Greetings and Happy New Year 2013!
It’s time once again for my annual round-up of the best and worst in the previous year’s Korean women’s golf action. I call them the Seoulie Awards. Without further ado, here’s who I chose as the winners for 2012!
Best Start to the Season
And the Winner Is: So Yeon Ryu (2 straight runner-up finishes in Australia)
So Yeon Ryu has been an internationally important golfer in the women’s game ever since she won the gold medal at the 2006 Asian Games as a 16-year-old, but she really burst onto the scene in the pro game with her win at the 2011 US Women’s Open. Following that win, she largely returned to Korea for the rest of the year, only occasionally surfacing at international events (like the Evian Masters).
At the end of the year, however, she prepared to move to the US tour full-time as a 2012 rookie. Her first step in that direction was appearing at the 2011 Swinging Skirts event in Taiwan in December. In a field stocked with most of the top golfers in the world, she managed a tie for second. It was a good omen.
Ryu trained in Australia during the off-season with her coach, who is Australian, and a new caddie, also from down under. Her first event of the new year was the RACV Australian Ladies Masters, an event on the Ladies European Tour. She took little time establishing herself as a force, shooting a first round 66 to vault into a tie for second, just a shot out of the lead. But it was in the second round that she seized control of the event, blistering the course with a record tying 11 under par 61 that consisted of 12 birdies and a bogey. Twelve birdies in 18 holes is some kind of awesome golf! Suddenly, all eyes were on the 21-year-old Major winner as she sat with a four shot lead with two rounds to go.
The rest of the event was a slow struggle to hold onto that lead as several others made runs at her. She wound up with a 69 in round three and maintained a three shot cushion, but in the final round, her lead slipped away, and she finally fell into a tie for the lead on the final hole. There, she was unable to make birdie, and Dutch woman Cristel Boeljon did. Despite leading for about three days, in the end Ryu was only able to manage a tie for second. But the result still showed she was ready to rock in 2012.
The next week she again played in Australia, and once again put herself squarely in sight of a win. The event was the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, the opening event of her LPGA career. Sure enough, by the end of the second round, thanks to two great days of play, Ryu found herself in the final group matched against her old rival Hee Kyung Seo, whom she had beaten at the US Open the previous year. In round 3, neither golfer had a great day, but they still both stayed within small distance of the new leader. But in round 4, the two great golfers rebounded, and as they reached the 18th hole, they both were tied for the lead and had a chance to win the event.
Both players hit the green in regulation, leaving themselves ~20 foot birdie putts for the win. And both golfers three putted, falling back into a six way playoff that was eventually won by American Jessica Korda. For the second straight week, So Yeon had a win in her grasp and lost it on the final hole. But two straight runner-up finishes, coupled with the second place at the Swinging Skirts, was a mighty fine way to start her year!
Biggest Disappearing Act
And the ‘Winner’ Is: Song Hee Kim
It’s hard to fathom what has happened to Song Hee Kim in the past couple of seasons, although injuries may be at least partly to blame for her performance in 2012. In 2010, Kim was undeniably one of the best Korean golfers in the game. Although she had not yet won on tour, she managed 15 top tens that year, earning more than $1.2 million. In 2011, however, her results plummeted. She made only two top tens and earned only $350,000.
Still, even that total was far better than her 2012 season. Last year, Kim made an abysmal $10,872, with no top tens (her best finish was a tie for 33rd). She played no events after June. Given that she has a medical exemption allowing her to maintain tour membership for 2013, it looks like she is struggling with injuries. With luck, she will recover from whatever ails her and will soon return to the top of the game.
Best Korean Confrontation
And the Winner Is: Na Yeon Choi vs. So Yeon Ryu, CME Titleholders
Na Yeon Choi and So Yeon Ryu were two of the top Korean golfers on tour in 2012. Going into the final event of the 2012 season, the last two US Women’s Open winners had earned well over $2 million between them, and both occupied spots in the top ten on the money list. Ryu had already clinched the Rookie of the Year award, and told interviewers that if she were to win the CME, she would do the ‘Gangnam Style’ dance on the final green (the story became more intriguing when Ryu revealed that she was actually good friends with ‘Gangnam’ originator Psy, and had even played multiple rounds of golf with him in the past). Choi, meanwhile, was looking to buy a house the following week, and told the press that the huge first prize check at the CME, the second biggest on tour in 2012, would make that a much easier task. Choi had already won the first largest check on tour when she claimed the US Women’s Open title, but if there were any chance she was going to share the wealth with her fellow players during the CME, her play during the week sure didn’t suggest it.
In round one, Ryu shot a 66 to grab a share of the lead, while Choi was just behind her with a 67. So Yeon struggled to an even par round 2, but world’s #2 Na Yeon Choi shot a 68 to move to 9 under total, just a shot out of the lead. Round 3 saw both great stars bring their A Games: Choi moved into the lead at 12 under, with Ryu third at 10 under. This result put both of them in the final group on Sunday, and set up a great duel for the crown.
The battle lived up to its potential. Choi made a big mistake early – a double bogey on the third hole – to let Ryu into the proceedings. But she corrected that in a big way with a brilliant approach on the par 5 5th, setting up a short eagle putt which she made to earn those two dropped strokes back.
The rest of the day, the two battled at the top, trying to get the advantage. They were tied for a while on the back nine. Ryu did not play the 14th well, culminating in a missed short par save that gave Choi a one shot lead.
The crucial moment in the match came on the 16th hole, a drivable par 4. Ryu went for the green, ending up about thirty yards short. Choi chose to lay up. The pin was on the top plateau in the three-tier green, and Choi hit a brilliant approach from around 80 yards to three feet. The pressure was on Ryu, and she couldn’t deliver. In hindsight, it was Choi’s decision to lay up to a comfortable yardage that probably won her the tournament. Choi went on to win by two strokes.
So, no Gangnam dance from So Yeon, but Choi comfortably earned a nice house: in just her two LPGA wins alone, she made over a million dollars, and her year’s total of nearly $2 million was the second highest total money ever earned by a Korean golfer in a single season.
Na Yeon Choi vs. Inbee Park, Sime Darby
Na Yeon Choi took a share of the first round lead at the LPGA’s only event in Malaysia, the Sime Darby, and extended her lead to 2 shots at the halfway point. But on the back nine during round 3, Inbee Park went crazy, moving up to 11 under, just two back of Choi. This set up a great battle between the US Open winner and 2012 Money List leader in round 4.
Park played brilliantly on Sunday and moved into a several stroke lead. She seemed to have the thing in the bag when suddenly the wheels started coming off. Somehow she rescued par on the par 5 16th when she putted in from the fringe; that came after she put her drive in the bunker, then hit the lip of the bunker on her second shot and didn’t even get it out of the sand. On the 17th hole, she nearly hit her tee shot in the water, ended up with a plugged lie in deep rough, and still somehow walked off with a bogey. That might have been trouble, except that Choi got what might have been the worst break of the season when HER tee shot was plugged in a greenside bunker on the same hole. It was just about the worst lie you could imagine: not only plugged, but right under the lip to boot. Choi was forced to take an unplayable and made a double bogey in the end.
So Park had the win in the bag, right? Nope, she still made it interesting. On the final hole, she hit her drive in the woods, then botched her escape shot by putting it into a fairway bunker. She was looking at a long third shot over water from the sand. That’s when she finally did what she had to do, striping a superb third shot over the water onto the green, where it rolled to the fringe. From there it was a simple two putt for the win.
Ha Neul Kim vs. Je Yoon Yang, Doosan Match Play quarters
Je Yoon Yang came from absolutely nowhere in 2012 to win the KLPGA Player of the Year award. At the Doosan Match Play, she was matched against the 2011 Player of the Year, Ha Neul Kim, in the quarterfinals. Yang took an early lead and never trailed, eventually winning their match 4 & 3. Yang would go on to win the Player of the Year at the tour’s final event, while Kim finished second in that race, but repeated as the money list leader and won her first Best Scoring Average title as well. But their season-long battle for supremacy was nicely foreshadowed in the Match Play event.
Best Korean Finish
And the Winner Is: CN Canadian Women’s Open
Lydia Ko made history by winning the 2012 CN Canadian Women’s Open. She is a Korean-born New Zealander, and the first amateur to win on the LPGA in more than forty years.
Lost in that amazing achievement is the fact that the Koreans had a phenomenal week in Vancouver. Finishing second after a hole-out from the fairway was Inbee Park, who collected the first place check thanks to Ko’s amateur status. Na Yeon Choi and Chella Choi (no relation) and Jiyai Shin finished tied for third, while Korean-Australian Haeji Kang and Korean American Jane Rah finished tied for 9th. A sweep of the top five by women of Korean ethnicity! Even in this day of brilliant Korean achievements, that’s a pretty awe-inspiring result.
Koreans at the Majors
Koreans won three of the four Majors contested in 2012, and the Evian Masters, which will be a Major in 2013. 2012 was the first year where Korean golfers won more than two Majors in a single year. Even more amazing, in all three Major wins, Koreans finished 1-2. At the Nabisco, Sun Young Yoo beat In Kyung Kim in a playoff. At the US Women’s Open, Na Yeon Choi dominated, but Amy Yang was second place by several shots. And at the Women’s British Open, it was a blowout win for Jiyai Shin, the largest margin of victory (9 shots) since the event had become a Major. But sitting in second place was another Korean, Inbee Park.
Jamie Farr Toledo Classic
The Jamie Farr has always been a great tournament for Korean golfers, and 2012 was no exception. Coming into the final round, four Koreans were tied for the lead – So Yeon Ryu, In Kyung Kim, Hee Kyung Seo and Jiyai Shin – with two more Koreans, Chella Choi and Inbee Park, just a shot back. Ryu ended up torching the field by seven shots; Choi and Park wound up tied for third, Inky tied for 5th with Korean American Jennie Lee, Shin tied for 7th, and Seo tied for 9th. Seven of the top 10 were either Korean or Korean American.
Manulife Financial LPGA Classic
The playoff at this event pitted American Brittany Lang against three Koreans: Hee Kyung Seo, Inbee Park and Chella Choi. Lang wound up winning, but the other three tied for second, with So Yeon Ryu just missing the playoff and tying for fifth. Four Koreans in the top six!