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