tseng ended up running away with the title.

Hee Kyung Seo’s Sunday at the US Women’s Open

Hee Kyung Seo started Sunday with two rounds of golf to play.  13 hours later, she had shot two 68s to move to 3 under and the outright lead.  Given the conditions, the start-and-stop nature of the play, and the enormity of the situation, it was a superlative day of golf turned in by the Supermodel of the Fairways.  In the end, she still lost to rival So Yeon Ryu, who shot 69 in each of her final three rounds.

Shot of the Year

And the Winner Is: So Yeon Ryu, approach shot, 72nd hole, US Women’s Open

No shot had more impact for the Koreans in 2011 than the second shot So Yeon Ryu made on her final hole in regulation at the 2011 US Women’s Open.  Simply put, it was all or nothing.  She needed to make birdie to force a playoff, or else Hee Kyung Seo would be the champion.  And she delivered, hitting an immaculate iron shot to six feet.  She drained the tricky putt minutes later, and after a three hole playoff, hoisted the champion’s trophy.  Interestingly, her approach on the final playoff hole, which also took place on hole 18, was even more impressive, but the stakes were not as high, as she had already clinched the title by then.  In fact, she birdied the 18th hole the final three times she played it.

Ryu at the Open on Monday

Other Nominees:

Na Yeon Choi,  tee shot, 17th hole, Sime Darby Malaysia

The Koreans had been trying to reach an important milestone ever since Ryu won the Open in July: their 100th win on the LPGA tour.  Time and again, however, they came up short.  Perhaps the biggest disappointment came the week before the LPGA’s Malaysia tour stop.  Na Yeon Choi had a chance to get the 100th win in front of the home crowd in Korea; what a story that would have been.  Alas, World #1 Ya Ni Tseng managed to steal her thunder with a one shot win. 

Choi was leading the Malaysia tour stop coming into the final round, but Tseng once again was charging, and on the back nine, the two traded blows in an effort to capture the crown.  After Tseng had caught Choi once again, Choi came to the 17th hole, a par 3 over water.  She hit a nearly perfect iron to about three feet, made the birdie, and went on to capture the win by a stroke.

Most Fashionable

And the Winner Is: Ha Neul Kim

Ha Neul Kim is not only a big talent on the KLPGA tour, she is also very popular, winning the fan-selected Most Popular Award on the tour this year.  She is also known as quite a fashionable player.  Here are a few of the looks she sported on the fairway this season.

Ha Neul rocking the black knee socks at the EDaily, round 2:

Ha Neul at the EDaily

In round 3, Ha Neul went with white knee socks instead:

Ha Neul Kim

Ha Neul loves wearing light blue on Sunday — Ha Neul means ‘sky’ in Korean, and also the color of the sky:

Ha Neul Kim

Here Ha Neul goes a different direction with black:

Ha Neul Kim

Ha Neul in a photo taken for an interview:

Ha Neul Kim

Ha Neul dresses up at the KLPGA Awards Show:

Ha Neul Kim

Other Nominees: Shin Ae Ahn

Shin Ae Ahn won the fan voted Most Fashionable Award at the 2011 KLPGA Awards show.  It’s pretty easy to see why.  By the way, both she and Ha Neul Kim have a clothing sponsorship by the same company, Le Coq Sportif.

Shin Ae Ahn during round 2 of the EDaily

Shin Ae’s outfit in round 3 of the EDaily:

Shin Ae Ahn

Shin Ae had a great week in France at the Evian Masters:

Shin Ae Ahn

Shin Ae at the 2011 Korean Women’s Open:

Shin Ae Ahn

 Up next: Rookie of the Year, Most Improved and Player of the Year.  Stay tuned!!

Posted by: happyfan08 | December 8, 2011

2011 KLPGA Awards Show

On Tuesday, December 6th, the KLPGA held its annual Award Show at the Lotte Hotel’s Crystal Ballroom in Seoul.  For at least the past several years, the tour has made this event into a real gala, and a great opportunity for the golfers to dress to the nines and celebrate the season just passed.  Traditionally, it has been held the week after the Japan-Korea team event, the Pinx Cup (sometimes also known as the Kyoraku Cup).  But this event has not been held the past two seasons: in 2010, it was canceled due to the concurrent staging of the LPGA’s tour championship the same weekend.  This year, it was on the schedule for most of the year, but for some reason did not end up happening.

Ha Neul Kim at the Awards Show

But though the team event has gone missing, the Awards show went on as normal.  The LPGA and other tours could take a page from the Koreans here.  The event is televised and has become quite popular.  It’s a chance for the fans to see their heroines in a very different light than the golf course provides.  The players not only receive awards they have earned during the year; they also get two awards chosen by the fans.  KLPGA Golfers even co-host the event and participate in the entertainment!  This results in a fun time for players, sponsors, and fans, and a fantastic marketing platform for the tour as well.

Jung Eun Lee and HJ Choi have fun with their awards

The tradition the past few years has been to have one of the more attractive lady golfers act as co-host for the festivities.  In the past we’ve seen Young Kim, Kyeong Bae, Jin Joo Hong and Hee Kyung Seo take this role.  This year, the honor fell to Ran Hong.  Hong is a top ten KLPGA player who may be best known to non-Korean fans for her heroics at this year’s Evian Masters, where she played herself into the final group on Sunday and ended up tied for 6th

Ran Hong: The Hostess in Red

Ran, who is known for her stylishness, was right at home as hostess.

Ran Hong also wore a black dress during the show

The big star of the night was Ha Neul Kim.  2011 has been a comeback year for her.  She was Rookie of the Year in 2007, and won three times in 2008 to establish herself as a top star.  She did not win in 2009 or 2010, but started a massive comeback with a win early this year.  However, it was really starting at the Hite Cup, the year’s third Major, where she emerged as this season’s top player.  At that point she was well behind So Yeon Ryu, the 2011 US Women’s Open champ, in most of the big season races.  But from that point on, she seized the initiative, winning that Major, finishing second in the final one, winning a third time, and barely losing the season ending ADT-CAPS in a seven hole playoff. 

Ha Neul receiving the plaudits of her peers (plus a bunch of flowers!)

Ha Neul took home four awards at this year’s show: Money List winner, Player of the Year, Most Wins and Most Popular (one of the two awards chosen by fans).

Ha Neul contemplates her collection of trophies

Ha Neul intends to remain on the KLPGA tour in 2012.  She has admitted to the press that she hates the idea of going to LPGA Qualifying School.  She intends to use her KLPGA standing to qualify for six LPGA events next year, including the US Women’s Open, Kraft Nabisco Championship and the Evian Masters.  She hopes to get a win at one of these events to earn her tour card, much as her rivals Ryu, Hee Kyung Seo and Jiyai Shin did before her.  But if she cannot manage that, she might hold her nose and try for Q-School a year from now.

It was a very happy night for Ha Neul Kim

Ha Neul has quickly become very popular in Korea, and has been appearing with increasing regularity in the popular press.  She recently posed for a series of photos with top pool player Yoo Ram Cha.

Ha Neul Kim poses with pool star Yu Ram Cha

She has an interesting dilemma in Korea: her name is the same as a well known TV and film actress, which makes finding information about Kim the golfer more challenging.  But the ways things are going, her popularity is actually starting to reach the level of the actress.  With her style, looks, great talent and personality, the KLPGA is probably counting its blessings that Ha Neul Kim will be around for at least one more season.

One of the many recent interviews with Ha Neul featured this candid shot

Super Woman brought her own cape to the awards show.  It caused her a bit of trouble walking, though!

Ha Neul Kim and her cape

The last few years, KLPGA golfers have not just sat in the audience watching the awards get doled out.  They have been part of the show as well, doing dance numbers or singing.  And it’s not just the lesser known players participating: some of the biggest stars on tour have put their time in on stage.  In 2008, for instance, five top stars performed a dance number to the popular hit ‘Nobody’.  Among those who danced were 2011 LPGA Rookie of the Year Hee Kyung Seo, this year’s US Women’s Open winner Ryu, this year’s Award Show co-host Ran Hong and this year’s Player of the Year Kim. 

It's true! Five big KLPGA stars danced at the 2008 KLPGA Awards Show

This year, six winners on tour in 2011 danced to two numbers by popular Korean pop acts.  The songs they performed to  were T-Ara’s ‘Roly Poly’ and Sistar’s ‘So Cool’.  The golfers were: Hye Youn Kim, Hyun Hwa Shim, Sul Ah Yoon, Mi Rim Lee, Hyun Min Pyun and Rookie of the Year Yeon Ju Jung.

KLPGAers shake their groove thing (or whatever the kids call it these days!)

Another angle

Another look

Hyun Hwa Shim, second on this year’s money list

Another closer look

Hye Youn Kim became a minor internet sensation following this number, with several photos of her dancing and at the awards show featuring prominently in most-searched lists following the show.

Hye Youn Kim dances

Want to see them in action?  The dance number is on Youtube!

Another of this year’s dancers, 19 year old Yeon Ju Jung, was this year’s Rookie of the Year.  Her biggest accomplishment in 2011 was winning the year’s first Major, the Korean Women’s Open.  That was a fantastic achievement for the teenager, but she was far from a one hit wonder.  She wound up finishing fifth on the year’s money list, notching seven top tens in total. 

Yeon Ju Jung, 2011 KLPGA Rookie of the Year

She also cut a mean rug!

Yeon Ju Jung also danced!

Here the two big winners of the night pose together:

Yeon Ju Jung and Ha Neul Kim

There were two other KLPGA players who won awards on the night, but neither was at the show.  Bo Mee Lee achieved the lowest scoring average on tour in 2011.  She got a bit lucky: she did not play the final event, where scoring was very tough.  All the players ahead of her in scoring average going into that week were at the tournament and saw their averages balloon due to the tough conditions, handing Lee the trophy.  So Yeon Ryu, who wound up not winning any awards in 2011, was hardest hit.  She finished second in scoring, just .04 strokes behind Lee (Ha Neul Kim, by the way, was third, .07 behind Lee).  Had Lee played the tournament, Ryu probably would have held her off and collected that crown.

Bo Mee Lee in a glamor shot from this April

The other award winner not present was Shin Ae Ahn, who collected the other trophy given by the fans, the Best Dresser.  Ahn is famous for her fashion sense, so it’s not surprise she collected this honor.  Too bad she couldn’t make it; it would have been great to see what she came up with to wear to the Awards!

Shin Ae Ahn during a recent tournament

So Yeon Ryu, Na Yeon Choi and Hee Young Park were honored for their LPGA wins, with Na Yeon named as the best Korean golfer on the LPGA.  Na Yeon didn’t attend, but the other two did:

Hee Young

Hee Young won her first LPGA event after four years on tour

So Yeon

So Yeon was the first Korean to win a Major in two years

Both of them

So Yeon Ryu and Hee Young Park

Sun Ju Ahn received the award as the best Korean golfer on the JLPGA tour; she led that tour’s money list for the second straight year, with four wins in 2011. 

Sun Ju Ahn is the second highest ranked Korean player in the world right now!

Some of the other guests:

Hyun Hee Moon

Soo Jin Yang

Soo Jin Yang had a fantastic year, finishing 4th on the money list

Yang, Ha Neul and Ryu

Ha Neul, So Yeon and Soo Jin

Congratulations to Ha Neul Kim and all the ladies of the KLPGA for another fantastic, exciting season.  Get your rest, because the 2012 season starts next week in China!

Posted by: happyfan08 | November 23, 2011

Hee Young Park: Rocket Takes Off

On the 72nd hole of the 2011 CME Group Titleholders Championship, Hee Young Park found herself in a dicey situation.  Looking for the first win of her LPGA career, she had left her approach shot short of the green, and the ball had rolled down into a depression near a storm drain.  After taking relief, she still was left with a tricky chip shot to a treacherous green.  What she needed to do was clear: get it up and down for par, and her first win was hers.  Make a bogey, and she risked getting caught.  Anything worse than a bogey, and she probably would see the win slip between her fingers.

Hee Young putts in round 4 of the Titleholders

Park had managed to stay ahead of some of the top players in the game all day.  World #1 Ya Ni Tseng, #2 Suzann Pettersen and #4 Na Yeon Choi were all breathing down her neck on Sunday, but she had managed to stay cool and make clutch par saves when she needed to.  But Park had had chances to win tournaments in the past, and each time she had come up short.  Her most recent slip up was at the Safeway Classic in August.  All she had needed to do was make par on the final hole to get into a playoff for the title; a birdie would win it outright.  But she made bogey when she failed to get it up and down from off the green.  Was that moment going through her mind as she faced another testing moment?

One good thing came from that Safeway Classic near miss: it qualified her to play in the Titleholders event that she was now on the cusp of winning.  And as she stood over the shot on Sunday, she certainly didn’t show that she was thinking about past collapses.  She executed a beautiful chip to three feet, then buried the putt for the par and a two stroke win.  She collapsed in joy into the arms of her playing partner Sandra Gal, and was given an ecstatic champagne dousing by her father and several Korean golfing friends.  After four long years, Hee Young Park had at last tasted victory on the LPGA tour.

Hee Young celebrates her win

Hee Young Park’s career started out very much like that of other great golfers of her generation.  Like Na Yeon Choi and Jiyai Shin, her contemporaries, she won a KLPGA event, the Hite Cup, before even joining the tour.  She turned pro at the end of 2004 and was a rookie, along with Choi, in 2005.  Most of the observers at the time believed Choi was the talent to watch, but Park surprised everyone with her own great performance in 2005.  She notched a bunch of top tens before her achieving her first victory as a tour member at the PAVV Invitational.  This was especially impressive considering the field including a bunch of invitees from the LPGA tour, including Carin Koch, Laura Diaz, Meena Lee, Soo-Yun Kang and Jeong Jang. 

A few months later, she finished fourth at the CJ 9 Bridges, the event co-sanctioned by the LPGA tour.  Among the top LPGA pros she beat that week were world #1 Annika Sorenstam and that year’s LPGA Rookie of the Year Paula Creamer.  She was paired with Creamer in the final round and outplayed her by six shots in tough conditions (interestingly, she played with Creamer again during the third round of the Titleholders).  Hee Young would go on to become the KLPGA’s Rookie of the Year, topping her rival Na Yeon Choi.

Hee Young dives into the water to celebrate her win at the PAVV Invitational

Hee Young Park was so respected by her peers that she received a very unusual honor from them.  Fifty KLPGA players were asked to name the golfer they thought had the best swing among all the Korean female golfers.  They chose Hee Young as having the best swing, beating Korean superstar Se Ri Pak and Korean American star Michelle Wie among others.  Park was on the fast track to stardom.

She quickly won two events in 2006 to lead the KLPGA money list.  But at that point she went into a mini-slump, and a new rookie star rose up to challenge her: Jiyai Shin.  Shin seemed to play well every week, and by the end of the year she had claimed three wins and had overtaken Park for the money list lead.  Hee Young still finished second, though, and considering what a superstar Shin was soon to become, that was not such a bad result in retrospect.

Hee Young Park with one of her two KLPGA wins in 2006

Park became a bit more inconsistent in her final year on tour and was not able to claim a win, although she did earn three runner-up finishes.  At least one of these probably should have been a win, the second KB Star Tour event.  She was paired with Eun Hee Ji, and after playing a hole noticed that Ji had left one of her clubs by the green.  Her caddie picked it up and put it into Hee Young’s bag.  Later, however, Ji noticed the extra club in Park’s bag and called a violation on Park for exceeding the maximum 14 club limit.  Park ended up in a playoff with Ji and lost.  But if her caddie had not tried to do the good deed for Ji, Park would not have gotten a two stroke penalty, and would have won by two strokes.  Talk about a bad result from a good deed!

At the end of 2007, both Park and Na Yeon Choi entered LPGA Qualifying School.  Both had managed 4 KLPGA wins during their three years on tour.  But while Choi was only able to get conditional status on tour for 2008, Park finished third and earned a full tour card.

Hee Young and Na Yeon Choi in 2007, their final year on the KLPGA tour

So coming into their rookie seasons, these two talented young golfers were pretty much neck and neck in terms of professional accomplishments, almost mirror images of each other.  If anything, Park was perhaps a little ahead of Choi.  Yet in the next few seasons, Choi went from strength to strength, eventually winning five events in her first four seasons, winning the Vare Trophy for low scoring average in 2010, and leading the LPGA money list that season, only the second Korean to ever accomplish that feat.  Park, meanwhile, was unable to win even once, and though she easily maintained her tour card and played decently, it was pretty clear that both Choi and Jiyai Shin, who joined the LPGA the year after Park and has already earned eight tour wins, had left her in the dust.

She may not have been living up to her expectations, but those first few years were hardly a waste of time, either.  By the end of 2008 she had signed a lucrative sponsorship deal with Hana Bank that she still has.  She did manage four top tens, including one at the Evian Masters, and finished 35th on the money list with nearly $500,000 in earnings. 

Hee Young Park became a spokesperson for Hana Bank in 2008

In 2009, she did a little better, making 6 top tens and finishing 20th on the money list, her first time within the top 20.  She even came close to winning for the first time.  The second event of the year, the Honda LPGA Thailand, saw Hee Young struggle mightily in the first round with a bout of illness.  She staggered home with a 79, one of the worst scores in the field, and spent the night in the hospital.  But the next day she woke up healthy, went to the course and shot a sizzling 64, 15 shots better than her first round result.  In the end, she finished 2nd, beaten only by the top player on tour, Lorena Ochoa.  It says something about her talent that she could recover from such a disastrous start to play so well.

Hee Young sizzled in the second round of the 2009 Honda Thailand

Read more about Hee Young’s Thailand tournament in this blog entry:

Hee Young continued to search for her first win in her third LPGA season in 2010.  The Koreans won an amazing number of tournaments that year, with old rival Na Yeon Choi winning twice and finishing atop the year’s money list.  By this point, Hee Young had earned the nickname ‘Rocket’ for her ability to score birdies in bunches and ‘rocket’ up the leaderboard.  But like a rocket, she was just as capable of shooting down a leaderboard.  It seemed like when she was on, she was as good as anyone in the game, but when she was off, she could be really terrible.  If she could just find a way to grind out the weak moments in her tournaments, the good results would come.  Rocket displayed her rocketlike tendencies at the Jamie Farr Classic in 2010.  She shot a final round 64 to zoom up the leaderboard, narrowly missing a date with Choi in the playoff (which Choi went on to win).  She pulled a similar stunt at the State Farm Classic, shooting her career best 63 in the final round but still coming up two shots short to Cristie Kerr.  She ended 2010 with six top tens, and finished 34th on the money list. 

Hee Young beats the heat at the HSBC in 2010

She did have a big thrill in 2010: her younger sister, Ju Young, qualified for the KLPGA tour.  Hee Young even got a chance to follow her around at one tournament, cheering her on from the sidelines.  If Ju Young ever manages to make it to the LPGA, they would be the first sisters to play on tour since Aree and Naree Song and the Sorenstam sisters.

Hee Young and her younger sister Ju Young during a KLPGA tournament in 2010

What it basically came down to for Park was confidence and concentration.  With six international wins in her career heading into 2011, she definitely had the game to contend and win on the LPGA tour.  But whenever she smelled a chance to get the win, the nerves kicked in and she didn’t play well.  She is hardly the only star golfer to have to deal with this.  For many seasons, Lorena Ochoa and Ai Miyazato struggled with closing tournaments; yet they both ended up being ranked #1 in the world during their careers.  Na Yeon Choi, too, has let more than a few tournaments slip through her fingers, and Song Hee Kim has become notorious for her inability to win despite being in contention many times (see sidebar below for more!).  Hee Young just needed to find a way to get over the nerves and get the job done when it counted.

She didn’t have many chances to do that in 2011.  Before the Safeway, it had been one of her weakest seasons, with not even a single top ten coming into that week.  But though she was not able to get over the hump in Portland, the near miss did seem to light a spark in Hee Young.  She scored another top ten in Taiwan a few months later, then had her big chance at the Titleholders at Grand Cypress in Orlando, Florida.

 The event started out with her old friend Na Yeon Choi taking the first round lead.  Choi continued to lead through the second round and much of the third, but she had a really ragged end to the third round and fell several strokes off the pace by the end.  While that was going on, Hee Young entered her rocket mode.  She made a birdie on the par 5 15th, and then dunked another birdie on the 16th that barely dribbled into the hole.  She had trouble on the 17th, though, landing in the greenside bunker, and was not able to hold the green with her shot out.  But putting from the fringe, she dunked the clutch par save to maintain her momentum.  On the 18th, one of the toughest holes all week, she hit the green, then drilled a thirty foot birdie putt, one of the few made there all day, to secure a share of the third round lead.

Hee Young in round 3 of the Titleholders

She told the press that she was ‘thirsty’ for the win, and went into the day determined to finally end her winless drought.  It would not be easy: she would have three of the top four players in the world, including Choi, in her rearview mirror all day.  She had an early bogey to fall briefly out of the lead, but then pulled another rocket stretch, making birdies on three of four holes to regain the lead.

On the back nine, she steadily maintained a two shot lead for the most part, making par after par.  Gal made a bogey on the 12th, and the lead became three, but then the German star made two straight birdies, including a chip-in, to move to within a shot.  On the 14th, Gal hit her approach very close, while Park was left with a long par save.  But Hee Young made the putt to maintain the one shot cushion. 

The par 5 15th was crucial.  Both ladies ended up with par saving putts of about five feet in length.  But Gal lipped hers out while Hee Young made hers, and the margin returned to two strokes.  On both 16 and 17, Hee Young had great birdie opportunities, but missed them both.  She walked to the 18th tee, still leading by two, and did not even glance at the trophy, which sat on the tee box.  She managed to hit a great drive, but her approach was short.  Gal hit hers well, but it could not stop near the hole, and rolled to about twenty feet past.  Hee Young now was faced with the up and down from the front of the green.  She came through, and finally, after four long years, earned her first LPGA victory.

Hee Young at last gets to hoist an LPGA trophy!

The win was huge: the $500,000 winner’s check was not only nearly $400K more than second place (it’s a very rare thing on the LPGA to have such a huge difference between first and second place prize money), it was also the second largest winner’s check on tour (only the US Women’s Open, coincidentally this year also won by a Korean first time winner, is larger).  It moved Hee Young to 12th on the money list, her highest ever finish. 

Hee Young won a cool half mil last week!

Is this the breakthrough she has been waiting for, or will she return to her usual ways next year?  Time will tell, but keep in mind that Park’s biggest problem has always been confidence;  her game has always been solid.  If this win gives her the confidence to play her best from here on out, the rocket might be ready for a few more orbits next year before returning to Earth.

Sidebar: Best Korean golfers without a win on tour.

Now that Hee Young Park has claimed her maiden victory, who are the other best Koreans on tour who have yet to claim a win?

Song Hee Kim

Song Hee Kim

No Korean golfer currently on tour (perhaps no other golfer, period) has more top tens and great finishes without claiming a win than Song Hee Kim.  She did not have a particularly good 2011, but the previous three years saw her accumulate oodles of top ten finishes.  She started 2010 with 8 straight top tens en route to 15 on the year, and had had 12 top tens the previous year.  In 2010 alone, she finished 2nd at the LPGA Championship, but lost by 12 shots to an unstoppable Cristie Kerr; lost the Jamie Farr in a playoff; and lost the Hana Bank to Na Yeon Choi despite being in the lead most of the week.  It’s all the more weird because she won 5 times on the Futures Tour before joining the tour; she has not won anywhere in the world since.

Amy Yang

Amy Yang

People have been calling Amy Yang the future of Korean women’s golf since she won the 2006 ANZ Ladies Masters on the European tour as a 16 year old high school student.  She did win three times in total on the LET, and also notched a Major victory on the KLPGA in 2011, but a win on the LPGA has eluded her.  In 2011, she made nearly a million bucks and was the second highest ranked Korean on the money list.  Among her close calls: she finished second to Maria Hjorth at the season ending event in 2010; lost by five to Ya Ni Tseng in Taiwan this year; and finished second in Arkansas as well.  She has had top five finishes in three Majors over the past two years.

Vicky Hurst

Vicky Hurst and Hee Young Park at the 2010 Hana Bank Championship

Vicky has not been nearly as prolific as Yang and Kim over the past two years.  But she looked like a world beater on the Futures Tour, where she won five times and set the all time record for most money earned on that tour.  She also was an imposing amateur, and last year was one of the very longest drivers on the LPGA tour.  Despite these qualifications, the half-Korean American has greatly underperformed since joining the tour in 2009.  She did finish second to Na Yeon Choi last year in Korea for her best result.  But so far, she has not found the form to be a consistent star.

Posted by: happyfan08 | November 18, 2011

Return of the Supermodels

In 2008, the KLPGA tour was dominated by Jiyai Shin, who was on her way to becoming the first Korean golfer, male or female, to ever become #1 in the world.  She swept the three Majors that year and also won three LPGA tournaments, including a Major.  But right behind her, at number two and three on the KLPGA money list, were two players both having breakout seasons on tour.  The two were glamorous, beautiful, fashionable, and full of personality, and their rivalry soon became known as the battle of the ‘Supermodels of the Fairways’.  In the end, 22 year old Hee Kyung Seo won that battle decisively, capturing six victories to three for her rival, 19 year old Ha Neul Kim.  But both had established themselves as potential superstars of the future.

Hee Kyung Seo and Ha Neul Kim at the 2009 Kraft Nabisco Championship

The two golfers accomplished many things in the next few years, but there were also many ups and downs in their careers.  Cut to 2011, and both golfers came into this year not having won in Korea in a while, and not playing at the top of their games.  By the end of the season, however, both had accomplished impressive feats in their respective arenas.  Hee Kyung Seo became the eighth woman of Korean ancestry to capture the LPGA’s Rookie of the Year award, while Ha Neul Kim won her first KLPGA Major en route to finishing first on the tour’s money list for the first time in her career.

Ha Neul Kim seemed like a star in the making right from the moment she joined the KLPGA tour in 2007.  Ha Neul – whose name means both ‘sky’ and the color off the sky (light blue) – achieved six top tens that season en route to winning the Rookie of the Year award on tour.  It was in 2008, as mentioned above, when she went from a promising newcomer to one of the top stars on tour.  She notched top tens in her first two events of the year, but in the third tournament she faced down the unstoppable Shin and beat her, claiming her first career victory in the process.  Just a few weeks later she earned win #2, and the Supermodel of the Fairways, as she became known, was on her way to stardom.

Ha Neul Kim during her breakout season of 2008

Meanwhile, Hee Kyung Seo, several years older than Kim, was in a rut.  Seo had joined the tour in 2006, and in her first two years on tour, she had had a few decent finishes here and there, but no wins.  In 2007, she finished 9th on the KLPGA money list, certainly not a bad performance.  But Seo had high standards, and was frustrated that she was not doing better.  During the summer break of 2008, she spent some time training with her good friend Shin, hoping to pick up some tips that would help her game.

Her time with Shin opened her eyes to just how hard she would have to train to achieve her goals.  She was particularly impressed with how much Jiyai worked on her short game.  Newly energized, Seo began to apply what she learned to her own game.  The results were immediate and impressive.  In her first event back after the break, she defeated a star stocked field at the SBS Open, beating Shin and that year’s US Women’s Open champ Inbee Park among others for her first career title.  She led that event wire to wire, and did the same thing at the next event to capture her second win.  Blazing hot, she won the next event after that as well, becoming one of the few in history to claim three consecutive events on the KLPGA tour.  Suddenly, Ha Neul Kim had a gorgeous new rival for the title Supermodel of the Fairways.

Hee Kyung Seo in her breakout season of 2008 with yet another trophy

If Kim was worried about the new star, she didn’t show it: shortly after Seo’s run ended, Kim claimed her own third win of the season, and the rivalry reached a new level of heat.  The KLPGA powers-that-be were probably giddy with joy at the prospect of a battle for supremacy between two golfers frequently compared to supermodels by the press, and they gladly publicized the two and their friendly competition with each other.  They even arranged to get the two golfers into a Skins Game with PGA star Anthony Kim and a top KPGA player.  Kim paired with Anthony, and Seo with the KPGA star, and in the end the two Kims prevailed.  But Seo got revenge by claiming the KLPGA event held that weekend for her fourth triumph of 2008.

Anthony Kim and Ha Neul Kim at the 2008 Anthony Kim Skins Game

Seo continued to excel through the rest of 2008, winning two more events to eventually compile six victories, second only to Shin.  She wound up second on the money list, while Ha Neul was third.  But both had had breakout seasons that announced their arrival on the golf stage.  And on an actual stage as well: at the year ending KLPGA Awards Show, Seo and Kim participated in a dance number with several other top KLPGA stars.  Seo also walked away with the Most Popular award for the season. 

Hee Kyung Seo dances at the 2008 KLPGA Awards Show

Ha Neul dances at the 2008 KLPGA Awards Show!

For Seo, the good times continued in 2009.  With Shin moving on to the LPGA tour full time, Seo took over the KLPGA, winning five tournaments, and three of the four Majors.  She thus became the top player in the league in every major category.  Meanwhile, Ha Neul Kim was not able to win in 2009.  She was having trouble with her swing plane, and as a result was far more inconsistent off the tee.  She still notched seven top tens and finished 7th on the money list, but this was a decided step back from where she had been.

Seo danced away with all the big awards in 2009

Yet, even 2009 was great compared to Kim’s 2010 campaign.  The swing troubles continued, and suddenly her good finishes were becoming fewer and farther between.  Towards the end of the season, she had a couple of good results, but only wound up 21st on the money list for the year.  She was still a very popular player, hip deep in endorsements and beloved by the fans, but was starting to risk becoming an afterthought as her play declined.

Kim still had a smile on her face in 2009 and 2010, but her results were suffering

Seo had struggles of her own in 2010.  Amazingly, she was not able to win so much as a single event all season on tour, and saw fellow player Bo Mee Lee rise to the top of the tour instead.  Seo still managed a 6th place finish on the money list and had 12 top tens.  And she did have a few chances to win, notably at the season opener in China, where she lost in a playoff to young phenom So Yeon Ryu.  So the year was a disappointment, but only in comparison to the brilliance of the two previous ones.

While Seo had her issues in Korea, however, she was sterling on the LPGA tour.  In March, she was invited to play the inaugural Kia Classic as a sponsor’s exemption and made the most of it.  She wound up easily winning by 6 shots against a field stocked with most of the best women’s golfers in the world.  This earned her membership on the LPGA for 2011.  Interestingly, she wasn’t sure she was going to take it, having wanted to play in Japan that year.  But in the end, it was too good an opportunity to pass up, and so she left Korea to become a rookie in America in 2011.  On top of her win, she also achieved a tie for fifth at the year’s final Major, the Women’s British Open.  All in all, 2010 was a year of transition for her, but one with some definite highlights to celebrate.

Hee Kyung won the 2010 Kia Classic to earn LPGA membership

Ha Neul Kim started 2011 wondering if she were ever going to get to celebrate a win again.  But right off the bat, she showed she was ready to make this a comeback season.  She just missed grabbing the trophy at the year’s first event, finishing second.  When the season started in earnest several months later, she notched an 8th place at the Lotte Mart Women’s Open.  But it was at the next event that Ha Neul finally made her triumphant return to the winner’s circle, some two and a half years after her last win.  The event was the Hyundai Construction Seoul Economy Women’s Open in late April.  Kim seemingly had the tournament cup in her hands when Hyun Joo Lee made an unlikely run and caught her, forcing a playoff.  Two holes later, the nervous but resolute Kim made par while her opponent bogied, and the win was hers.  She broke down and cried on the green, so happy was she that she had at last captured her fourth career win.

Ha Neul cries after winning her first tournament in two and a half years

For much of the next few months, Kim was inconsistent, with occasional top tens mixing uneasily with missed cuts and mediocre finishes.  She really didn’t come too close to winning again, and it looked as though her April win would be her only one of the season.  But in October, she caught fire and made a huge charge at exactly the right time.  Until then, So Yeon Ryu had looked likely to win all the Major season ending prizes.  But Ryu went into a bit of a slump right when Kim started to shine.  At the year’s third Major, the Hite Cup, Ryu had a share of the second round lead, but a rules infraction knocked her down the leaderboard in round 3, allowing Ha Neul to sneak into contention.   In the final round, amateur In Ji Jeon climbed to a three shot lead, but the pressure got to her and she dropped again on the back nine.  Ha Neul, meanwhile, played cool, dependable golf, and when Jeon made a triple bogey late in her round, Kim was suddenly tied for the lead.  She then nailed a clutch birdie on the final hole to claim her first ever KLPGA Major.  The win also moved her into the top spot on the year’s money list and into third in the Player of the Year race.  Suddenly, Kim had a chance to win all sorts of post-season hardware.

Ha Neul enjoys the sponsor's product after winning the Hite Cup on the KLPGA tour

Kim rode with the momentum at the next KLPGA event, the KB Financial Group Star Championship, which was also the year’s final Major.  In the third round, she shot a blistering 6 under par 66 to zoom to 10 under total, which in most cases would have been enough for the lead.  But at this tournament, LPGA player Amy Yang was playing even better, shooting a 64 in round 3 to move to 14 under.  The two battled it out on the final day, but Yang maintained her four stroke advantage to capture the title.  Ha Neul finished second, and thus increased her lead on the KLPGA money list even more.

At the next event, the EDaily KYJ Golf Ladies Open, Ha Neul continued her torrid play by opening with an incendiary 8 under par 64.  Only one other player, Rookie star Yeon Ju Jeong, was within five shots of that score.  Those two duked it out in round 2, with Kim maintaining her 2 shot margin over her in the end. 

Ha Neul Kim during round 2 of the EDaily Open

In the final round, Jeong collapsed, and Kim coolly cruised to her third win of the year by four shots.  The win secured for her the Money List title and moved her into the lead in the Player of the Year race with one event to go.  This honor now qualifies her for several LPGA events and Majors next year, and she tells the press she plans on playing six of them in 2012.  She does not intend to enter Qualifying school, however, so look for her to continue to play on the Korean tour in 2012.  But next year, she will be coming into the season as the big gun, not the star trying to get her mojo back.  It ought to be very interesting indeed!

Ha Neul Kim during round 3 of the EDaily OpenOpen

Ha Neul’s success has led to even more appearances in the media than before.  Here she appears in Men’s Health Magazine, Korean edition.

Ha Neul in Men's Health Magazine

Meanwhile, Hee Kyung Seo joined the American tour, and found herself struggling to live up to her big expectations for the season.  Despite a fairly deep class of rookies, she was arguably the most accomplished player in the group, and thus had some pressure on her to win the Rookie of the Year prize.  But strong results eluded her.  Perhaps the early lowlight was missing the cut at the Kia Classic, the tournament she had won the previous year to get into the LPGA tour in the first place.  But after that, she notched three top 20s, including a 6th place, in her next six tournaments.  It was hardly sterling stuff, but it was at least keeping her in the lead in the Rookie of the Year standings.

Around that time, Hee Kyung went to a US Women’s Open qualifier in New Jersey and won it.  It was the first time she had ever played 36 holes in a single day, but her win there was a foreshadowing of what would happen a couple of months later.  The US Women’s Open this year was held at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, and the conditions were tough, with frequent weather delays testing the field like they had rarely been tested before.  Seo ended up playing 36 holes in one day again, but this time it was the final two rounds of the Open on Sunday.  And she played brilliantly, shooting back to back 68s to vault into the lead by the end of the day. 

Hee Kyung Seo in round 4 of the US Women's Open

Her only major miscue came on the par 5 17th in her final round.  The wind had started whipping hard, and Seo and her group were hurrying to beat the darkness.  She nonetheless hit the green and narrowly missed a birdie that would have given her a prohibitive lead.  She then missed the three foot comeback par save, lowering her visor over her head in disbelief afterwards.  She still finished her round just before darkness fell, and would have to wait and see if the few players who had not finished would be able to catch her on Monday morning.

Hee Kyung Seo in round 4 of the US Women's Open

As it turned out, one player had the best chance to do that: her old rival So Yeon Ryu, playing the event as a result of her great finish on the KLPGA tour the previous season.  On Monday morning, Ryu had three holes to play and was one shot back.  She scrambled to save par on 16 and just missed a birdie on 17.  But on the final hole she hit a perfect drive, an unbelievably great approach, and drained the tricky putt for birdie to force a playoff.  Seo, who had not struck a shot all day, had to play the same three holes in the playoff that Ryu had just played so well.  It was too much to ask, and Ryu easily won the three hole playoff to claim the Major title.  But Seo’s second place finish was by far her best in a Major, and it helped her to a huge lead in the Rookie standings that she would never relinquish.

So Yeon Ryu and Hee Kyung Seo during this year's US Women's Open playoff

For much of the rest of the season, Seo kept putting up top 30 finish after top 30 finish, not allowing any other rookie a chance to make much ground up on her.  Finally, at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational, Hee Kyung roared to her second best finish of the year, a tie for 4th, which was enough to put the Rookie of the Year title away.  She became the 8th Korean or woman of Korean heritage to win that award in the tour’s history.  Judging by past results, she’s in great company.  Of the seven previous winners, one, Angela Park, is no longer playing golf, and another, Shi Hyun Ahn, never really improved on her rookie year.  But the other five rookie standouts are among the best golfers in the history of the Korean contingent: Seon Hwa Lee has four career wins, Hee Won Han six, Mi Hyun Kim and Jiyai Shin 8 apiece.  And Se Ri Pak, of course, is a 25 time winner and Hall of Famer.  Hee Kyung has said she, too, wants to be in the Hall of Fame someday.  She has taken an important first step towards that goal this year.

Hee Kyung Seo with the 2011 LPGA Rookie of the Year award

The days of their rivalry on the Korean tour is behind them, but perhaps it will not be too long from now when Ha Neul Kim and Hee Kyung Seo are duking it out for the big prizes on the LPGA tour.  Time will tell, of course, but regardless, it should be fun to watch them try to get there!

Posted by: happyfan08 | July 14, 2011

Ryu vs. Seo: The Rivalry Goes Global

The 2011 US Women’s Open, contested last week at the Broadmoor course in Colorado Springs, Colorado, turned out to be a history making event.  For the first time ever at this tournament, the new three hole playoff system was used; and that playoff featured, also for the first time ever, no American, but rather two Korean ladies vying for the biggest prize in women’s golf.  What made the playoff even more scintillating was that this was no ordinary random grouping of two talented Korean golfers.  Rather, the two who clashed for the trophy, Hee Kyung Seo and So Yeon Ryu, have been longtime rivals who have duked it out over a period of several years on the Korean LPGA tour.  Now their rivalry was renewed on the biggest stage of all, with the young Ryu coming out on top.

So Yeon Ryu and Hee Kyung Seo have a longstanding rivalry

Hee Kyung Seo, who turned 25 during the Open, had joined the LPGA tour in 2011 as a rookie.  She had earned her tour card the previous year by winning an LPGA event, the Kia Classic, which she was invited to play by the sponsors.  Ryu, a 21 year old college student and professional golfer simultaneously, also can avoid going to LPGA qualifying school thanks to her win in Colorado.  Whether she will take advantage of the card to join the tour as a rookie next year remains to be seen, but if she does, fans of this dynamic duo can doubtless look forward to many more exciting battles between the two friendly foes for years to come.

Ryu vs. Seo

Each golfer arrived in the professional ranks in different ways.  Seo’s career gestated much more slowly than Ryu’s.  She joined the KLPGA in 2006, but during her first two and a half seasons, she could manage no better finish than third.  Frustrated, she spent some time during the summer break working with her good friend, KLPGA superstar Jiyai Shin.  What she saw changed her life.  Seo realized that Shin spent much more time working on her game than she did, particularly her short game.  Seo watched, learned, absorbed.  When the season started up again in late summer, she was ready.  She won the very first event after the break, the SBS Open, beating a field that included Shin and US Women’s Open champ Inbee Park.  She would go on to win two more consecutive events and 6 total in 2008.  But though Seo had been brilliant, she still toiled in the shadow of the unstoppable Shin, who won that year’s Player of the Year award.

Seo enjoys the first of her six 2008 KLPGA wins

Meanwhile, a 17 year old named So Yeon Ryu turned pro and joined the KLPGA that season.  Ryu had been one of the strongest amateur golfers in Korea before that.  Her most notable accomplishment came when she won the gold medal at the 2006 Asian Games (as a 16 year old).  She beat second place player Mika Miyazato by nine strokes (interestingly, Miyazato is now an LPGA player who also finished in the top ten at this year’s Open).  It took Ryu almost no time to make a splash as a professional, winning her first KLPGA title at the first event of the year.  Although she was impressive the rest of the season, she would not win again, and in fact lost the Rookie of the Year award that season to her fellow Asian Games teammate and bronze medalist He Yong Choi.

A candid picture of Ryu from her rookie season

Shin won three LPGA events in 2008 on top of all her wins on the KLPGA tour, and so in 2009 she joined the LPGA tour as a rookie.  That left a gap at the top of the league, one Seo was eager to fill.  But when Ryu gutted out a phenomenal win at the Doosan Match Play tournament early in the season, she started a rapid climb from promising young player to superstar.  She won three of the next four events to vault to the top of all the league standings, ahead of Seo.  And thus was born a rivalry for the ages.

The rest of the season, the two battled for supremacy on tour.  Seo was not about to roll over and play dead.  She would go on to win the final two Majors of the season and three Majors out of four, while finishing second in the other one! Meanwhile Ryu, for all her accomplishments, was not able to win even a single Major, and in fact still to this date has not won a Major on the KLPGA tour (though she has come close, losing a playoff to Jiyai Shin at the 2008 Korean Women’s Open).  In the end, Seo, with five wins, trumped Ryu with four, and won the Player of the Year award.  The first round of their rivalry went to the Supermodel of the Fairways, Hee Kyung Seo.

For all Ryu's accomplishments in 2009, she was still playing second fiddle to Seo

The 2010 season promised to be more of the same, and in fact, at the first event of the year, Seo and Ryu ended up in a playoff for the title.  Seo had the lead and seemed ready to win but, much like at last week’s Open, Ryu came from behind, caught her, and forced a playoff.  Three holes later, Ryu won to draw first blood in the second act of their rivalry.

So Yeon Ryu with her trophy from the 2010 China Ladies Open

But amazingly, neither player would win an event for the rest of the season.  Bo Mee Lee wound up as the Player of the year, though both Seo and Ryu had decent years.  Ryu managed 14 top tens, including three seconds, and finished fourth on the money list.  Seo earned 12 top tens and finished 6th on the money list.  The second round of the rivalry thus went to Ryu.  Well, sort of…

In this case, what was happening in Korea only told part of the story.  Sure, Seo was having an off year in Korea, but she was playing quite well internationally.  Ryu was still more interested in playing in Korea, although she occasionally ventured abroad in 2010 (one notable finish was a tie for 25th at that year’s US Women’s Open, her first time playing that event).  But Seo, after a top five finish at the ANZ Ladies Masters, was invited to play the LPGA’s Kia Classic in March.  Amazingly, she not only won the event, she trounced a field containing almost all the top women golfers in the world.  Just like that, Hee Kyung Seo had earned the right to play on the LPGA, and after some soul searching, she decided to join the tour as a rookie in 2011.  So once again, Seo had managed to get the better of Ryu by becoming the first of the two to win on the LPGA tour.

Hee Kyung Seo with her trophy from the Kia Classic

In 2011, Seo was having a mediocre rookie season leading up to the US Women’s Open.  She had managed one top ten, and was leading in the Rookie of the Year standings, but in general was not playing at the level she had hoped for.  She had even been forced to qualify for the US Women’s Open at a sectional, which she tellingly won.  But despite that, her mood had gotten so sour by mid-June that her parents took her on a vacation to Niagara Falls as a sort of crisis intervention.  There, while riding the boat the Maid of the Mists, in the shadow of Horseshoe Falls , they had a heart to heart with their daughter, telling her that she was number one to them no matter what, and that she should simply trust herself.  The advice worked far better than anyone could have anticipated.

Meanwhile, Ryu was struggling in Korea.  She had not won anywhere in the world since that playoff victory over Seo, and though she nearly won the first KLPGA event of the season, she soon found herself struggling to even make top tens.  But just when it looked like she was in real trouble, she pulled herself up in a spectacular way.  At the Lotte Cantata Open, she was four shots back after two rounds.  But in round three she absolutely blitzed the field, shooting a 64 to cruise to her first win in a year and a half.  Her confidence was back, and just in time for the US Women’s Open, which she would play by virtue of her top five finish on the KLPGA money list the previous season.

So Yeon broke her winless streak at the Lotte Cantata Open this year

This year’s US Women’s Open turned into a nightmare of weather delays right from the first day.  At times, players would go a day and a half without hitting a shot; at other times, they would play two rounds in a single day.  A player never knew how long she would be out there before the next warning siren would halt play.  Add onto that the fact that the Broadmoor is at high altitude, meaning thin air that would tax fitness under normal conditions, let alone when one was playing 36 holes without a significant break.

After two rounds, Seo was eight shots out of the lead at 3 over par, while Ryu was 6 back at 1 over.  They were both in great position to get top tens, but it didn’t look likely that they would be contending for the trophy.  But as the third round started Saturday afternoon, the leaders faded quickly, and both Ryu and Seo played very well, vaulting up the leaderboard in the process. 

Seo wound up shooting her final two rounds on Sunday, and was absolutely brilliant in both.  She produced a 68 in round three, took a short break, then shot a 31 on the front nine of her fourth round.  That amazing stretch included four straight birdies to end her first nine holes.  Just like that, the Supermodel of the Fairways had taken the lead at 5 under par, an 8 shot improvement over her round 2 score.

Hee Kyung Seo during round 4 of the US Women's Open

Ryu was keeping pace.  After a so so round of 74 to open her week, she shot a 69 in round two, then followed that with another 69 in round 3.  This positioned her at one under par, which tied her for the lead after three rounds.  Seo’s run on her first nine holes of round 4, however, allowed her to take over the lead and blow past her rival (and everybody else).

Seo’s back nine was considerably dodgier than her front nine, but she hung in there despite troubles.  After a bogey on the 10th hole, a weather delay allowed her to regroup.  When she returned, she managed pars to keep her score at 4 under.    Her main opponents like Cristie Kerr and Angela Stanford struggled, falling down the leaderboard.  But Ryu continued to remain close.

So Yeon Ryu on Sunday at the Open

On the par 5 17th hole, Seo’s group was told that they needed to catch up with the group ahead of them, and they began to sprint down the fairway to avoid a slow play penalty.  It was getting dark, and the wind was kicking up.  Once on the green, Seo barely missed a birdie putt and had two feet left for par.  But whether it was the darkness, the wind, or the running, or perhaps just the pressure, Seo lipped out what should have been a routine par, her first three putt of the entire week.  Her score fell to 3 under, just a shot ahead of Ryu.  It would prove to be a very costly error.

Hee Kyung on Sunday at the Open

Seo parred the final hole and got into the clubhouse just before play was halted due to darkness.  The remaining players would have to finish their rounds on Monday.  The situation was great for Seo: only three players could possibly catch her.  Kerr would need to birdie her two remaining holes, while Stanford would need three birdies in her final four.  But Ryu just needed one birdie to tie in her final three holes, which included a par 5.  She was the most dangerous threat to her old rival’s chances to win the biggest prize in women’s golf.

So Yeon meets the press on Sunday

As it turned out, neither Kerr nor Stanford was able to catch Seo.  Ryu, meanwhile, hit a disastrous tee shot on her very first hole of the day, the par 3 16th.  Her ball went into a bunker.  Not only was she right up against the lip of the sand trap, she was also short sided.  It looked like her chances to win were done before they began, but Ryu, standing with one foot outside the trap, hit a miraculous sand shot to a foot for an easy par.

On the next hole, Ryu reached the green in three shots, leaving herself a fifteen footer for birdie.  This would seem to be her best chance to make the birdie she needed, but her putt burned the edge, and though she made par, she was still a shot behind Seo.  She would now have to birdie 18, one of the harder holes of the week.  She hit a perfect drive, but it was her second shot that was, without question, the shot of the tournament.  She produced a gorgeous iron that curved sweetly onto the green, where it trickled to within five feet of the flag.  Even though she was close, however, she still was left with a nasty breaking putt for birdie.  She had to wait eight minutes while her playing partners finished, but finally, the chance had come.  She gathered herself and hit a perfect putt into the center of the cup.  On the final hole of regulation, So Yeon Ryu had caught Hee Kyung Seo; there would be a second career playoff between the two.  Only this time, the stakes were much higher.

Ryu after a successful putt

In a lot of ways, Seo got the short end of the stick in the playoff.  Having finished her round on Sunday, she would be entering the playoff without having hit a shot in competition all day.  Her opponent, meanwhile, had played the exact same holes less than an hour before.  But sometimes life isn’t fair, and Seo had had a bit of advantage finishing on Sunday, too, in that she was able to complete her round while still playing her best.

Ryu conducted a thoroughly charming interview with NBC following her round, then proceeded to sign autographs and take photos with fans.  Johnny Miller, commentating for NBC, was very impressed with the attitudes of both players, and opined that he had never seen so many smiles before a playoff for a Major championship.  He said that these two ladies were an example to professionals everywhere in the way they enjoyed the game while still being fierce rivals. 

The two rivals joke around on the tee during the playoff

Ryu bowed to Seo as she reached the practice range, and their shared a laugh.  Rivals they may be, but they are also good friends.  About 30 minutes later, the playoff started on hole 16, the same hole Ryu had started her day on.  Seo teed off first, and both players hit nice iron shots to about 15 feet.  Neither made her birdie, however, and so the playoff continued on the par 5 17th hole with the two players still tied.

This hole was playing 600 yards long, but thanks to the high altitude, which allows the ball to travel farther than usual, the hole was still one where birdie was doable.  But essential to success on this hole was a good drive, and it was here that the wheels came off for Seo.  She hit her drive right into a fairway bunker, and was left with her ball virtually against the lip, forcing her to hit a high lofted club to get out.  Ryu, meanwhile, hit a perfect drive, and followed with a perfect second to 129 yards.

Seo got her ball out of the trap, but could not reach the green in three shots.  She hit her third shot to the right into some more rough.  Ryu then hit her third to about six feet.  Seo’s fourth shot got onto the green, but still farther from the hole than Ryu’s ball.  It was crucial Seo make the 20 foot par save; if Ryu made birdie and Seo bogey, it was probably all over.  In fact, that is exactly what happened: Seo’s par save just missed going in and she made bogey, while Ryu dunked her putt for a birdie 4.  With one hole to play, Ryu now had a prohibitive two shot advantage.

Hee Kyung in trouble on Monday

Now hitting off the tee first, Ryu’s drive found the center of the fairway on 18, as did Seo’s.  Seo was farther away and hit first; her approach, however, was low, and ran through the green, nestling up against the fringe in the back.  Ryu then proceeded to hit an even better approach here than she had when she played the hole an hour earlier, getting her ball to about four feet from the flag.  Seo realized at that point that all hope was lost, but gamely stroked her long putt to tap in range for an easy par.  Ryu made the birdie, and the Open crown was hers. 

So Yeon Ryu

Growing up, one of Ryu’s biggest idols was Korean golf legend Se Ri Pak.  Pak now led a group of golfers that included 2009 US Women’s Open champ Eun Hee Ji onto the green, where they proceeded to drench Ryu in champagne.  Ryu later called it ‘incredible’ that her hero was there to celebrate her win and give her ‘power’ during the playoff.

Ryu doused in champagne after her win

Seo was sad but overall satisfied with her week.  She had gone from near despair to near victory in the space of one tournament, and eagerly looked forward to the rest of the year.  She told the press that the par miss on 17 on Sunday, which had allowed Ryu into the playoff in the first place, was the critical mistake for her.  But considering it was her only three putt of the week, she shouldn’t be so hard on herself.  Her game, from top to bottom, had been virtually immaculate, and no one can be expected to get through an Open without the occasional hiccup.

As for So Yeon Ryu, Seo’s great rival, her life has changed forever.  She has some choices to make.  Will she do what Seo and Shin did before her and opt to join the LPGA next year?  Or will she stay in Korea to complete her education (she is a junior in college there)?  Making the jump to the US is a big choice, especially for a woman who is still just 21 years old (making her the third youngest winner of the event ever, behind only fellow Koreans Pak and Inbee Park).  And if she comes, she will be joining the league with more notoriety than any Korean since Shin, so the pressure will be on.  In the past few years, the US Women’s Open winners from Korea have at times struggled in the months following their wins.  Inbee Park took more than a year to get back to her top level, and Eun Hee Ji is still trying to get another top ten on tour since her Open victory.  But Ryu seems singularly equipped to handle those kinds of expectations.  As Johnny Miller said, she has a wonderful attitude, and will most likely face whatever challenges arise with a big smile and a lot of positive energy.  No doubt when she does arrive, her biggest rival Seo will be there to make sure she stays on her toes!!

Ryu with her trophy

Posted by: happyfan08 | June 14, 2011

So Yeon Ryu & Ha Neul Kim: Welcome Back!

Golf is a crazy game sometimes.  I am most definitely not the first to make that particular observation.  Sometimes it seems like the only people who can avoid the roller coaster the game can cause are the big stars.  Maybe that is true for some, but for many, even stardom does not guarantee results.  You might be a sensation one week, a picture on a milk carton six months later.

The Koreans and stars of Korean descent have certainly not been immune to the ups and downs of the sport.  Even the biggest star of them all, Se Ri Pak, has spent plenty of time in the wilderness, trying to find her game.  Pak managed to qualify for the LPGA and World Golf Hall of Fame with her 22nd win in 2004.  She was only 26 at time, and would have to wait three more years before she had logged enough time on tour to actually enter the Hall.  But mysteriously, at almost that exact moment, her game took a major turn south, and suddenly she had trouble even making top tens anymore.  She would continue to struggle the rest of 2004 and all of 2005.  Finally in 2006, her game started to return, and her comeback was completed in majestic style with a playoff win at the 2006 LPGA Championship, the year’s second Major.  But though she has won twice more since, she has never again reached the level of consistency or sustained greatness she had in her early days.

Se Ri got to hug the clown when she won the 2006 McDonald's LPGA Championship

Then there’s Angela Park.  Park was part of one of the most impressive Rookie classes in LPGA history, especially as far as the Koreans were concerned.  Look at the names in that class: Song Hee Kim, a frequent world top ten golfer these days; In Kyung Kim, a three time winner on tour and currently 7th in the world; Inbee Park, who won the 2008 US Women’s Open; Eun Hee Ji, who followed Park as the Open champ in 2009; Jane Park, a US Amateur winner; former college player of the year Irene Cho; Jin Joo Hong, who qualified for the tour by winning an event;  and two time winner Ji Young Oh.   But Angela beat them all to become Rookie of the Year that year.  Her swing was so beautiful that Johnny Miller famously labeled it the best on tour.  When I interviewed her a few months after he made that comment, Park modestly denied that her swing was that good.   But regardless, it seemed only a matter of time before she became a genuine superstar.

Then, it just fell apart.  Suddenly, Park not only was not contending at tournaments, she wasn’t making cuts.  Then, she lost her card.  And now, she is nowhere to be seen.  Has she retired?  Is she planning on returning to golf?  Or has the mysterious loss of her legendarily great swing destroyed her will to compete?  Golf is a crazy game sometimes.

Angela Park during her good days: at the 2007 US Women's Open

Two big stars on the Korean LPGA tour spent the past few years in the wilderness themselves.  Both were searching for the success that once seemed to come so easily to them.  And both recently returned to the winner’s circle after a too long absence.  Their names are Ha Neul Kim and So Yeon Ryu.

Ha Neul Kim

Ha Neul Kim

Ha Neul Kim was the 2007 KLPGA Rookie of the Year.  Young, glamorous, with a sparkling personality, she was saddled with the nickname ‘The Fashion Model of the Fairways’, thanks to her looks and style.  But Kim was more than just a pretty face; she got results.  She achieved 6 top tens in her rookie year while just 19 years old.  But 2008, her sophomore season, was the year when she broke through and became a big star.  She finished third at the first event of the year, and just two tournaments later claimed her first career win.  She was not done: she would win twice more during the season, and had seemingly established herself as the second best golfer on tour, behind only the unstoppable Jiyai Shin. 

Ha Neul Kim won the 2007 KLPGA Rookie of the Year award

But Kim soon found herself with a tenacious rival to deal with, one who was also beautiful, fashionable and friendly, and who was also regarded as a Fashion model of the Links: Hee Kyung Seo.  Seo had been on tour a few years and was several years older than Kim.  She had been a solid but unspectacular golfer until she spent a few weeks training with Shin.  Suddenly, she started winning and didn’t stop.  The press and the KLPGA couldn’t get enough of the two gorgeous rivals who seemed to trade wins whenever Shin was having a bad week.  In the end, Seo got the better of Kim, capturing six wins in 2008 to Ha Neul’s three.  But there was every reason to believe Kim was just getting started, and would have more to say when 2009 arrived.

Ha Neul (R) and Hee Kyung Seo in 2008

But golf is a crazy sport, remember?  Seo continued her brilliance in 2009, winning five more events, including three of that year’s four Majors (and she finished second in the other one).  Kim, meanwhile, struggled.  She had problems with her swing plane, and suddenly her accuracy took a nosedive.  She was not able to win in 2009, but all in all it was not a terrible year: she still nabbed 7 top tens and finished 7th on the money list.

Ha Neul in 2009

Unfortunately, 2010 was a significantly worse year for her.  Not only did she again not win a tournament, now she was having trouble even finishing in the top ten.  She wound up 21st on the money list, despite three top four results.  In terms of marketability, everything was still hunky dory.  She had several top sponsors, including Le Coq Sportif, a golf attire company that featured Ha Neul in TV commercials and advertisements, and credit card company BC Card, her main sponsor.  But what she wanted more than anything was to return to the top of the league.

Ha Neul and her other fellow Le Coq Sportif sponsorees

The start of the 2011 season offered hope.  She contended at the year’s first event in China, finishing second.  She followed that with an 8th in her second event of the year.  But it was third time lucky for Kim.  The event was the Hyundai Construction Seoul Economy Women’s Open, which took place in late April.  Kim played well enough to place herself second, just a shot out of the lead, after two rounds.  The leader was Ji Na Lim, a tour winner herself.  The third round turned into a pitched battle between the two.  But when Lim had two late bogies, she knocked herself out of it, and it looked like Kim at last was going to earn another trophy.

Not so fast!  Hyun Joo Lee shot a 68 to catch Kim and finish the day tied with her.  So, there would be a playoff.  If Kim was nervous, she controlled herself well.  They both parred the first playoff hole, and on the second, Kim again made par while Lee bogied.  Another win at last for the Fashion Model of the Fairways!  The win also catapulted Kim to the top of the money list and Player of the Year standings for the time being.

Ha Neul cries after winning her first event in more than two years

Ha Neul with her long awaited trophy, April, 2011

Kim proved this was no fluke by continuing to play well in the weeks since.  She struggled at the Korean Women’s Open , but had two more top tens and another top 20 after that.  She is no longer at the top of the money list, but is currently 4th, her best position this late in the season since her glory days.  Welcome back, Ha Neul Kim!

So Yeon Ryu

So Yeon Ryu

So Yeon Ryu never got quite as far down as Ha Neul Kim did, but she still had a year and a half long winless drought going before her win last week at the Lotte Cantata Open; this was her longest such streak since turning pro as a 17 year old. 

Ryu first made a name for herself as a 16 year old back in 2006.  She was one of three girls who represented Korea in golf at the Asian Games.  She ended up winning the gold medal, crushing her nearest competition by nine strokes with a 29 under par total score.  The previous winner of the gold medal, at the 2002 games, had been none other than Japanese superstar Ai Miyazato, so there was plenty of reason to keep an eye on Ryu’s career as well.

Ryu did not take long to make her mark as a pro.  In fact, she won her very first KLPGA event in 2008 as a 17 year old rookie.  A few months later, she was in the hunt at the Korean Women’s Open, the biggest event on tour.  In fact, she had a four stroke lead at one point on the back nine before Jiyai Shin relentlessly hunted her down, finally defeating her in a three hole playoff.  Ryu did not get the win, but it was another feather in her cap to finish second at a Major while not yet even 18 years old.

So Yeon holds her first career KLPGA trophy

As it turned out, Ryu was narrowly defeated by her Asian Games teammate He Yong Choi for the KLPGA’s Rookie of the Year award.  But the next season, Ryu decisively established herself as not only the best golfer of her class but as one of the two best on tour, period.  She showed signs of coming greatness at the ANZ Ladies Masters in Australia when she finished tied for second.  No less an authority than Ian Triggs, mentor to Hall of Fame golfer Karrie Webb, opined that Ryu had the makings of a great player.  Her KLPGA run started with an epic win over Choi at the Doosan Match Play Championship.  Their match in the finals went a grueling 27 holes (more than seven hours) before Ryu finally put her rival away.  That win opened the floodgates, and two events later, she won again.  She followed that victory with two more consecutive wins.  Suddenly, Ryu was the top player on tour, with even Hee Kyung Seo chasing her.  Seo eventually rebounded, winning several more times to capture the Player of the Year award, but Ryu was decisively the second best player on tour right behind her. 

After more than seven hours, Ryu finally captured the Match Play trophy

Seo & Ryu were one of the best shows in Korean golf in 2009

The rivalry continued at the first event of the 2010 season, the China Ladies Open, which took place in December of 2009.  Ryu and Seo wound up in a playoff, with Ryu finally coming out on top after three holes.  Little did Ryu realize at the time that it would be her last win for a year and a half.  It’s not like she didn’t have her chances in 2010: she accumulated 14 top tens, which included three second places.  She wound up fourth on the money list that season.  But for a player used to winning, this was a major step back.

She started the 2011 season in China with a great title defense.  Indeed, with a few holes to go, she was battling Ha Neul Kim and Hye Youn Kim for the title.  Alas, she couldn’t hold on, and wound up tied for second with Ha Neul while Hye Youn took the trophy.  After that, she struggled again.  She would occasionally put together a promising round, but then shoot a terrible round and knock herself out of the tournament.  She did have one other top ten, a seventh place finish, but also had a missed cut, and an underwhelming second round loss at the Match Play tournament, a 39th, and three other top twenties.

So Yeon freshens up during round 2 of the 2011 Lotte Cantata Open

Even at the event she won, it did not seem like it was going to be her week.  She was solid through the first two rounds, shooting back to back 69s to put herself four out of the lead with one round to go.  But right from the get go on Sunday,  Ryu was on a mission.  She started her day with birdies on five of her first six holes to seize the lead, and she never let go after that.  She finished her day with her ninth birdie of the round on the 18th hole to establish an uncatchable 14 under par total.  This time, Hye Youn Kim, who had dealt her the defeat in China, had to settle for second place.  Thanks to her 64, So Yeon Ryu had at last captured her seventh career win after the longest drought of her career to that time.

So Yeon was absolutely on fire during round 3 of the Lotte Cantata

Ryu holds her seventh career KLPGA trophy

Like Ha Neul Kim, Ryu is a very popular player who has done quite well for herself in the sponsorship sweepstakes.  Her win moved her to 5th on the season money list, just behind Ha Neul, and more importantly reestablished her as a dangerous player capable of winning even when coming from well back on Sunday.  Now that Kim and Ryu have tasted victory again, it will be interesting to see if one of them can become the Player of the Year this season.  For fans of the KLPGA, it should be very exciting to see them try!

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