Over the past six seasons, the Korean LPGA tour has experienced an amazing blossoming of talent. Great and sometimes transcendent players have sprung up year after year to entertain fans and impress one and all. Since 2005, the tour has produced players like Na Yeon Choi, currently the top Korean player in the world; Jiyai Shin, who has shattered one record after another; Major winner So Yeon Ryu, currently leading the LPGA Rookie of the Year race; Major winner Eun Hee Ji; Sun Ju Ahn, who has been the top player on the Japanese tour the past two years and might repeat that feat this season; and Bo Mee Lee, Hee Kyung Seo and Ha Neul Kim, who combine great looks with Player of the Year level credentials.
Yes, it has been a great ride, but the nature of the KLPGA is that great players don’t tend to stick around more than a few years before moving on to more lucrative careers on other tours. Choi and Hee Young Park left in 2008; Shin left in 2009 after sweeping the tour Majors in 2008. Seo and Ryu won official LPGA events to earn tour cards in America. Lee left after her Player of the Year season in 2010. One by one, all the stars from this fertile period left for other places – except for one. That player is 2011 Player of the Year Ha Neul Kim.
In some ways, the glamorous Kim is the last of her era. Since 2010, several players have come along who have the potential to become dominating stars on the KLPGA, but none have been able to live up to the recently departed superstars (at least so far). Soo Jin Yang is the most likely to become a huge star. She has consistently been a top five player since her second year on tour in 2010; has won the Korean Women’s Open and Match Play, two of the toughest events on tour; and is very popular with galleries. But even Yang has not yet had a dominating run like Ryu or Seo did in 2009, or Kim did last year. Also waiting in the wings is the amazing teenager Hyo Joo Kim, who earlier this year won a KLPGA event as a 16-year-old by a jaw dropping 9 shot margin. She might be able to pick up the gauntlet left whenever Kim departs. But for now, Ha Neul Kim is the one true superstar on the KLPGA tour. And last week, after a somewhat below par season for her, she at last entered the winner’s circle and threw herself headlong into the race for Player of the Year.
Ha Neul Kim won the 2007 Rookie of the Year award on the KLPGA, and had a three win breakout season in 2008. But after that, she went into a bit of a slump, not winning again until early in the 2011 season. But it was towards the end of last year that Kim emerged as a genuine superstar on the KLPGA. At that point, most observers were predicting that So Yeon Ryu, who had won the US Women’s Open in July, was going to wind up winning all the season ending hardware in Korea. But Kim would have none of it. She started her blistering run at the third Major of the year, the Hite Cup. Ryu took the lead there after two rounds, but an unusual rules infraction in round 3 knocked her for a loop, and an amateur golfer, In Ji Jeon, rose up to take the lead. Jeon was cruising in the final round, taking as much as a four shot lead on the back nine. After a late triple bogey, she fell out of the lead, and Kim took advantage. Just a few holes later, it was Ha Neul Kim hoisting her first Major trophy.
Kim continued her torrid pace the rest of the year. She finished second to Amy Yang at the year’s final Major, the KB Financial Star Championship, then won her third title of the year at the Edaily KYJ Golf Women’s Open. She was poised to win for a fourth time at the final event of the season, the ADT-CAPS, but lost an interminable seven hole sudden death playoff to Young Ran Jo. Nonetheless, her finish was still good enough to allow her to lock up most of the big awards for the 2011 season, including Player of the Year and Money List leader. She was even voted the Most Popular Player by the fans! To cap off her year, she won an unofficial event featuring the top players on tour shortly after that.
Kim continued playing fantastic golf as the 2012 season began. She finished tied for second, just one shot back, at the RACV Australian Ladies Masters, her best ever international finish. She shot 65-64-67 over the final three rounds to get to that point. She managed only a 24th place finish the following week at the Australian Women’s Open, and later notched a 20th as a sponsor’s invite at the Kia Classic. At the year’s first Major, the Kraft Nabisco in late March, she just missed out on her first career top ten in a Major, finishing tied for 11th.
All signs were pointing towards a great 2012 KLPGA season for Ha Neul. She came into the first event of the main part of the KLPGA season in mid-April, the LotteMart Women’s Open, expecting to establish herself as the player to beat. But as it turned out, the spotlight was totally stolen by another player who was not even a member of the tour. That player was 16-year-old amateur Hyo Joo Kim, who took a share of the first round lead following a 66, while Ha Neul struggled to a 75, nine shots back. Anyone who thought the amateur was going to ease up in round two was in for a shock: she shot a 67 to zoom to a staggering seven shot lead. Ha Neul shot a 69 to move up to 13th place, but found herself massively down to the teenager with two rounds to go. Hyo Joo increased the lead to 10 shots early in the third round before struggling a bit and winding up with a 73. Ha Neul made some ground up but was still 7 shots down, although she was now in third place.
On the final day, Ha Neul went out in 33, but still lost ground to the unstoppable teen. But on the back nine, something gave way in Ha Neul. It was as if she had given it her all and had run out of steam. She made four bogies and two pars and slipped to third, a mind-blowing 13 shots behind the high schooler. It was no doubt a humbling experience for the superstar, and not surprisingly, her next event was one of the worst of the past few years: she barely made the cut and finished 63rd.
The next few months, she made a number of top tens to keep herself near the top of the money list, but was not able to get a win. Meanwhile, a new superstar burst onto the scene. With her looks and style, Char Young Kim has been attracting attention since her rookie season in 2010. Her results haven’t been too bad, either: she finished 14th on the money list in her rookie season and 19th last year. But the 21-year-old has made a quantum leap in her career this season. It all started at the Woori Investment and Securities Ladies Championship in May. Hyo Joo Kim was in the field and made a run at a second win, but Mirim Lee seized the lead and looked like she had the thing wrapped up. Char Young would have none of it: she birdied three of the final four holes, caught Lee, forced a playoff, and won on the first playoff hole. Suddenly, one of the tour’s biggest glamour girls had a title in her pocket.
And she wasn’t done: she won the next event on tour as well, the Doosan Match Play, beating last year’s Rookie of the Year Yeon Ju Jung in the finals. Kim collected a third win in August to solidify her status as the top player on the money list. Meanwhile, Ha Neul continued to collect top tens, but was not able to get a win. The gauntlet had been thrown down. Could Ha Neul, the original tour It Girl, beat the younger model? Could she find the form that allowed her to dominate the end of 2011, or would Char Young continue her march towards the Player of the Year?
Ha Neul Kim’s chance finally came in October at the Rush and Cash Charity Classic. Char Young Kim was skipping the event to help an undisclosed injury heal. But in the first two rounds, the player who seized the day was Young Ran Jo, the same player who had beaten Kim in the season ending playoff the previous year. By the end of the second day, Jo had a three shot lead over second place and a four shot lead over Kim.
Things didn’t seem to be getting better for Ha Neul in round three. Jo made two more birdies and at the turn, with nine holes to play, she held a five shot lead. But on the back nine it was a different story. Jo bogied 13, 15 and 16 to fall back to 7 under total. At the same time, Ha Neul Kim made her move, making birdies on 11, 14 and 16. By the time she birdied 16, Kim had climbed into the lead for the first time all week. And this time, Jo was not able to make the extra birdie she needed to force another playoff. After an 11 month wait, Ha Neul Kim had her 7th career KLPGA win.
The victory vaulted Kim into second on the money list behind Char Young, and first in the Player of the Year standings. This is the precise time last year when Kim made her big move to win the big prizes; in fact, she defends her title at the Hite Cup as the next tournament she plays. Char Young Kim will be in that field, and rest assured that the two Glamour Girls will be duking it out for the tour honors the rest of the year. But at last, Ha Neul Kim has re-established herself as the tour’s resident superstar. For Ha Neul, whose name translates as ‘sky’, the sky is once again literally the limit!