Posted by: happyfan08 | April 10, 2013

2013 KLPGA Primer

It’s early April, and that means it’s time once again for the Korean LPGA season to start in earnest.  As in past years, there were previous events that counted towards this season contested in December of the previous year.  But unlike in the past, there were two events in that special ‘pre-season’ timeframe, one more than previously: the Swinging Skirts in Taiwan, and the Hyundai Ladies China Open in China.

Here now is a preview of what to expect as the action heats up!

Top Stars

This season, no major stars from the tour are leaving to play on other tours.  In most years, the KLPGA loses a few name players, but for whatever reason, the top players on tour decided to stay put this time.  The following are the players who look to be big names on the tour in 2013.

Ha Neul Kim – Money List Queen

Ha Neul Kim

Without any question, Ha Neul Kim comes into the 2013 season as the Queen of the KLPGA tour.  She repeated for the second straight year as top money earner in 2012, and also grabbed the title for low scoring average.  She just narrowly missed out on the trifecta by finishing second in Player of the Year, and only managed a single win in 2012 compared to three in 2011, but otherwise it was another stellar year for the fashionable star.

Kim has stated that she has no interest in going to a Qualifying School for another tour, and hopes to win membership on the LPGA or JLPGA by winning a tournament.  Former KLPGA stars Jiyai Shin, So Yeon Ryu and Hee Kyung Seo all earned LPGA membership in just this way.  To this end, Kim played in several international tournaments in 2012.  She didn’t win, but did achieve a career best international finish (a tie for second at the Australian Ladies Masters), a best Major result when she finished tied for 11th at the Kraft Nabisco, and a best ever finish on the LPGA, a tie for 7th at the Hana Bank Championship.  If Kim continues to play internationally in 2013, she might just be able to earn that tour card as she is planning.

Ha Neul with her lone trophy of 2012 @ the Rush & Cash tournament

Meanwhile, she was extremely consistent on the KLPGA.  Though she had only one win, she finished outside the top 20 in only three tour events, with 10 top tens.  This total included the win, two seconds and three thirds.  She started the 2013 season with a 9th at the Swinging Skirts and a 10th in China, and nearly made a top ten in the first LPGA event she played, the Kia Classic, where she finished tied for 13th.  She added a tie for 52nd at the year’s first Major, the Kraft Nabisco.

Kim will definitely face big challenges on the KLPGA in 2013 (see below!), but still looks good to be one of the big names in Korean golf in the coming year.

Ha Neul

Char Young Kim – Most Popular and Most Wins

Char Young Kim with one of her three 2012 trophies

One of the breakout stars of the 2012 season was Char Young Kim.  Before last year, Kim was primarily known for her looks and style.  She had been featured in several magazine articles and layouts in Korea.  Her game was not bad by any means (she finished 19th on the tour money list in 2011), but she was hardly one of the top names on tour.

That all changed in a big way in 2012.  Kim notched three KLPGA wins that season, the most of any player on tour.  Included among those victories were back-to-back titles at the Woori Investment & Securities Ladies Championship and the Doosan Match Play.  Winning the Match Play event on tour is particularly tough, because it involves playing so many rounds of golf, and she wound up defeating a tough opponent, 2011 Rookie of the Year Yeon Jun Jung, 2 & 1 in the final.  Kim was also voted the Most Popular player by the tour fans in 2012.

The biggest knock on Kim is that she has not yet achieved a lot of consistency.  She finished third on the tour money list largely because of those three wins.  She did have four other top tens, but generally was well out of the other events she played.  If she can find a way to grab more high finishes even when her game is not on track, she could definitely challenge for the top spot on tour in 2013.  But regardless, expect her to attract a lot of attention in 2013.

Char Young did a lot of publicity events in 2012, like tossing out a ceremonial pitch at a baseball game

Je Yoon Yang – The Player of the Year Surprise

Je Yoon Yang, 2012’s KLPGA Player of the Year

Je Yoon Yang was probably the biggest surprise of all on the 2012 KLPGA tour.  She joined the tour in 2011 as an unheralded 18-year-old, and had a decent but unspectacular year, finishing 44th on the money list with three top tens.

But in 2012, she broke out in a big way.  She had a couple of top fives in the first half of the season, but it was in the late summer and fall that she really climbed into the stratosphere.  She had her first career win at the Nefs Masterpiece, and found herself atop the Player of the Year standings soon thereafter.  Ha Neul Kim rallied and recaptured the lead, but Yang continued to hang in with one great finish after another.  She managed a third at the year’s third Major and a second at the final one.  Thus, with one event to go in the season, she was only a few points behind Kim.  She just needed to finish ahead of Kim in the year’s final event, the ADT-CAPS, and she would be Player of the Year.  She did more than that: she won the event to become POY with an exclamation point.

Je Yoon Yang at the 2012 Doosan Match Play

So what’s next for the 20-year-old?  The KLPGA has seen players have great years before only to fade the following season.  Hyun Hwa Shim, for instance, was second on the tour money list in 2011, but last year she missed a ton of cuts and did not even finish in the top 50.  Time will tell if Yang is a one hit wonder, but for the moment she is definitely one of the players to watch for 2013.

Soo Jin Yang – the Sleeper

Soo Jin Yang

Year after year, one of the most consistent stars on the KLPGA tour is Soo Jin Yang.  Still only 21, Yang has been a tour member for four years, and finished in the top five on the money list the past three seasons.  In 2012, she had one win and 8 other top tens, including a second and a third.  She finished fifth on the tour money list.  She has also started making waves in international competition.  She finished tied for third at the year-ending Swinging Skirts event in Taiwan, facing a field of most of the top women golfers in the world.  Just a few weeks ago, she played in the field at the Ladies European Tour’s China event, the Mission Hills World Championship, and notched a tie for 4th.

Yang hasn’t won any year-ending awards, but her consistency and length off the tee – she has been one of the longest drivers on the KLPGA for several years – makes her a constant threat to become the top player on tour.  She seems to just be reaching the age where she might take her game to the next level.  With all the focus on Ha Neul Kim the past few years, Yang sometimes gets forgotten, but she has all the ingredients to be a big star, perhaps even this season.

Soo Jin posed for Golf Digest Korea last year

Hyo Joo Kim – The Rookie Sensation

Hyo Joo Kim

Like a freight train coming, Hyo Joo Kim has been making an increasing amount of noise in the world of women’s golf over the past few seasons.  Still just 17 years old (she turns 18 this July), Kim has been contending at KLPGA events since she was 14.  Meanwhile, she had quietly become one of the top amateurs in the world, leading the Korean national team to all sorts of impressive international victories in the process.

In 2012, however, Kim took her game to an all new level.  As a 16-year-old, she played at the KLPGA’s LotteMart Ladies Open and absolutely destroyed the field.  She ended up winning the event by a staggering 9 shots, the second largest win an amateur had ever managed on that tour (the largest was ten shots by none other than Se Ri Pak back in 1995).  She beat Ha Neul Kim that week by 13 shots; and Ha Neul finished THIRD.

A few months later, Kim played her first ever Japanese tour event.  In the final round, she shot a league record 61 to come from behind and capture a four-shot win.  She became the youngest girl to ever win on the JLPGA, breaking the record held by the legendary Ai Miyazato.  Kim would go on to capture another pro event in Taiwan and finish fourth on the LPGA tour at the Evian Masters in France, all before turning pro in October.  Lydia Ko, the New Zealand sensation, got far more press, but Kim actually won MORE pro events last year in a shorter time span than even Ko did, and she was only a year and a half older than the Kiwi.

In December, Hyo Joo won her first event as a KLPGA member while wearing a funny hat

Kim joined the KLPGA as a rookie in December, and wasted no time making her mark.  She won her second event as a member, the Hyundai China Ladies Open.  Thus, she became the quickest to ever grab a win on the KLPGA after turning pro.

Hyo Joo Kim has all the makings of a superstar.  She signed the largest sponsorship deal (with Lotte) for a Rookie on the KLPGA since Se Ri Pak.  She already has two career KLPGA wins and is months away from her 18th birthday.  She notched an 8th place at the LET’s Mission Hills event a few weeks ago.  She not only is the prohibitive favorite for Rookie of the Year in 2013, she should contend for all the top awards on tour.  Watch out for Hyo Joo Kim in 2013!

Other Rookies who could challenge Hyo Joo Kim

It’s difficult to find a list of KLPGA Rookies on the internet or on their website.  Some players who turned pro in 2013 in fact will play on a developmental tour and not be true rookies.  Among the players who look likely to be tour rookies this year:

Jung Min Cho was the #1 ranked amateur in the world just a few years ago.  Playing as Cecilia Cho, she was based in New Zealand and broke all sorts of records as youngest player to accomplish various things, before she ran into an even younger and better Korean-born player named Lydia Ko.  Now a pro, Cho played last year on the KLPGA’s Dream Tour.  She’s in the field for the LotteMart Ladies Open and looks likely to be a full-time KLPGA rookie this year.  If so, she would definitely be someone who could challenge Hyo Joo Kim.  Kim, for all her accomplishments, never managed to reach #1 in the amateur ranks (her highest ranking was #2).

Jung Eun Han was one of Hyo Joo Kim’s teammates on the Korean National team a few years ago.  Like Kim, Han contended in multiple KLPGA tournaments as a teenager.  When she turned pro, she joined the Dream Tour, where in 2012 she won three times, finished second three other times, and topped the money list.  If she can get anywhere near to the form she had as an amateur, she could be a big star in the pro ranks.

Seon Woo Bae played on the Jump Tour last year, where she was a dominant presence.  She has a great record there:  four wins, one second, and two other top tens in 12 tournaments (only two finishes outside the top 20). Earlier this year she shot a 64 at the LET’s New Zealand Ladies Open and finished fourth.

Seon Woo Bae in New Zealand earlier this year

Last year’s Breakthroughs

Two players broke through on tour last year after having been touted as potential stars in previous seasons only to underperform.

Jung Min Lee won a tournament back in her rookie year of 2010, and, with her long driving, seemed like a potential superstar in the making.  But after that, she struggled mightily.  In 2011, she only finished 66th on the money list with just a single top ten.  In 2012, she bounced back at last, capturing her second win at the Seokyung Ladies Open after having several other top fives.  She finished 6th on the money list.

Jung Min Lee

Ha Na Jang received even more hype than Lee when she turned pro back in 2010.  She had already contended in two KLPGA Majors in 2009 as a teenage amateur, coming within a shot of winning the second of these.  She played a mini tour in Korea after turning pro, then joined the KLPGA in 2011.  She never really challenged the Rookie of the Year, Yeon Ju Jung, that season, and finished 32nd on the money list.

But in 2012 she at last arrived as a full-fledged star on tour.  She started the year missing five of her first six cuts, and did not make her first top ten until September.  But after that, she notched two top fives, then won the year’s final Major for her first tour victory.  She was 10th on the 2012 money list.  Jang is a proven winner at the amateur level, and like Lee, she hits the ball a long way.

Ha Na Jang won last year’s KB Star Championship

Some other names to watch:

Hye Youn Kim

Kim has won at least once in each of the past few seasons, and looks ready for another top ten caliber season on tour.  Could this be the year she breaks out and gets to the next level?

Hye Youn Kim last December

Ran Hong

Hong is perpetually a top ten player without ever becoming one of the very best.  Her 2012 season was typical: no wins, but 9 top tens, including a third, two fourths and a fifth.  She certainly has the capability to take it to the next level at pretty much any time.

Ran Hong

Yoon Kyeong Heo

Heo had a great season on the KLPGA tour in 2012, even though she was not able to win.  She did manage four runner-up finishes, ending up second behind both So Yeon Ryu and Se Ri Pak when the two LPGA stars visited the tour to play different events.  She also had a second place finish at the year’s final Major.  All those great results allowed her to finish second on the money list behind only Ha Neul Kim.  Will she finally get her first career win in 2013?

Yoon Kyeong Heo and a young fan last Christmas

Ji Hee Kim

2012 KLPGA Rookie of the Year Ji Hee Kim

The 2012 KLPGA Rookie of the Year did not have a really great year, but she has a lot of potential to break out in 2013.

Get ready for the 2013 KLPGA season to start at this week’s LotteMart Ladies Open!

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Posted by: happyfan08 | March 2, 2013

Young and Younger

As the 2013 golf season has started to gain steam, the big story of the year so far has been the amazing achievements of Asian teenagers in virtually every significant tournament played so far.  The year started with 15-year-old Korean New Zealander Lydia Ko trying to defend her title at the Australian Women’s Amateur; she lost to 16-year-old Korean Australian Minjee Lee, who won that event for the first time in her career.  Just a week later, Ko and Lee met again at the New South Wales Open, where Ko was again defending her title.  In 2012, she had become the youngest girl to ever win a professional event when she triumphed there.  In 2013, Ko finished second and Lee third.

Minjee Lee with her 2013 Australian Women’s Amateur trophy

The fireworks were far from done.  The next week was the Australian Ladies Masters, and though Karrie Webb won for the 8th time, another 16-year-old Korean Australian amateur, Su Hyun Oh, finished second.  The following week came the New Zealand Open, and Ko bagged her third professional title in front of her home fans, in the process becoming the first New Zealander to win that event.  18-year-old newly minted pro Seon Woo Bae shot a 64 in round 2 and wound up fourth, with Oh managing a top ten as well.

Lydia Ko is overcome with emotion after winning her country’s national open title

And it wasn’t just ethnic Koreans making their marks at these events.  The Thai Jutanugarn sisters, Moriya and Ariya, managed to contend at several of these events as well, topped by a tie for second at the Masters for Ariya.

So by the time the LPGA season started at the ISPS Handa Australian Women’s Open on February 13th, a narrative was developing: how well would the very young girls in the field do, and would they be able to beat the LPGA superstars also playing?  Both this event and the tour’s second event the following week, the Honda LPGA Thailand, would wind up featuring a battle between one of those young guns and an established Korean LPGA superstar for the big prize, and both would go down to the final few holes before a winner was determined.

The Australian Women’s Open featured the 15-year-old superstar Ko fresh off her New Zealand Open win.  Looking to make it two in a row, the white-hot Ko did not take very long to make her presence felt in Canberra.  In fact, on the first day, paired with world’s #1 golfer Yani Tseng and popular American star Michelle Wie, Ko produced one of the best rounds of golf anyone had seen in a very long time.  Despite making three bogies, she still managed a 10 under par 63, a round which included 11 birdies and an eagle, to soar into the lead.  Even Tseng, who shot a comparatively tame 68, was amazed, watching the youngster make one brilliant shot after another.  Ko’s unbelievable round was a shot heard round the world, and if she had already been attracting the most attention at the tournament even before this, now she was the uncontested top draw.

Lydia in the second round of the Australian Women’s Open

While Ko was getting the attention, former world #1 Jiyai Shin quietly shot her own 8 under par 65 to take third place.  Both Ko and Shin played fantastically on day two, and ended the day tied at 14 under par, just a shot out of the lead held by Colombia’s Mariajo Uribe.  But in round three, Uribe faded, while the two Korean-born players rode their accuracy to 3 under par 70s and a tie atop the leaderboard at 17 under.  At last, they would play in the same group together, with the tournament held in the balance.  With the next nearest competitor six shots back, it seemed like a two-horse race.

The hype for the contest was such that the Golf Channel in the US made an unprecedented move: they showed the entire final round between the two LIVE in prime time Saturday night.  Crowds showed up by the droves, most of them rooting Ko on to make history.  Shin, meanwhile, wanted to make sure it was she who raised her third trophy in her past seven LPGA starts.  She had last been paired with Ko in the final round Sunday at the Canadian Women’s Open.  Ko would go on to win that event (Shin finished third), becoming the youngest girl to ever win on that tour.  Shin was doubtless looking for a little payback.

Ko had a serious case of the jitters by the time she got to the first tee.  She knocked her drive into the woods, and was not able to get out with her second shot.  By the time the hole was done, she was walking off with a crushing double bogey.  Shin, meanwhile, hit a laser approach shot to a foot for a birdie.  After just one hole, the veteran had a three shot lead.

In the fourth round of the Aussie Open, Lydia got out to a poor start

Things got worse for Ko on the second hole when she three putted to increase her deficit to four.  But after that, she regrouped, making birdies on holes 4 and 5 while Shin bogied 5.  By the time they reached the sixth hole, Ko had climbed back to within a shot.  Ko bogied the 10th hole to increase her deficit to two, but a two shot swing in Ko’s favor on 12 resulted in a tie for the lead for the first time since the start of the round.  With six holes to play, it was still anyone’s game.

The momentum was in the teenager’s direction, but Shin was still rock steady and not going to give up without a fight.  She hit the fairway on 14 while Ko landed in a bunker.  But Shin’s second shot was terrible, and wound up behind an advertising sign near the green; she was short sided as well.  Amazingly, they did not remove the sign, and Shin would have to stand right next to it in order to hit her third shot.  Even more incredibly, her graceful pitch from the nearly impossible lie turned out to be the best shot of the week: a high, lazy arcing shot that landed gently on the green and rolled right into the cup for a birdie.  The stunned Ko missed her par save moments later, and Shin once again had a two shot advantage over the determined teen.

Jiyai Shin was all smiles as she finished up her win in Australia, the first time a Korean had ever won this tournament

Shin made birdie on the next hole, the par 5 15th, and wound up with a two shot win over Yani Tseng, who rallied to finish second ahead of Ko.  Ko wound up third after shooting a final round 76.  In all, it was another fabulous performance by the teenage wunderkind, although it also showed that she still isn’t the unbeatable top player she might one day become.  Thai teen Moriya Jutanugarn finished fourth.

The next week, the tour shifted to Thailand for the LPGA’s yearly visit to that country.  Ko was once again in the field and had a good finish, tied for 14th, although she never really contended for the title.  But the teenage mantle was taken up by the Thai Jutanugarn sisters, Moriya and Ariya.  Those two had been among Ko’s biggest amateur rivals before they turned pro at the end of last year.  Moriya attended LPGA Q-school, where she earned membership by finishing first (in a tie with Korean Canadian Rebecca Lee-Bentham).  But Ariya, a year younger, was denied her request to be given a special exemption to the tour’s minimum age limit.  Undaunted, she attended European tour Q-School, which she ended up winning.  So, two sisters, two top finishes at two different Q-Schools.  What a way to start their pro careers!

Ariya was given a sponsor’s exemption to play in her home country’s event, and she made the most of it.  The first round leader was American Stacy Lewis, who shot a record-breaking 63.  Lewis continued to lead after day 2, with Jutanugarn in second place three shots back.  Following a run of birdies on the back nine on Saturday, Ariya overtook Lewis and claimed her own three shot lead.  She was in a position to make a major statement to the LPGA powers-that-be who had deemed her unready for the league just a few months earlier.

Ariya Jutanugarn during round 3 of the Honda LPGA Thailand

As for the Koreans, the player who looked most likely to end Ariya’s fairy tale run was the Legend herself, Se Ri Pak.  Pak, making her season premiere, gutted out three great rounds to forge a second place position at 8 under, giving her a spot in the final group Sunday with Ariya.  Would the wily veteran be able to dash the hopes of the hard-hitting, go-for-broke teen?

Se R Pak in Thailand

Alas, Se Ri was not feeling 100%, having caught a cold, and never played well on Sunday from the opening tee shot.  Jutanugarn, meanwhile, hung tight to her lead.  With Pak effectively neutralized, it fell to a group of other Korean stars to challenge.   Jiyai Shin, fresh off her win, never got it going and finished tied for 14th.  IK Kim got started a bit too late and notched a top ten.  Na Yeon Choi and So Yeon Ryu, playing in the same group together, both had good days, but still finished several shots behind the leaders: Ryu ended up tied for third, Choi solo 7th.

The one Korean young gun who did make a charge was 24-year-old Inbee Park.  Park, also making her first appearance of 2013, shot a 32 on the front nine to move to 11 under, which put her just a shot behind Ariya.  After birdies on 10 and 11, Park found herself in the lead, with Ariya’s nerves seemingly sending her in the wrong direction in a hurry.

Inbee Park in round 4 of the Thailand event

But just when it looked like she was on the ropes, Ariya made a shot for the ages.  On the 12th hole, a par 3, she nailed a hole-in-one to jump one shot ahead of Park.  Riding her momentum from that, she surged to a three shot lead, dropped a shot soon after, but still had a two shot cushion with one hole left.  Meanwhile, Park could not buy a break.  She lipped out a birdie putt on 17, and after getting next to the green in two shots on the par 5 18th, she botched her approach pitch, hit a precise masterpiece of a chip downhill to a foot and saved par.  She was in the house at 12 under, still two behind her teen rival.  Ariya stood on the 18th tee with her wildly cheering country people eagerly awaiting the first ever win by a Thai woman on the LPGA tour.  That it would happen in Thailand made it all the more special.

Then everything went south.  She hit a perfect drive, but weirdly decided to go for the green in two instead of laying up (keep in mind she only needed a bogey to win).  She hit her approach very thin into a fairway bunker, where it plugged into an unplayable lie.  She then dropped in the bunker, and hit a crummy fourth shot over the green into the same treacherous area Park had chipped from moments earlier.  She putted from there, but botched that, leaving it short of the green.  She hit her 6th shot three feet past the hole, and now needed to make that putt to force a playoff.  But she lipped it out, making a triple bogey 8 on the hole.  Amazingly, she had gone from an almost certain win to a one shot loss in the space of a single hole, showing exactly the kind of youthful mistakes she had largely avoided the rest of the week.

Inbee could not believe her luck.  She won her fourth LPGA tournament while sitting in the comfort of the clubhouse, the first time she had ever been given a gift like that.  But she had earned it, too, for she was the only player who put any kind of pressure on Jutanugarn on the back nine.  For the sobbing teenage star, it was another hard lesson learned: these pro women are good, and course management and emotional control is as important an element of the game as driving and putting.

Inbee captured her fourth career LPGA win in Thailand

Interestingly, Park’s win was her second straight victory that happened after an opponent hit an unplayable ball into a bunker late in the tournament.  At the 2012 Sime Darby Malaysia, Na Yeon Choi had done the same thing on the 17th hole on Sunday, effectively ending her challenge of Park.

So two weeks on the LPGA, two epic battles between young Korean LPGA stars and even younger teenage stars of tomorrow.  In both cases the elder players prevailed, but you can be sure we have not heard the last of these precocious youngsters!

Posted by: happyfan08 | January 18, 2013

2012 SeoulSisters Awards Main Page

It’s time once again for the annual SeoulSisters awards, where I pick my 2012 winners for a whole bunch of awards!  Here’s a handy guide to which awards are available on what pages.

Page 1:

Best Start to the season
Biggest Disappearing Act
Best Korean Confrontation
Best Korean Finish

https://seoulsisters.wordpress.com/2013/01/12/2012-seoulsisters-awards-1-of-7-best-start/

Page 2:

Best Breakthrough
Cinderella of the Year (the year’s most unlikely winner)
Great Performance that came up short

https://seoulsisters.wordpress.com/2013/01/13/2012-seoulsisters-awards-2-of-7-best-breakthrough/

Page 3:

Clutch Performance of the Year
Biggest Disappointment
Most Dominating Performance

https://seoulsisters.wordpress.com/2013/01/13/2012-seoulsisters-awards-3-of-7-clutchness-disappointment-domination/

Page 4:

Shot of the Year
Round of the Year
Most Controversial Moment
Tournament of the Year

https://seoulsisters.wordpress.com/2013/01/14/2012-seoulsisters-awards-4-of-7-best-shot-round-tournament-of-the-year/

Page 5:

Most Fashionable
Most Touching Moment
Best Teen
Best Hot Streak

https://seoulsisters.wordpress.com/2013/01/15/2012-seoulsisters-awards-5-of-7-fashionable-most-touching-best-teen/

Page 6:

Rookie of the Year
Rookie to Watch in 2013
Most Improved Player

https://seoulsisters.wordpress.com/2013/01/17/2012-seoulsisters-awards-6-of-7-rookie-of-the-year-most-improved/

Page 7:

Player of the Year

https://seoulsisters.wordpress.com/2013/01/17/2012-seoulsisters-awards-7-of-7-player-of-the-year/

Posted by: happyfan08 | January 17, 2013

2012 SeoulSisters Awards (7 of 7): Player of the Year

Player of the Year

And the Winner Is: Inbee Park

Inbee Park

I don’t think I’ve ever had a harder time deciding who should be given the Player of the Year award than I did this year.  I considered literally six different golfers (I’ll get to them all), five of whom had career years, before finally deciding that Inbee Park’s career year was the most special of all.  This despite the fact that two of the ladies she beat won Majors and Park did not, and two other shattered age records.  But when Inbee got going on her amazing streak the latter 2/3 of the season, she ignited the kind of suspense I haven’t seen since the salad days of Jiyai Shin, Se Ri Pak and Grace Park.  Namely, it seemed like she would be in the hunt every single week, and the only question was, would she win or have to settle for a second or third place?

Park had two wins on the LPGA tour, which tied her with Jiyai Shin and Na Yeon Choi for tops among the Koreans.  Those two ladies won Majors, while Inbee did not.  Park did, however, win the Evian Masters, which will be a Major in 2013, and which is without question the most important non-Major on tour.  She had 12 top tens, and ten of those were top fives.  Besides her two wins, she had six second place finishes, a third and a fourth.  Simply put, she was a golfing machine.

Inbee at the Evian Masters

Her consistency enabled her to make $2,287,080 in 2012, the most money any Korean golfer has ever made on the LPGA in a single year, and the first time a Korean has broken the 2 million dollar mark.  She also led the league in scoring and won the Vare Trophy, such an important honor that it earns a player a Hall of Fame point.   If she had been a little more lucky, and a little more clutch, she might have walked away with several more wins.  She was the top pro at the Canadian Open, behind only the teen amateur Lydia Ko.  She had a great chance to win in Taiwan and at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational, leading both events for a while before falling back to the field on Sunday.  She also lost in a playoff at the Manulife.  Even the British Open was not out of reach on the final day, although she struggled far too much early to have had any chance of catching Shin there.  Still, she managed a solo second.  She had 9th place finishes at the LPGA Championship and US Women’s Open for three total Major top tens.

Statistically, she was extremely strong.  She led the league in both putting statistics, was second in rounds under par and rounds in the sixties, third in birdies, and second in Player of the Year points.

Inbee won the Vare Trophy in 2012 for low scoring average

Park had one of the most blistering runs of great golf in some time.  Her ten straight top tens included two wins, four runner-up finishes and one third place.  After missing the top ten for the first time in four months, she had a runner-up finish in her next start, and another two events after that.

As if all those runner-up finishes were not enough, Inbee also had at least four runner-up finishes on the Japanese tour, three of those in Majors.  If Park would have found a way to close better, it’s not inconceivable she could have won all of those Majors, so close were her near misses.

Inbee was all smiles when she returned to Korea in July following her Evian win

To end her season, Inbee played on the Korean team in the Korea-Japan team competition.  She won both her matches and earned the MVP award.  She finished the year ranked 4th in the world.

Inbee credited her fiancé, who is also a golf teaching pro, with her newfound confidence on the course (and no doubt happiness off of it).  It was a career year in every way for the sixth year pro, and thus she earns the Seoul Sisters Player of the Year award!

Inbee was the MVP at the Korea-Japan team competition

Other Nominees:

Na Yeon Choi

Na Yeon Choi

The difference between Na Yeon Choi and Inbee Park was razor-thin in 2012.  The main knock against Choi is that she was not nearly as consistent as Park; in most statistical categories, Park had the edge.  However, Choi had a string of brilliant accomplishments of her own.

Like Park, Choi won three times in 2012: twice on the LPGA tour and one other non-tour event.  But each of Choi’s wins were just a little more impressive than Park’s.  Choi won the biggest event of them all, the US Women’s Open, for her first Major, and capped her season with a triumph at the CME Group TitleHolders Tour Championship, one of the most important non-Majors on tour.  A few weeks after that, she won the Swinging Skirts in Taiwan, a Silly Season event that attracted most of the top golfers in the world, including all six of the finalists for this award.  Those are three pretty impressive wins; I would say it was the most impressive slate of victories of any of my six nominees for this award, including Inbee Park.

Na Yeon in Taiwan in December, site of her third win of 2012

Choi did not win any post-season awards, although she did well in several statistical categories.  Thanks to her big win at the CME, she finished second on the money list with $1,981,834, which was the second highest season ending money total ever accumulated by a Korean (behind only Inbee).  She only finished 5th in scoring average, however, well behind Inbee, and 3rd in Player of the Year, one slot behind Inbee.

Choi takes the mike

Choi managed 10 top tens on the year, with six top fives; besides her two wins, she had three seconds and a third.  Those are great numbers, but again all are behind Inbee’s numbers.  One of her runner-up finishes came against Inbee at the Sime Darby.  At the Majors, Choi had the win at the Open, an 8th at the Kraft, and a 13th at the British.  She was disqualified at the LPGA Championship (see ‘Most Controversial Moment’ for more details).

Choi finished the year ranked 2nd in the world.  Like Inbee, she played at the Korea-Japan team event and was undefeated.

Choi’s Major win and more impressive tournament victories were almost enough to offset Park’s statistical superiority and greater consistency, but those things coupled with the Vare and record Money list total were enough to edge the award towards Inbee Park.  It was certainly a banner year for Na Yeon Choi, however, and she seems as if she is on the cusp of becoming the decisive best Korean golfer of her generation if she keeps improving as she has been.

Choi had a career year in 2012

Jiyai Shin

Jiyai Shin

Shin was troubled by injuries all year.  It made it difficult for her to get any kind of roll going.  But despite playing fewer events than the other pros in this list, she still achieved two wins, including a Major, and for a while looked likely to win the Vare Trophy (in the end, she did not play enough rounds to qualify).

Shortly after coming back from an operation, Shin found herself tied for the lead with a round to go at the Jamie Farr,  She faded to 7th there, but just a couple of events later, she was in the final group at the CN Canadian Open.  She finished third, with a front row seat to Ko’s historic win – they played in the final group together.  Shin was finally hitting her stride, though, and she won her next event, the Kingsmill Championship, after besting Paula Creamer in a ridiculously long 9 hole, two-day playoff.  Arriving in Britain later than almost anyone else, Shin played the British Open superlatively, crushing the competition by nine shots for her second straight win less than a week after the Kingsmill victory.

This is what Jiyai looked like after her hand operation in June. Three months later she had another Major trophy.

So Shin did have a Major win, unlike Park, but only two world wins in 2012 to three for Inbee.  Statistically, Shin managed 8 top tens in 18 events, with three thirds on top of her two wins (but no seconds).  She also led the scoring average race for a while before fading to 4th, and wound up 7th on the year ending money list with over $1.2 million earned (in 4 – 6 fewer events than most of the other top players).  She was also in the top five in greens in regulation and sand saves and topped the league in percentage of rounds under par.

Like Choi and Inbee, she also won both her matches at the year ending team match, and at the Swinging Skirts, she finished third.  She was in the hunt until nearly the end but made a crucial late mistake to miss the playoff won by Choi.

Shin’s numbers were clearly not as good as Choi or Park, but what makes her notable was that she did all these things despite struggling with injuries much of the year.  Even with that factored in, however, I have to say that Inbee Park outdid the Final Round Queen in 2012.

Jiyai with her Kingsmill trophy

So Yeon Ryu

So Yeon checks out some of the displays at the USGA Museum

I talked about So Yeon’s season in detail in the ‘Rookie of the Year’ award.  As far as this award goes, Ryu has a lot of positives in her favor.  She had only two worldwide wins, one on the LPGA, one on the KLPGA, and no Majors.  She finished behind Choi and Park and just ahead of Shin on the money list, and ended her season with a world ranking of #7.

What was really impressive about Ryu’s season was that she not only managed more top tens (16) than any other Korean, and more top fives as well, but that she did all that as a rookie who had a. never played most of the courses before and b. was dealing with all the challenges that come with moving to a new culture and finding your way there.  On top of which, she was also finishing her college degree simultaneously.

So Yeon in July

She also had some impressive stats: 2nd in putts/GIR (behind Inbee), 2nd in scoring average (again behind Inbee), 3rd in rounds under par and rounds in the 60s, 2nd in birdies, and 5th in Player of the Year.  All these results are very impressive, but she was still almost always behind my choice for Player of the Year, Inbee Park.

So Yeon at the Korea-Japan team Competition

Like the other three LPGA players above, Ryu also won both her matches at the Team competition against Japan (she was teamed with Inbee on the first day).  She finished tied for third at the Swinging Skirts, tied with Shin and behind Choi but ahead of Inbee.

Admittedly the Rookie of the Year had a much harder challenge in 2012 than Inbee Park or Na Yeon Choi in terms of getting used to her new country.  But despite that, and despite her amazing consistency, So Yeon was probably a win or two short of snagging this award away from Park.

It was tough choosing between these four! At the Team Competition, they gave them ALL the Best Player award!!

Lydia Ko

Lydia Ko

Even though Inbee Park won this award, it’s very possible that the real Player of the Year was a golfer who shattered not one but two age records, won some of the biggest events in her sphere, and garnered more attention than any other ethnically Korean golfer in 2012.  I’m not arguing that Lydia Ko is better than any of the four LPGA golfers I’ve already mentioned – she’s not, at least not yet – but in terms of awesomeness, Ko’s 2012 campaign is hard to match.

I already talked about her in some detail in ‘Best Teen’, but to summarize, in 2012 she became the youngest person ever to win a professional event and the youngest to win an LPGA event.  She also won the biggest amateur event in the world, the US Amateur, and drubbed the top amateurs in the world at the biennial Women’s World Team Amateur Championship.  Even if she had done nothing else, that is an incredible run of golf.  In addition, she was the low amateur at the US Women’s Open and Ricoh Women’s British Open, won the Australian Ladies Amateur, and played several other LPGA events, grabbing top 20s in most of those.

Hyo Joo Kim and Lydia Ko at the Swinging Skirts last December. Kim got the better of Ko that week, although neither finished in the top ten

So why isn’t she the Player of the Year?  To be honest, I’m waffling even now.  But on the biggest tour, she managed only one really great performance, the win in Canada.  Her other LPGA events were certainly solid, especially for a girl her age, but nothing that would stun the masses.  Her amateur wins were against women and girls that, for the most part, she outclassed (exceptions noted for the Jutanugarn sisters and Hyo Joo Kim).  Was she perhaps so good as an amateur that we took her for granted a bit?

Maybe.  I’m certainly open to hearing arguments as to why I’m wrong!  But for now, I’ll take Inbee Park’s career year over Lydia Ko’s career year.

Lydia meets the press in Korea in August

Hyo Joo Kim

Hyo Joo Kim

See ‘Best Teen’ for more details about this superstar in the making.  Like Ko, she was great at amateur events, but where Kim shone in 2012 was playing against the big girls in the pro events.  She ended up winning four professional events last year on three different tours.  That’s more than any of the other women on this list managed.  And she wasn’t even a pro until October!  But she finished behind Lydia Ko more often than ahead of her, and was not able to win the LPGA event that would have put her over the edge (though she came close at the Evian).

In sum, it was a great year for the Korean ladies, perhaps the greatest in recent memory.  From amateurs setting records to wins in most of the big events in the world (three Majors, the big US amateur events, the world team championship, the Korea vs. Japan battle), the Koreans were making their mark everywhere in 2012.  Congratulations to them on a job well done, and good luck in 2013!

Rookie of the Year

And the Winner Is: So Yeon Ryu

So Yeon Ryu in August, 2012

Without any question, the top rookie of 2012 was KLPGA star turned LPGA rookie So Yeon Ryu.  Ryu earned her card for the 2012 LPGA tour in the most audacious way imaginable: by winning the biggest women’s golf tournament in the world, the US Women’s Open.  Only one other Korean had ever earned a tour card by winning a Major before, and that golfer, Jiyai Shin, not only easily won Rookie of the Year the following season, she very nearly won Player of the Year as well.

So Yeon and her US Women’s Open trophy

Ryu accomplished a lot in her four seasons on the Korean tour: she chalked up seven wins and finished inside the top five on the money list several times.  But interestingly, she had never won a KLPGA Major, nor so much as a single post-season award (other than the fan-chosen ‘Most Popular’ award).  She had not even been able to claim the Rookie of the Year on the KLPGA, finishing second in 2008 to fellow teen star He Yong Choi.  Shin, by contrast, had been a dominating presence on the Korean tour, winning over twenty times including multiple Majors, and bagging the KLPGA Player of the Year award every year she was eligible.  So there was a question about how Ryu might do on the LPGA in 2012.  No doubt talented, capable of great things, but would it be enough to see her win the Rookie of the Year against some decent competition, including among others teen wunderkind Lexi Thompson and two-time US Women’s Amateur champ Danielle Kang?

Last year, I had this to say about Ryu and her chances:

“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… her consistency should make her tough to beat for the LPGA’s top award nonetheless.”

And indeed, it was her consistency that stood out the most in her amazing rookie season.

What we perhaps didn’t realize was just how much losing the Rookie of the Year on the KLPGA in 2008 still bothered her.  She spent some time discussing this during her Rookie of the Year acceptance speech in November.  She talked about how she obsessed about what small missed opportunities might have cost her the prize: what if she had made that extra birdie putt, or one or two more par saves?  Amazingly, she even began to doubt her overall excellence as a golfer.  Granted, she was only an 18-year-old, so it’s not so hard to believe she would overdramatize what had happened.  But even as a 21-year-old several years later, her near miss still haunted her.  Realizing that the LPGA would be her last chance to claim a Rookie prize, she dedicated herself as fully as ever before to attaining her goal.  Perhaps this uber-motivation led to the incredible results she achieved.

Ryu takes aim at the competition in 2009, her breakout year on the KLPGA tour

Simply put, Ryu was sensational from the moment she laced her golf shoes up in January to the time she took them off for the final time in 2012 in December.  She started her year with two straight runner-up finishes.  Indeed, she came within a missed three-foot putt of winning her very first event as an LPGA member, the Australian Women’s Open.  She also shot an eleven under par 61 during that stretch.  And that was just the first two events she played.

The great play continued and continued.  After narrowly missing a top ten at the HSBC Women’s Champions in Singapore, she grabbed a tie for 4th at the weather challenged RR Donnelly, her first event played in America in 2012.  In April, she notched two more 4th places, and added a 5th place at the Sybase, narrowly missing the final four in this match play event.

So Yeon in July of last year

Some of her other highlights include shooting a final round 64 to narrowly miss making a four-way playoff at the Manulife Financial in June; a fifth place in Taiwan and another in Malaysia; and finishing her year with 6 straight top tens after missing her only cut of the year at the Canadian Women’s Open (alas, the only time I saw her live!).

Interestingly, she did not have a great year in the Majors, at least to start.  She did make all four cuts, however, and her Major performances got progressively better.  She managed a tie for 14th in her title defense at the US Women’s Open, followed by her only top five finish in a Major in 2012, a fifth at the British Open.

Ryu had a number of good chances to win on tour, but only grabbed one trophy.  That came at the Jamie Farr Toledo Classic in August.  Ryu was tied for the lead going into the final round, but shot a blistering 9 under par 62 to obliterate the field by 7 strokes.  She thus became only the fifth LPGA golfer in history to shoot that low a final round to win a tournament; the other four who did it all later became Hall-of-Famers.

So Yeon Ryu

Besides the Australian Open, her best chances to win in 2012 came at the Safeway Classic and the CME Titleholders.  At the Safeway, she engaged in a mano-a-mano battle with Japanese star Mika Miyazato for much of the back nine, but just couldn’t catch a break when she needed it and wound up tied for 4th.  At the CME, she caught third round leader Na Yeon Choi and was tied with her for a while on the back nine, but made a couple of critical mistakes coming in, allowing the rock-steady Choi to grab the two shot win.

In all, So Yeon had a staggering 16 top tens on the LPGA tour in 2012, 12 of which were top fives, in 24 events played.  That tied for the most top tens on tour in 2012.  To put this in perspective, only a couple of Koreans have ever managed more top tens in a single season (the record is 20 by Se Ri Pak), and none of them beat her total as a rookie, not even Pak.  She was 6th on the money list with $1.2 million earned and second in scoring average with a 70.30 average (only Vare Trophy winner Inbee Park was better).  She was top ten in several other statistical categories, including

  • Putting: 29.25 (9th)
  • Putts / GIR at 1.75 (2nd)
  • Rounds under par: 57/86, 66.3% (3rd)
  • Birdies: 356, 4.14 average (2nd)
  • Player of the Year: 131 (5th)

Her final score in the Rookie of the Year race was an astounding 1,448 points, which gave her a 631 point margin of victory over Thompson and more than a thousand point gap over the third ranked rookie.

So Yeon with her Rookie of the Year award

And as if that weren’t enough, she also found the time to return to Korea to play in her sponsor’s event, the Hanwha Finance Classic, which she won for her eighth career KLPGA victory.  In December, she won both of her matches at the Korea-Japan Team competition to help lead Korea to a rout in that event, and she finished tied for third at the Swinging Skirts event in Taiwan, which pitted her against most of the top women golfers in the world.  She ended the year ranked 7th in the world according to the Rolex Rankings, a big improvement over where she was at the start of the year, when she was outside the top 20.  Oh yeah, and she did all this while completing her college degree at Yonsei University!

In every measurable way, So Yeon Ryu more than made up for falling short of the KLPGA Rookie award with her scintillating performance in 2012, on both the LPGA and elsewhere.  Congratulations to her!

So Yeon poses with Korean film star Tae Hee Kim after winning the Hanwha Classic

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Rookie to Watch in 2013

And the Winner Is: Hyo Joo Kim

Lotte won the Sponsor lottery for Hyo Joo Kim when she turned pro in October

The collection of Korean and Korean American players who will be rookies on the LPGA in 2013 is not a particularly large, impressive or deep one.  There is one exception, and we’ll get to her in a moment.  But without any question, the rookie who looks poised to make the most noise in 2013 will not be playing full-time on the LPGA, but rather will be starting her professional career on the KLPGA.  That golfer is Hyo Joo Kim.

I’ve already talked about Kim and her amazing 2012 achievements in the ‘Best Breakthrough’ and ‘Best Teen’ awards, so I won’t repeat them here.  But as far as the Korean tour goes, remember that she already won one event as a 16-year-old amateur and contended as long ago as when she was 14.  Based on that alone, she looks ready to become a top player on the KLPGA.

Add on to that the fact that she has already won in her rookie season, capturing just her second event as a tour member (and her second career KLPGA win) when she won the Hyundai China Ladies Open in December (this event counts towards the 2013 season).

In my opinion, it will not be so much a question of whether Kim will win Rookie of the Year.  I honestly expect, barring injury, she will do that easily.  The real questions are: how many wins will she achieve?  Will she win Player of the Year, becoming the first rookie to do that since Jiyai Shin?  And will she win or seriously contend in one of the LPGA events she will doubtless play in 2013?  Whatever happens, it ought to be seriously fun to watch this major talent develop throughout the year!

Hyo Joo won her second KLPGA event played as a full tour member. What took her so long?

Other nominees:

Esther Choe

Esther Choe is a Korean American golfer who looked primed to become a star when she turned pro in 2007.  But she accomplished almost nothing out of the gate, and it took her until last year to start showing signs of the great golfer many thought she could become.  She won twice on the 2012 Futures Tour and finished atop the tour money list and earned Player of the Year despite only playing 6 events.  Choe also played on the Ladies European Tour, where she managed four top 20s and one top five.  Of all the Koreans and Korean Americans joining the tour this year, she seems the most likely to take the LPGA’s top Rookie honor.

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Most Improved Player

And the Winner Is: Je Yoon Yang

Shhh! Je Yoon Yang, KLPGA Player of the Year, is in the house!

In 2010, Je Yoon Yang was an 18-year-old newly minted professional playing on one of the KLPGA’s developmental tours.  She graduated to the big leagues in 2011, where she had an unexceptional first year, finishing 44th on the money list with three top tens.

In other words, there was little reason to expect that Yang was about to become one of the best players on the KLPGA tour.  Yet in 2012, she won the Player of the Year award, topping stars such as Soo Jin Yang (who has yet to win it) and Ha Neul Kim (2011’s top player).

The first sign that this was going to be a special year for Yang happened in mid-May, when she notched a fifth place finish at the Woori Investment Championship.  The next week, she made it all the way to the final four at the Doosan Match Play and finished fourth.  A very good couple of weeks for Yang, but it still left her far away from the big names on tour.

When she got back to the tour from the summer break, Yang really started the fireworks.  First came the Nefs Masterpiece, where she took a huge lead and, despite a final day struggle, held on for her first career win.  With her third top five finish in her pocket in 2012, she now found herself among the top players on tour.

Je Yoon takes the mike at the site of her first career win, the Nefs Masterpiece

She finished 7th the next week, 11th after that, and notched a 9th at the year’s second Major, the KLPGA Championship.  For the rest of the year, she never finished outside the top 15, and more often than not was in the top ten.  She moved to the top of the Player of the Year standings, and it was not until Ha Neul Kim, the 2011 Player of the Year, put on a strong run after winning the Rush & Cash Charity Championship that Yang was knocked from the top spot.

Still, Yang was tenacious, notching a third at the Hite Cup, the year’s third Major, and a second place at the year’s final Major.  The pitched battle between her and Kim continued when she made yet another top ten, her ninth of the season, at the year’s penultimate event.  As they entered the final tournament, the ADT-Caps, only a few points separated Kim from Yang for Player of the Year.  Basically, whoever finished ahead of the other one at the ADT would probably win the top prize.

Yang not only finished ahead of Ha Neul, she won the tournament, her second of the season, to capture the Player of the Year crown in style.  She also finished fourth on the money list with over 400 million won in earnings, and third in the scoring average race with a 71.74 average.

Je Yoon’s second win came at the year ending ADT-CAPS. The win also clinched Player of the Year for her.

Almost no one knew Je Yoon Yang’s name at the start of the KLPGA season.  But going into 2013, she will be one of the names to watch.  Whether she can duplicate her performance remains to be seen, but no doubt she was the Most Improved golfer of 2012.

Other Nominees:

Inbee Park

Inbee Park had a career year, winning twice on the LPGA, once on the JLPGA, leading the LPGA money list and winning the Vare Trophy.  Park had always been one of the better Korean golfers in the world, but without question, 2012 was her best year ever.  In 2009, the year after she won the US Women’s Open, Park finished 50th on the money list.  She improved to 11th in 2010, and was 31st in 2011.  So, she has never been exactly bad, and in some years she was very good.

Still, the improvement in every facet of her game in 2012 was something to behold.  She ended the year with 12 top tens, her career best, and became the first Korean to ever earn more than $2 million in a single season.  She had multiple wins in a single season for the first time in her career, and had 6 additional second places.  And she did that while having the lowest scoring average of her career and playing a decent schedule in Japan, where she also won once in 2012.

Indeed, Inbee without question asserted herself as a proto-superstar with her brilliance, particularly with the putter, where she was easily the best in the league.  If it weren’t for the fact that she had already had some brilliant seasons in the past, and even in 2011 was a fairly good golfer, she might have been more than just a runner-up in this category.

Bo Mee Lee

Bo Mee with her first JLPGA win of 2012

Bo Mee Lee had somewhat of a strange season in 2011.  She had just graduated from the KLPGA and planned on playing full-time on the JLPGA.  But the tsunami in March changed her plans, and she found herself gravitating towards the KLPGA again.  She did manage to win the low Scoring Average on tour, but did not have a win in 2011.

In 2012, particularly the end of the season, Lee returned with a vengeance.  She won her first career Japanese title at the Daikin Orchid Ladies in March, beating no less than two-time money list leader Sun Ju Ahn in a playoff.

Jump to November, and Lee was playing in the LPGA’s Mizuno Classic, the lone LPGA event taking place in Japan.  Lee shot a blistering second round 64 to take the lead, and held onto that lead much of the final round.  Alas, she was not able to win, as Stacy Lewis made up a seven stroke deficit to take the crown.  But Lee finished second in a tough field, just a stroke behind Lewis.  It was a good omen for the rest of the season.

The very next week, Lee won again, taking the Ito En Ladies tournament for her second win of the season.  And she wasn’t done yet, for a few weeks later, she won the season ending Ricoh Cup, the year’s final Major, to move to second on the year ending money list.

Bo Mee Lee

Bo Mee’s improvement from 2011 was impressive, but she misses out on the award because, after all, she is Smile Candy, the 2010 KLPGA Player of the Year, and not exactly a player unused to being near the top.  It was a great step up from 2011, but nothing like the one Yang accomplished.

Char Young Kim

Char Young tosses the first pitch at a Korean baseball game

Char Young Kim finished in the top 20 on the KLPGA money list with five top tens.  Certainly not a bad performance.  But in 2012, she won three times, the most of anyone on tour, with seven total top tens.  She finished third on the money list as well.  It was a giant step up for the player who was named ‘Most Popular’ by the fans.  But she was certainly a better player in 2011 than Yang was, so she was not the Most Improved.

Most Fashionable

And the winners are: the KLPGA Golfers

The ladies on the KLPGA tour have become known as much for their fashion sense as their talent.  Whether it is stars like Ha Neul Kim, Soo Jin Yang or Char Young Kim, or lesser known players like Yu Na Park, the ladies of that tour seem to have an endless supply of sartorial surprises up their sleeves (when they are wearing outfits that even have sleeves!).  Below are a few notable looks from the 2012 season!

Ha Neul Kim has been one of the fashion stars on the KLPGA since joining the tour in 2007.  This green spotted shirt really stood out among her many noteworthy outfits in 2012.

Ha Neul Kim

Nobody does trophy chic like Ha Neul!

Ha Neul with her only KLPGA trophy of 2012, the Rush & Cash Charity Classic

Ha Neul rocks an American-flag-motif outfit.  Which is odd considering she’s Korean, but it still looks snazzy!

Ha Neul Kim

Chae Young Yoon won the Best Dresser award in 2012.  This is an award voted on by the fans in Korea.

Chae Young Yoon

Char Young Kim won the Most Popular award in 2012, another fan-voted award.  She gets a lot of love from the press, too.  Here’s a striking photo from one of her many golf magazine photo shoots.

Char Young Kim

On the course, Kim favors simpler outfits.  Here’s a good example of what she brings to the table.

Char Young Kim dressed for cold weather

Soo Jin Yang is the budding artist with a love of bright colors.  Pink is her favorite.  This outfit could be called ’50 shades of pink’.

Soo Jin Yang

Hyun Hee ‘Honey’ Moon is always a fashion standout on tour.  Love the hoodie!

Honey Moon with a short skirt and hoodie. Is it hot or cold?

Mirim Lee won the Korean Women’s Open in 2012.  This striped shirt looks great on her.

Mirim Lee

Don’t forget the graduates!  So Yeon Ryu left the KLPGA to play full-time overseas in 2012, but returned in time to win her 8th KLPGA event.

So Yeon Ryu returns to play in Korea

Hee Kyung Seo is another former KLPGA superstar who played in Korea a couple of times in 2012.  I call this photo, ‘Get me to the Green on Time’.

Hee Kyung Seo hurrying to the green at the 2012 Hite Cup

Yu Na Park is an up and comer on tour, but shows that even the lesser known KLPGAers like to look good on the course.

Yu Na Park

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Most Touching Moment

And the Winner Is: Grace Park and Mi Hyun Kim Retire

The 2012 season saw the retirement of not one but two of the most important Korean golfers in the Seoul Sister Era.  Besides the Hall-of-Famer Se Ri Pak, the two most significant golfers in the early days were undoubtedly Mi Hyun Kim and Grace Park.  Both ladies called it a career in 2012, but their influence on the tour will not soon be forgotten.

Grace Park was once upon a time on her way to being the second greatest Korean golfer of all time.  She had a sterling amateur career in the late nineties, winning just about every important event and accolade she could win.  Once she turned pro, she trounced the Futures Tour to easily earn an LPGA card, then joined the big tour in 2000.  Amazingly, it took her a couple of years to really hit her stride, but once she did, the top finishes came fast and furious.  In 2002, she finished 6th on the money list.  She moved up to 3rd in 2003 and 2nd in 2004.  She accumulated 6 wins in total including one Major.

Grace meets the press in Korea after her retirement

But just as quickly as her superstar days began, the injuries hit her, and for the rest of her career, she struggled to even stay healthy enough to compete.  She never again won an event after 2004, and rarely even managed top ten finishes.  Entire seasons were lost to physical setbacks.

Finally, in 2011, she felt as though she was healthy enough to give it one more run.  But though the flesh was willing, she no longer had it in her to play golf at the level that once was so easy for her.  And so, she decided early in 2012 to call it quits.  She made it official at the LPGA Championship, which became the final event of her illustrious career.  Freed from the weekly grind of golf, she married her longtime sweetheart in November of last year and retired to Korea after that.

Grace waves to the crowd during her final round at the 2012 LPGA Championship

Mi Hyun Kim was perhaps the most unlikely star of her generation.  Barely five feet tall, she was never going to win long drive contests.  She also had an extremely unorthodox swing, with the club practically pointing straight down at the top of her swing motion.

But Kimmie was all heart, and it was fire and fantastic short game that allowed her to win eight LPGA tournaments during her career.  She never had the great highs Pak or Park had, never won a Major, but she was consistent longer than Grace, and had 106 top tens in her career, more than just about any Korean golfer in history other than Se Ri herself.

Kimmie contemplates her future during a quiet moment at her final event

Perhaps the most memorable moment in Kim’s career came after her final LPGA win at the SemGroup Championship in 2007.  The week before, the nearby town of Greensburg, Kansas, had been hit by a category 5 tornado and almost completely wiped out.  Kim donated half her winner’s check, $100,000, to help the town recover.  She had never been to that town, nor knew anyone who lived there.  She just thought it was the right thing to do.  It was a glimpse into the generous spirit of the quiet Kim that especially stunned those in America who barely knew her despite her success here.

Mi Hyun greets the press during her final week on tour

Kim’s final event was the Hana Bank tournament in her home country.  The injuries she had were still so bad that she could not play well at all, but the sponsors gave her one last exemption to allow her to play in front of the home fans one last time.  Now that she is retired, she will be dedicating her time to raising her young son and running a chain of Mi Hyun Kim golf centers, in the hopes of nurturing the next generation of Korean talent.

So long, Mi Hyun!

We’ll miss you, Grace and Mi Hyun!  Good luck in your future endeavors!

Other Nominees:

In Kyung Kim becomes Special Olympics Ambassador, donates other half of her Ochoa check to that charity. (June at time of ShopRite)

When IK Kim won the Lorena Ochoa Invitational in 2010, she vowed to give her entire winner’s check to charity.  She gave half of it to Ochoa’s charity, and in 2012 finally decided where to give the other half: the Special Olympics.  But she intended to do more than just give money.  She has been appointed a Special Ambassador by Special Olympics, and will be involved in all sorts of activities involved with the charity, including appearing at the organization’s international competition when it takes place in Korea in 2013.  Congratulations again to IK for continuing to be an amazing role model both on and off the course!

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Best Teen

And the Winner Is: Lydia Ko

This was a season where two phenomenal ethnic Korean teenage amateurs (one from Korea, the other from New Zealand) set record after record on the golf course.  Picking between them to choose the better one is not exactly easy, but in the end, Lydia Ko had the higher highs, and so wins our award as the Best Teen golfer of 2012.

Lydia Ko visits Korea in August, 2012

The 14-year-old Ko started the year as the world’s top female amateur, and by the end of the year, she was even more decisively the top amateur than she had been at the start.  It didn’t take her long to make her mark in 2012.  In late January, she became the first New Zealander in more than 20 years to win the Australian Match Play Amateur Championship.  A week later, she played the New South Wales Open, a professional event on the ALPG tour.  She had nearly won this event the previous year, but a final-hole three-putt cost her the title.  No such problem in 2012: after blowing away the field in round 2, she cruised to an easy win, becoming the youngest person in history to win a professional event, male or female.  Amazingly, her record did not even last the year, as a Canadian girl two days her junior won a two round professional event on the Canadian Tour a few months later.  Still, what Ko had done was a foreshadowing of things to come.

Lydia with the trophy she won as the youngest to ever claim a professional win

She played a few more professional events after that, including her first LPGA event, the Australian Women’s Open, where she finished a respectable tied for 19th.

In the summer, she traveled to the US and finished as the low amateur at the US Women’s Open.  After that, she lost in the semifinals of the US Girls Junior championship, but followed that with a win at the US Women’s Amateur, arguably the most important amateur event in the world.  She was the second youngest to ever take that title.

Another huge win: Lydia with the US Women’s Amateur trophy

Just two weeks later, Ko made more history when she held off a field of LPGA superstars to win the CN Canadian Women’s Open in Vancouver.  Her victory made her not only the youngest by more than a year to ever win on the LPGA tour, but also the first amateur to claim a pro title since Joanne Carner in 1969.

A few weeks after that, Ko was the low amateur at the British Women’s Open.  She then concluded her amazing summer by smoking the field at the Women’s World Amateur Team Championship in Turkey.  She won the individual honor there, beating the second place golfers by six shots.

Other Nominees:

Hyo Joo Kim

See ‘Best Breakthrough’ for more information about Kim’s amazing 2012 season.

Hyo Joo kicks back in August

In almost any other year, what Hyo Joo Kim accomplished in 2012 would have easily swept her to the honor of Top Teen, but this year, Lydia Ko was just a little better and a little younger.  Still, check out the things she did that elevated her to the status of the Next Big Thing in Korean Golf:

  • In April, she dominated the KLPGA’s Lotte Open, beating a field of KLPGA pros by nine shots.  It was one of the most impressive wins ever achieved by an amateur on the KLPGA.
  • The next week, she played the Lotte Championship on the LPGA tour and finished 12th.
  • In May, she notched a fifth place finish at another KLPGA event.
  • In June, she shot a final round 61 to come from behind and win the Suntory Ladies Open on the JLPGA tour.  She was the youngest player to ever win on that tour, breaking Japanese legend Ai Miyazato’s record.
  • In July, she finished fourth at the Evian Masters on the LPGA tour.  Had she won, she would have been the first amateur to ever have won events on four different professional tours (the Evian is a joint LET/LPGA event).
  • In August, she finished medalist at the US Amateur in the stroke play portion, beating even match play champ Lydia Ko.  But she lost in the second round of match play.
  • In late September, Kim led the Korean team to the title at the Women’s World Amateur Team Championship.  It was the first back-to-back titles for a country in ages.  Kim finished fourth in the individual standings, although she was tied for first with Ko after two rounds before Ko stepped on the gas to win by six.
  • Kim also won a pro event on the Taiwan LPGA sometime before turning pro.
  • Kim turned pro in October; her first pro event was the KEB Hana Bank Championship, which was also Mi Hyun Kim’s final event.  Hyo Joo finished tied for 25th.
  • In December, Kim finished in the top 15 at the Swinging Skirts event in Taiwan, beating Ko.
  • A few weeks after that, Kim won her first KLPGA event as a tour member when she captured the Hyundai China Ladies Open.  It was her fourth pro win of 2012.

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Best Hot Streak

And the Winner Is: Inbee Park 10 straight top tens

See also ‘Great Performance that came up short’ for more details about Park’s great run.

Inbee poses for a candid shot in August, 2012

When Inbee Park caught fire in June of last year, no one else in golf was hotter.  She started her streak of ten straight top tens at the LPGA Championship with a tie for 9th.  Before that week, she had not managed even a single top ten in her first nine starts of 2012.  In her next nine starts, she only finished outside the top 4 once.  She grabbed two wins, four seconds, a third and a fourth.  She finally missed the top ten with a 15th place finish in Korea in late October, four months after her streak had started.  During the stretch, she made over $1.8 million.  To put this in perspective, only a handful of Korean golfers have ever earned more than that in an entire season.

Shot of the Year

And the Winner Is: Na Yeon Choi, US Women’s Open, 12th hole, round 4, from the weeds

Na Yeon hits the shot of the year

The winner of this category was not only one of the most brilliantly executed shots of last year, it was also the most important, as it stemmed a potential meltdown by Choi, allowing her to right the ship en route to her first Major win.

The scene was Sunday at the US Women’s Open in Blackwolf Run.  Choi had captured a commanding lead by virtue of her epic third round 65, and had to find a way to get into the house in one piece to claim the biggest prize in women’s golf.  She had done well enough on the front nine, but an out of bounds drive and triple bogey on the tenth hole had made things more interesting than she would have liked.  She rebounded with a birdie on 11, but after hitting the fairway on the 12th hole, things went south again.  Her approach was too long and landed in some very tall weeds left of the green.

Choi inspected the shot for several moments, considering her options.  For a while, she gravitated towards taking an unplayable, but any drop from those weeds was probably still going to end up in a bad place.  And so, hip deep in tall grass, she stepped up to her ball and hit a superlative pitch shot, gently easing it out of the grass and onto the green roughly twenty feet from the hole.

This could have been a disastrous moment not only in her week, but in her career.  She might have taken a swing at the ball and not moved it at all, given the lie.  But instead, she set herself up for a fairly routine two-putt bogey.  She went one better than that by actually sinking the tricky double breaking par save moments later.  As far as great shots at crucial moments go, Choi’s pitch from disaster should rank among the best the Korean lady golfers have ever accomplished.

Other Nominees:

Na Yeon Choi, Round 4, 13th hole tee shot, US Women’s Open

The second greatest shot Choi hit in 2012 came only a few minutes after the Shot of the Year winner.  Choi stepped up to the tee on the par 3 13th hole.  Water lined the right side of this hole, so what a player needed to avoid at all costs was hitting the ball right.  But her tee shot went in that direction, and it looked like a disastrous mistake.  But then the luckiest break of the year: the ball hit the rocks near the water, and instead of bounding right, bounced straight, hit the rocks again, then rebounded onto the green.  She made par.

This was a great shot to be sure, but because luck played far more of a role here than it did on the 12th hole pitch, it only earns runner-up status in the Shot of the Year contest.

Jiyai Shin, 16th hole bunker shot from 40 yards to two feet in terrible rain and weather, Round 4, Ricoh Women’s British Open

Jiyai Shin during the final round of the British Open

The weather was horrendous much of Sunday at the Ricoh Women’s British Open.  Shin was in no danger of losing by the time she reached the 16th hole and put her second shot into a bunker some 40 yards short of the green.  Still, what she did there was something special.  She stepped into the tricky bunker and hit a gorgeous sand shot that rolled to a stop barely a foot from the hole.  A 40 yard bunker shot is among the hardest of golf shots under normal conditions.  To hit such a great one in the kind of weather she was contending with, at the end of a very long 36 hole marathon day, was truly extraordinary.  Even the commentator called it ‘magical’.

Inbee Park, Sunday, 18th hole, Sime Darby, from bunker to just off green

Inbee Park had seized control of the Sime Darby, but had a tough time closing out the win.  On the 18th hole, her drive went right, and her rescue shot ended up in a bunker.  She still had to worry about water fronting the green if she went for it; but if she hit a safe shot, she was opening up the door ever so slightly for Na Yeon Choi to steal the win.  Making her situation even more dicey was the fact that she had muffed a fairway bunker shot a few holes earlier, hitting the lip of the trap and watching as the ball rolled back to her feet.

Nonetheless, Park went for it, hitting a great shot that cleared the water, landed on the green and rolled off to the fringe.  Two putts later she was the Sime Darby champion.

Amateur Seo wins Bentley with hole-in-one at Hanwha Classic, but…

Amateur Yeun Jung Seo made a hole-in-one on  the 17th hole during round 2 of the KLPGA’s Hanwha Finance Classic.  The prize?  A Bentley worth over $200,000.

Only one problem: Seo is an amateur and cannot accept prize money or other compensation.  So, no Bentley!  But she’ll always have the memory at least.

Amateur Yeon Jung Seo made an ace, but could not accept the prize that came with it

Inbee Park, mega long par save, 14th hole, Evian Masters

Inbee was a putting machine at the 2012 Evian

Inbee Park put on a putting clinic at the 2012 Evian Masters, but her greatest moment came on the 14th hole.  She had struggled to get to the green and was left with a fairly long putt to save par.  Stacy Lewis, Hyo Joo Kim, Karrie Webb and Shanshan Feng were all breathing down her neck.  But Park made the unlikely par save, and proceeded to birdie her final three holes to claim her first win in four years.

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Round of the Year

And the Winner Is: Na Yeon Choi, 65, round 3, US Women’s Open

Na Yeon Choi during the most amazing round of golf of her career

This year’s US Women’s Open was especially important to the Seoul Sisters because it took place at the site where Se Ri Pak ignited the Korean golf revolution, Blackwolf Run.  Pak’s win there in 1998, as a 20-year-old, fired the imagination of thousands of young girls, including the woman who won the Open in 2012, Na Yeon Choi.

Choi made her own history in round 3 by shooting a 7 under par 65 to grab the tournament by the throat.  It might very well have been the greatest round ever shot by a Korean golfer in a Major.  She managed 8 birdies and one bogey on a course that was ripping the best players in the world to shreds.  Amy Yang was the only other player who even shot in the 60s – she had a 69.  The average score for the day was 77 – so Choi managed an unbelievable 12 shot edge over the *average* score on the course.  She set the course record, and only a few golfers had ever shot a lower round in Open history.

In the future, golf historians might very well point to this round as the moment when Na Yeon Choi ignited a second golf revolution in Korea!

Other Nominees:

Jiyai Shin, 64, round 2, Ricoh Women’s British Open

Shin’s 64 in round 2 of the Ricoh Women’s British Open allowed her to grab a lead she never relinquished again.  It was a superlative performance, the women’s course record, and even topped anything the men were able to do when they played the course in more benign conditions at their Open.  As great as it was, though, it still wasn’t at the same level of incredible as Choi’s round, and it didn’t beat the round average as decisively as Choi’s round did.  Also, the conditions Shin faced were not as tough as they would be the rest of the week.  But without question, what Shin did in round 2 was awe inspiring in its own right.

So Yeon Ryu, RACV Australian Ladies Masters rd 2, 61

So Yeon Ryu’s 61 in round 2 of the RACV Australian Ladies Masters, in one of her first competitive rounds of 2012, announced that she was ready to take her game to another level in 2012.  Although she did not win the tournament in the end, she did rack up an incredible number of great golfing performances in 2012, and it all started with this wake-up call to the rest of the world.

So Yeon Ryu, 62, final round, Jamie Farr

Ryu was tied with three other strong Korean golfers when the day started on Sunday.  By the time she was done, she had lapped the field, thanks to a record tying final round 62.  See ‘Most Dominating Performance’ for more details!

Hyo Joo Kim, 61, final round, Suntory Ladies Open on JLPGA

Hyo Joo on the prowl at the Suntory event in Japan

In June, Hyo Joo Kim played in and won her first Japanese LPGA event, the Suntory Ladies Open.  She had to come from behind in the final round, and boy did she deliver!  She shot an insane 11 under par 61 on Sunday, the lowest score in JLPGA history, to claim the win by four shots.  In so doing, she became the youngest player to ever win on that tour, breaking the record by former world’s #1 Ai Miyazato.  And she still wasn’t 17 years old yet.  If the earlier win on the KLPGA tour had gotten her noticed, the Japanese win ignited a bidding war, with five major companies all clamoring to become her main sponsor whenever she turned pro.

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Most Controversial Moment

And the Winner Is: Na Yeon Choi DQed at LPGA Championship for failing to sign scorecard

The title says it all.  Na Yeon Choi failed to sign her scorecard and was disqualified from the year’s second Major.  How did she respond?  By winning the next Major she played.  That’s how you react to adversity!

Other Nominees:

Sun Young Yoo, improper drop at CME Group TitleHolders

Sun Young Yoo

Sun Young Yoo started the week at the year’s final event by shooting a 66 and grabbing a share of the lead.  In round 2 she had a more up and down day, with plenty of birdies and a few really bad holes.

Perhaps the worst moment came late on the back nine.  She hit her drive into some trouble and decided to take a drop after an attempt to hit it out of the stuff resulted in barely moving the ball.  She dropped, got to the green and wound up with a double bogey.

But, as it turned out, she had done an illegal drop and got an extra penalty stroke.  A helpful television viewer pointed out that Yoo had not held her ball high enough when she dropped the ball.  The rule states that you must hold the ball at shoulder height when dropping, and Yoo’s ball was closer to her hip than shoulder.  Doubtless she got no benefit from the shorter drop, but rules are rules.  One controversy from this incident was that it was a television viewer calling in that caused a rules infraction to be called.  If Yoo were not being televised at the time, she probably would have gotten away with what she did.  This definitely suggests that those who get televised are held to a stricter standard than those who don’t, although how exactly to address this dilemma, short of greatly increasing the number of officials watching the action, is unclear.

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Tournament of the Year

And the Winner Is: US Women’s Open

Se ri Pak and So Yeon Ryu during media day at the US Women’s Open

For nearly a year before the event, there was a growing excitement over the 2012 US Women’s Open.  For only the second time, the event was to be staged at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wisconsin.  The first time it was played there, of course, was 1998, and the winner, Se Ri Pak, toughed out the longest tournament in tour history, 90 holes, on one of the toughest courses the women had ever played, to beat an amateur of the same age, Jenny Chuasiriporn of Maryland.  Pak’s win galvanized the entire country of South Korea, which was going through rough economic times.  Simply put, the country needed a hero, and Pak arrived at the right time to give the nation a jolt of confidence and happiness.  Literally overnight, the country fell under the spell of Pakmania, and thousands of little girls picked up golf clubs with the hopes of becoming the next Se Ri Pak.

One of those little girls was nine year old Na Yeon Choi, who had actually already been playing the game competitively even before Pak’s win.  But still, Se Ri’s victory gave Choi a whole new way of looking at the sport she was playing, a whole new set of goals to shoot for that had never even occurred to her before.  One of those goals was to someday play the US Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run, and perhaps even win it.  And of course, in 2012, she did get her chance to play there and did take home the title, while her idol Pak greeted her on the 18th green to congratulate her.  Na Yeon Choi’s dream came true in the biggest way possible, and it made for a gripping storyline, even for those not as familiar with the backstory of Se Ri and her progeny as the Koreans are.

There were other storylines, too, of course.  Se Ri had inspired the 2011 champion, So Yeon Ryu, and accompanied Ryu to Blackwolf Run for media day.  Ryu got her first look at the course and even played a practice round with Se Ri following along.  In tribute to her hero, Ryu took her shoes off at the 18th hole to pose for a photo emulating Pak’s iconic shot from that same course location in ‘98.  Although Ryu would not be a factor in the 2012 Open, she still finished tied for 14th in a respectable title defense.

So Yeon Ryu doffs her shoes and socks to emulate the iconic moment when Se Ri Pak did the same thing at the ’98 Open

Then there was Se Ri Pak herself, returning to the place of her greatest career moment.  Even getting to Wisconsin was an adventure.  Pak injured her shoulder in a freak accident a couple of months prior to the Open and was forced to miss several events while the doctors debated about her injury and how best to treat it.  For a time, it looked like Se Ri would have to miss the Open; then, she suddenly improved and played the LPGA Championship a month before the Open.  Amazingly, she even led that event for a couple of rounds before backing up on the weekend.  In the end, Pak did make it to Kohler, and even though she did not win, she managed a tie for 9th and got a chance to watch Choi take home the crown.

So Yeon Ryu and Se Ri Pak during media day for the 2012 US Women’s Open

Lastly, Choi’s adventures on the weekend made for compelling viewing.  She trounced the field on Saturday with one of the greatest rounds ever shot in a women’s Major.  It looked like she had the thing wrapped up until the back nine on Sunday, where a roller coaster four holes nearly did her in.  But she showed steely resolve in overcoming adversity (see ‘Shot of the Year’), and claimed the year’s third Major.

The 2012 US Women’s Open was the most eagerly anticipated event for the Korean golfers in 2012, and it did not disappoint!  With luck, it will return there once more before Pak retires, but if not, then she at least managed one great return to the site of her most significant achievement.

The champion

Other Nominees:

CN Canadian Women’s Open

The US Women’s Open was the year’s most important event for the Koreans, but the Canadian was arguably the most electric.  Lydia Ko’s record shattering win garnered attention far beyond the ghetto that women’s golf news is usually relegated to.  As far as the Koreans go, you not only had Ko attracting enormous galleries, but a sweep of the top five, with Inbee Park finishing second following a holed pitch shot on the final hole, and three more Koreans finishing tied for third (Na Yeon Choi, Chella Choi and Jiyai Shin).

Clutch Performance of the Year

And the Winner Is: Lydia Ko, CN Canadian Women’s Open Final Round

There were several great performances this year in the heat of battle, but Ko’s back nine in Vancouver was the very best.  To some degree, Ko did not have as much pressure on her as the pros did.  Even if she had collapsed and only managed a top five, most people would have called it a wildly successful week.  Doubtless she would have gone home satisfied.

But on the other hand, Ko had been among the leaders for the first three days of the event.  The buzz around her grew the first two days, then exploded on Saturday.  By Sunday, no joke, she had at least 10,000 people following her and rooting her to victory.  There’s no question in my mind that she was feeling at least some pressure to deliver the closer she got to pulling off the historic win.  And on Sunday, the pros were not going to roll over and play dead.  Several Major winners and other strong players were breathing down her neck, so that, by the turn, she was tied at the top, any advantage she had previously possessed long gone.

Lydia Ko in Canada

But then, at the exact moment when you might expect she would falter, she did what all transcendent talents do: she found another gear that perhaps even she herself didn’t know she had.  And at that point, she treated the fans to one of the most unforgettable displays of golf brilliance they would ever see.  The girl who only two weeks before had struggled to beat an amateur named Jay Marie Green at the US Women’s Amateur suddenly found herself lapping several of the best players in the game, including world’s #2 Stacy Lewis and former world #1 Jiyai Shin, both of whom were playing in her group.

So what did she do?  Made birdie on the par 5 tenth hole after reaching the green in 2.  Followed that  with a second birdie on 11.  Then a great tee shot on the par-3 12th hole for another birdie, and yet another birdie on 13.  After barely missing a birdie on 14, she drained a fifth birdie on the back nine on the 15th hole.  By then, it was game over.  In just a few holes she had decisively seized the crown, shot the lowest round of the day, and become the youngest winner in the tour’s history.  Her glove from that round went on to be displayed at the World Golf Hall of Fame, where, all indications are, she will someday be joining it as an official inductee.

Lydia Ko after the most amazing win of her incredible year

Other Nominees:

Na Yeon Choi, back nine at US Women’s Open

Choi’s back nine at the US Women’s Open was a wonder.  She had the tournament well in hand, made a major mistake to put herself in jeopardy, made a birdie to recover, made another big mistake and recovered, and had a massive lucky break that she took full advantage of, all in the space of 4 holes.  A lesser player might have been a quivering wreck at the end of all that, but Choi maintained her composure, toughed out the rough stuff, and walked off with her first Major win.

The main reason I chose Ko over Choi is that Choi was never seriously threatened on Sunday.  Yes, it was possible that Choi could have beaten herself, and overcoming your own demons is one of the toughest things to do.  But other than Amy Yang, who briefly was within a couple of shots, no other player had a realistic chance of beating her.  She didn’t face the massive constant threat to her title chances that Ko had to overcome in Vancouver.  So, without doubt a great clutch performance, but only an honorable mention to Ko!

Choi with her first Major trophy

Inbee Park, putting at the Evian Masters

As mentioned previously, Inbee Park had an unfortunate tendency to let wins slip through her fingers in 2012.  At the Evian, she was playing brilliantly entering Sunday’s action, but faced a gaggle of inspired opponents who were pulling off all sorts of amazing shots to put the pressure on her.  At one point, both Karrie Webb and Shanshan Feng made unlike final hole shots to move into contention, amateur star Hyo Joo Kim threatened to make history by winning the event, and Stacy Lewis, who had dogged Park all day, made a final hole eagle as well.  Making Park’s job even tougher was the fact that she had not won on the LPGA tour in four years.

But none of that mattered, because Park was having, simply put, the most jaw-droppingly brilliant putting week I have ever witnessed.  In the end she put together only 98 putts over four days, which is pretty much off the charts.  And it was her flat stick that time and time again saved her on Sunday, a day when she needed only 22 putts for her round.  For instance, after putting herself in severe danger of dropping a shot or two on the 14th hole, she drilled a cross-green par saving wonder that had to be seen to be believed.  She followed that with birdies on 16 and 17, and then, needing only a two putt to win, drilled a longish birdie on 18 as well.  Her final round 66 showed that she still knew how to rise to the occasion and get the job done even under the most stressful of circumstances.

Inbee gets a few kisses following her Evian win

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Biggest Disappointment

And the Winner Is: IK Kim missed putt at Nabisco

IK Kim after missing the unmissable putt

So much has been written about the bizarre, almost inconceivable way that In Kyung Kim lost the Kraft Nabisco, that it’s hard to know what to add to it.  Like it or not, it became one of the most talked about moments in women’s golf in 2012.  Kim’s miscue was fodder for sports talk shows that normally would never mention the LPGA.  Even several PGA stars and legends took the time to talk about it.  PGA legend Gary Player said:

“I don’t often watch golf, but on Sunday, I watched this lady miss a putt that long (gesturing one foot in length). She could knock it in at midnight; she could knock it in blindfolded; she could knock it in at with one hand; she could kick it in and she missed the putt. I pray that that doesn’t have an effect on it, but that could. That could ruin her career. That’s possible. I don’t say it will, but it’s possible. My heart bled for her.”

Bubba Watson, who won the Masters shortly after the Kraft, admitted that even he was careful to take extra time on short putts to avoid imitating Kim’s unfortunate mistake.

For those who somehow are reading this but do not recall what happened, a brief recap.  In Kyung Kim, one of the shining stars of the Korean golf world, has for some years been putting up great results in Majors.  She is indeed one of the players who contends most often in the big events.  But for all her success, she had never won a Major.  At the 2012 Kraft Nabisco, however, it looked as though her time had finally come.  During a crazy Sunday which saw first Karin Sjodin, then Hee Kyung Seo, seize the lead only to falter, Kim kept playing well and stayed in contention.  On 17, she drilled a beautiful birdie putt to take the lead with one hole to play.  She reached the 18th green in regulation, lagged her putt to within a foot, and had that simple tap in to claim a one shot victory and her first Major.  And then, the unthinkable: she missed the putt that could not be missed.  Shell shocked, she went on to lose the title in a playoff against fellow Korean Sun Young Yoo.

In Kyung Kim putts at the Nabisco, round 4

How much of a disappointment was this?  Simply put, it’s hard to think of any other Korean loss in history that was more stunning than this.  There have been bummers before, of course.  Se Ri Pak had the lead and a chance to at last win the Kraft back in 2007, but stumbled mightily and allowed Morgan Pressel to win instead.  But Pak was still far from having the title in hand when she started her downfall.  Then there was the 2003 British Open, where Pak made a couple of key mistakes in a head to head battle against Annika Sorenstam, and it was her Swedish rival who won the crown.  Even there, Pak did not have the title locked up at any point during the final day, despite playing brilliantly.

What stung so much about Kim’s miss, and what made it in my opinion the biggest disappointment in Korean golf history, is simply this:  she had this tournament won.  In the bag.  There was no one who could beat her, no superstar who was going to suddenly rear up and steal the prize.  All she had to do was something she could literally do in her sleep, a formality, almost a gimme.  She hit the putt well, took her time, was not rushed.  She should not have missed.  But she did.

IK Kim was still in shock after she lost the playoff to countrywoman Sun Young Yoo

Adding another level of disappointment to the miss was the fact that it happened to IK Kim.  Kim is perhaps the single Korean golfer most overdue a Major win, given how well she has played those events over the years.  And with the extreme generosity she showed in her most recent win before the Kraft, where she gave her entire paycheck to charity, she was karma-wise the most deserving.

But none of that matters.  All that mattered is that she missed the unmissable putt, and she may forever be known as the golfer who did that.  It was a bitter pill to swallow, and though she seems to have bounced back from it, she has yet to win since that moment.  The only thing that could make this most unfortunate incident worse would be if it did, as Gary Player feared, ruin her career.  I think all golf fans hope and believe that IK Kim is made of sterner stuff, and that she will have many years in the sun to help her forget her moment of despair.

Other Nominees:

Seo meltdown at Nabisco

Hee Kyung Seo

Lost in the incredible cataclysm that was Kim’s missed putt at the Nabisco was the fact that another Seoul Sister, Hee Kyung Seo, had just a few holes earlier taken a three shot lead and looked poised to claim a Major title.  She had famously grabbed a Sunday night lead at the rain plagued 2011 US Women’s Open, with only three golfers in the field who still could catch her and deny her the win.  Alas, it was the last of these, So Yeon Ryu, who did just that, making a final hole birdie to tie her, then beating her in a three hole Monday playoff.

So when Seo just a few months later seized the lead with four holes to play at the Nabisco, it looked like she might kill a few lingering demons from her loss in Colorado.  Alas, it was not to be: she made bogey on her final four holes and finished tied for 4th.

Seo + Ryu both three putt on final hole at the Australian Ladies Open

So Yeon Ryu and Hee Kyung Seo: old rivals who met again in Australia last year

Two former KLPGA superstars led the Australian Ladies Open much of the week.  When they reached the final hole, they were tied for the lead, one shot ahead of four other players.  They both reached the green in regulation and had around 20 foot birdie putts.  If either one made those putts, they had the win.  They both missed.  They were left with three-foot par saves.  Again, if either one made those putts, they could do no worse than a playoff with each other.  They both missed.  There was a six way playoff, and neither one claimed the title in the end.

Seo had 11 KLPGA wins and 1 LPGA win.  Ryu had 7 KLPGA wins, the US Women’s Open crown, and had almost won in Australia the previous week.  They both three putted the final green and lost to a player who had never had even one top ten on the LPGA before that week.  Golf is a wild game sometimes.

Seo, Inbee and Chella lose to Lang at Manulife

Seo again, this time at the Manulife Financial

The Manulife Financial LPGA Classic should have been a win for the Koreans.  Regulation ended with three Koreans tied for the lead with one American.  The Koreans were the aforementioned star Hee Kyung Seo; Inbee Park, who would go on to win the Vare Trophy for low scoring average in 2012; and Chella Choi, who had several near misses for wins in 2012.  So Yeon Ryu, the LPGA Rookie of the Year, finished just one shot behind them.

But the player who won was Brittany Lang, an American who had never won an LPGA event before.  In fact, no player from Duke had EVER won an LPGA event before Lang’s win in Ontario.  But even with all that history on the Koreans’ side, even with the three-to-one nature of the playoff, it was Lang who walked off with the trophy and the Koreans who would have to wait to win another day.

Se Ri injured at Mobile by falling down stairs

Se Ri Pak had a great 2012 despite being snakebitten with bad luck

Se Ri Pak could not catch a break in 2012.  Despite playing really well when she was healthy, she seemed to be struggling against some sort of voodoo curse the rest of the time.  Perhaps the nadir came in Alabama.  She was there to play at an LPGA event when, while walking down a flight of stairs at the clubhouse, she tripped and fell.  She grabbed onto a railing to catch herself and injured her shoulder.  She would struggle with that injury the rest of the year.  It caused her to miss several big events, including the Jamie Farr Classic, which she had won five previous times.

Bo Mee Lee misses out on tour card at Mizuno Classic

Bo Mee Lee at the site of her second Japanese win of 2012

Bo Mee Lee had a great year on the Japanese tour, finishing second on the money list and winning three times, but it was almost an even better year.  She shot a second round 64 at the Mizuno Classic, the annual JLPGA/LPGA co-sanctioned event, and held the lead going into the final round.  A win would grant her a card for 2013 on the LPGA tour.  But Player of the Year-to-be Stacy Lewis shot a ridiculously good final round, Lee struggled, and Lewis overcame a seven shot deficit to win the title and the Player of the Year award.  Lee would not be joining the LPGA in 2013 after all.

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Most Dominating Performance

And the Winner is: Jiyai Shin, Women’s British Open

Jiyai Shin sees the light at the end of her dominating British Open win

There was not a more difficult event on the LPGA tour in 2012 than the Ricoh Women’s British Open.  Played in mid-September in Liverpool, the weather conditions ranged from tough to really tough to ridiculous.  High winds, cold weather, horizontal rain, sudden sun and even benign conditions – the women never knew what they would be hit with next.

The player who ended up winning that week, Jiyai Shin, was probably not the favorite going in.  Yes, she had won the previous week, but that was after a nine-hole playoff that had forced her to arrive a day later than almost everyone else.  She would only be able to play 9 practice holes before the tournament started.  And she was still recovering from surgery that had sidelined her much of the summer.

But boy, once Shin got going, there was no stopping her.  She took advantage of decent conditions on Saturday to shoot a 64, good for a five shot lead.  But thanks to a cancellation of play on Friday, the final day would consist of 36 holes, and the conditions much of that day were as brutal as can be imagined.

Jiyai Shin during round 2 of the British Open

Still, Shin persevered, shooting a 71 in the morning to hang on to a three shot lead over Karrie Webb.  In the afternoon, just a few minutes after she had finished her morning round, the conditions took a turn for the worse.  She made a triple bogey on her very first afternoon hole, but luckily for her, Webb had made double minutes earlier, and Shin maintained her lead. 

Jiyai responded to the setback by playing the rest of the round so well, it’s hard to imagine she was even dealing with the same conditions as the other women.  As a result, her lead grew and grew, eventually reaching double digits with a few holes to play.  In the end, she carded a final round 73 for a nine under total and nine shot win over Inbee Park.  It was the largest margin of victory since the event had become a Major in 2001, and one of the most dominating performances in LPGA history.

Other Nominees:

So Yeon Ryu, Jamie Farr Toledo Classic

So Yeon Ryu with her first official LPGA win

Ryu started the day tied for the lead with three other Korean stars, but after a 9 under par 62, Ryu cruised to a seven shot smoking of the rest of the field.  For the record: Ryu’s 62 tied the all time LPGA record for lowest final round that won a tournament.  The other four players who co-hold that record are all Hall of Famers.  Not bad company to be in!

Na Yeon Choi, US Women’s Open

After her third round brilliance at last year’s US Women’s Open, it might have seemed like Choi winning her first Major would be a formality.  It was not; she struggled against her nerves in a roller coaster back nine, but in the end still dominated the proceedings with a four shot victory.

Hyo Joo Kim, Lotte Open, KLPGA (9 shot win)

As mentioned before (see ‘Best Breakthrough’), Hyo Joo Kim’s total destruction of a field of KLPGA professionals at the Lotte Mart Women’s Open was hands down the most overwhelming win of 2012.  But because it did not happen in a Major, against the superstars Shin had to overcome, and with the weather challenges Shin faced, it only gets a runner-up finish in this category to Shin’s triumph.

Koreans win three of four Majors, Evian Masters and CME Titleholders

Never before have the Koreans done so well at the biggest events on the LPGA tour.  In 2012, they won three of the year’s four Majors, capturing the second place in each of those events as well.  In addition, they won two of the most important non-Majors on tour, the Evian Masters and the CME Group TitleHolders Tour Championship.  The Koreans have never even come close to achieving that level of dominance in a single calendar year in the big events.

Posted by: happyfan08 | January 13, 2013

2012 SeoulSisters Awards (2 of 7): Best Breakthrough

Best Breakthrough

And the Winner is: Hyo Joo Kim

Several players this year could have won this award (I’ll get to them next), but I chose Hyo Joo Kim because her breakthrough turned her from a promising young amateur to a player many see as the next big Korean superstar.  In other words, it was the win that most thoroughly changed the way people thought about her, and the one which most changed the direction her career took after that.

Hyo Joo Kim – Teenage Superwoman?

Before 2012, Kim had already managed several impressive feats.  In 2009, as a 14-year-old, she contended at two KLPGA Majors, even leading one of them for a round.  She led Korea to a win at the 2010 Queen Sirikit Cup and clobbered the competition in the individual honors, winning by eight shots.  Later that year, she finished tied for 3rd at the KLPGA’s Rush and Cash Classic.

In 2011, she only finished second at the Queen Sirikit, but captured the gold medal at the Callaway Junior World Golf Championship and had several more KLPGA top tens.  So, it’s clear that by the start of 2012, she was one of the top junior players in the world.  Sponsors were interested in her as a result, but there was nothing she had done before to prepare for what was to come.

Her breakthrough moment came in April, when Kim was in the field at the KLPGA’s Lotte Mart Ladies Open.  Kim started the week by shooting a 66 to take a share of the first round lead.  She didn’t let up in round 2, shooting a 67, the best round of the day, to cruise to a staggering 7 shot lead by sundown.  She increased that lead to 10 strokes (!!) in the third round before she stumbled for the first time all week.  Despite her late round struggles, however, she still ended that day with a six stroke lead.

Hyo Joo tips her cap in the midst of her dominating performance

There were only a few players within double digits of Kim.  She cemented her historic, mind-boggling accomplishment easily on Sunday by shooting another 66 to win the tournament by 9 shots.  She was *thirteen* shots ahead of the third place player, 2011 KLPGA Player of the Year Ha Neul Kim.  This wasn’t just an impressive victory; this was total domination.  Domination against a field of most of the top players on the KLPGA tour.  Amateurs had won on the KLPGA tour before; 16-year-olds had managed wins there in the past.  But one had to go all the way back to Se Ri Pak herself to find another teen amateur who had so thoroughly demolished the field in a KLPGA victory (only Pak as an amateur had a larger margin of victory in a KLPGA event when she won an event in 1995 by ten shots).  In just one event, Kim had established herself as a potential superstar.

Hyo Joo Kim with her first KLPGA trophy

Kim’s win elevated her to another level in 2012.  She would go on to win pro events in Japan and Taiwan and come close at the Evian Masters in France.  Kim turned pro in September, signing with Lotte for the largest deal for a rookie golfer since the heyday of Se Ri.  It didn’t take her long to pay dividends: just two months later, she won the KLPGA’s Hyundai China Ladies Open, her second event as a KLPGA pro.  She beat two-time defending champion Hye Youn Kim in a mano-a-mano Sunday battle to do it.  In so doing, she broke the record for winning her first KLPGA event the fastest after turning pro.  Kim’s breakthrough year, with four pro wins on three tours, had become one of the most amazing starts to a career ever.

Other Nominees:

Lydia Ko

Ko had not one but two massive breakthroughs in 2012, and she did both of them when she was nearly two years younger than Hyo Joo Kim.  First, she became the youngest person, male or female, to ever win a professional event when she won the New South Wales Open on the Australian LPG tour.  She was still several months away from her fifteenth birthday when she achieved this incredible win.  Then, in August, she trumped even that victory by winning the LPGA’s CN Canadian Women’s Open.  Against a field containing almost every one of the top women golfers in the world, she produced a brilliant back nine on Sunday to hold off several strong challengers and win by three shots.  Not only did she become the youngest to win an LPGA event, she was also the first amateur in more than 40 years to accomplish that trick.

Lydia Ko Has the right color outfit to join the Mounties!

The reason she doesn’t get this award, however, is that these wins were not as much of a breakthrough for Ko as her wins were for Kim.  For one thing, Ko had been the undisputed #1 amateur in the women’s game for many months before 2012 even started.  As a 13-year-old, she came one agonizing three putt away from winning the same ALPG tournament that she did win as a 14-year-old.  And she had already won multiple major amateur tournaments in 2011.  So, while her 2012 victories were a huge step forward in her career, they were not as unexpected as the wins from Kim, who was not even in the top 20 in the amateur ranks at the start of 2012.

Char Young Kim, Woori Investment and Securities Ladies Championship

Char Young Kim, new Korean golf sensation

At the start of 2012, Char Young Kim was a promising young player on the KLPGA better known for her looks and fashion sense than her game.  All that changed in May, when she won her first career victory at the Woori event.  And she did it by making several late birdies to catch Korean Women’s Open champion Mirim Lee, then beating Lee in a one hole playoff.

Kim’s win was followed by two more KLPGA triumphs, including one the following week at the Doosan Match Play.  For a time, she led the tour’s money list, but though she was eventually caught and passed by Ha Neul Kim, Char Young Kim still had a great breakthrough season in 2012.

Je Yoon Yang, KLPGA Player of the Year

Je Yoon Yang at the ADT-CAPS, a tournament she ended up winning

Je Yoon Yang started the year far more obscure than Char Young Kim.  She had had a few top tens in her rookie year of 2011, but only finished 44th on that year’s money list.  But in 2012, she was brilliant most of the season, especially in the second half. She notched ten top tens on the year and achieved two late season wins, which led to her winning the Player of the Year award.  Her first breakthrough win came at the Nefs Masterpiece in August, when she grabbed a huge lead, nearly lost it, then rallied to capture the victory by two shots.

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Cinderella of the Year

And the Winner Is: Hee Won Jung, KLPGA Championship

Talk about obscure winners, the player who won the year’s second Major on the KLPGA tour really came out of nowhere to capture that crown.  Hee Won Jung joined the KLPGA in 2009, but had only three top tens (no finish better than 9th) in her first three seasons on tour.  She had an 8th at the Nefs Masterpiece in August for her only top ten of 2012 previous to this Major.

But for whatever reason, something clicked for Jung at the KLPGA Championship.  By the end of the second round, she had a 4 shot lead.  No one was able to stop Cinderella as she stormed to the win by 6 shots.  She was never seriously threatened the last three days.

Hallelujah! Hee Won Jung was the most unlikely Major winner of the year

Interestingly, Jung had three more top tens in 2012, and two of those came at the final two Majors of the year.  Included in those results was the second best finish of her career, a third place at the Hite Cup.  It’s too early to tell whether Jung’s win has birthed a star or if she will return to her more mediocre status in 2013, but there’s little doubt that her unexpected victory at the year’s second Major made her the Cinderella of the KLPGA tour in 2012.

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Great Performance that came up short

And the Winner Is: Inbee Park, umpteen runner-up finishes

Inbee Park without any question established herself as a superstar in 2012.  But even as she put together one great tournament after another, one problem seemed to nag at her: she repeatedly got herself within range of winning titles only to fall just short.

Inbee celebrates her win in Malaysia

On the LPGA, she was practically good as gold from June to the end of the year.  Starting with a tie for 9th at the year’s second Major, Park put together 10 straight top tens including two wins.  But even more impressive than that was the sheer number of times she might have won tournaments had things gone her way just a little more.  Most of her top tens were top threes during that stretch.  Among the really close calls were a second place in Portland, another second in Canada (where she lost to the amateur Lydia Ko), a second place in Taiwan after leading most of the week, and another second place in Mexico at Lorena Ochoa’s tournament.  The Mexican tournament was yet another event where Inbee had a two shot lead going into the final round only to slip up and let Cristie Kerr in for the win.

As if all those runner-up finishes weren’t enough, she had the same kind of results when she played on the Japanese tour in 2012.  Among her close calls there were the CyberAgent Ladies in April, the Salonpas Cup in May ( a Major: lost in a playoff to Sun Ju Ahn), the Konica Minolta Cup (another Major: she started the last day 8 shots back, but almost caught and beat Chie Arimura; alas, she finished second), and the Japan Women’s Open (yet another Major that Park had the lead in, but two late bogies gave the win to Shanshan Feng).  She did get one JLPGA win, though: the Fundokin Ladies .

No player in 2012 played so many great tournaments where she just missed the trophy as did Inbee Park.

Other Nominees:

So Yeon Ryu, Australian Ladies Masters + Australian Women’s Open

See ‘Best Start to the Season’ for more details about those events!

So Yeon Ryu, Safeway Classic and CME Titleholders

Ryu had her shares of near misses in 2012.  You could also throw in the Manulife Classic, where she shot a final round 64 but just barely missed the four-way playoff.  At the Safeway, she was matched against old rival Mika Miyazato, whom she had beaten by nine strokes to win the Asian Games gold medal back in 2006.  But in Portland, it seemed like nothing was going Ryu’s way.  In the final round, she had two lipouts and a few bad bounces, while Miyazato managed a couple of clutch long par saves.  A great week for Ryu, but not enough for the win.

So Yeon Ryu at the Safeway Classic

At the TitleHolders, she caught final round leader Na Yeon Choi at the turn, but made a crucial putting error on the 14th hole, then a strategic error when she went for the green on the par 4 16th and came up short.  Choi’s birdie there put the tournament away.  But other than the finish, it was another superlative display for the Rookie of the Year Ryu.

Amy Yang, US Women’s Open

Na Yeon Choi was sensational at the US Women’s Open, winning her first Major by a comfortable margin.  Lost in the glare from that result was a fantastic performance by Amy Yang.  Yang finished in second place, the only player besides Choi to finish under par for the week, four shots ahead of the third place golfer.  Most years, Yang’s score and margin over her nearest chaser would have been good enough for her to grab the title, but this was alas not such a year.

Hee Kyung Seo, Kraft Nabisco

Other than In Kyung Kim (we’ll get to her later), last year no other Korean player came so close to grabbing a huge win only to falter at the 1 yard line as Hee Kyung Seo did at the year’s first Major, the Kraft Nabisco.  Seo played well enough to get to within three shots of the lead going into the final round.  Playing in the same group as Inky, Seo charged into the lead on the back nine, at one point holding a three shot advantage over the field.  Had she been able to hang onto that score, she would have taken the victory dive in Poppy’s Pond.

Hee Kyung Seo during round 4 of the Kraft Nabisco

Alas, it was not to be.  Seo proceeded to collapse, bogeying her final four holes to finish tied for 4th.  The irony was that, after Kim missed her short putt to win it, she only finished two shots ahead of Seo.  Had Seo been able to birdie the final par 5 instead of bogeying, she would have been in the playoff with the shell-shocked Kim and Sun Young Yoo, the eventual winner.  It goes to show that you should never give up, even if things are going badly against you!

Jenny Shin, HSBC Women’s Champions

Jenny Shin came so close to getting her first career win in Singapore

Young Jenny Shin seemed to have destiny on her side at the HSBC Champions event in Singapore back in February.  She took the lead on Sunday, and though she struggled a bit, managed to make every par save she needed in order to maintain her slim lead.  On the 17th, she drained an 8 foot par save to keep her lead at a single stroke over Angela Stanford.

But as she reached the 18th tee, the rains came, and play was halted for 90 minutes.  Poor Jenny had to sit in the clubhouse thinking about her situation.  When she returned to the course, now thoroughly out of sync with her previous form, she hit her tee shot into the woods and had to take an unplayable penalty.  She wound up making double bogey on the hole, sinking into a tie with three other golfers.  Although she outlasted two of them, she could not beat Stanford, and wound up tied for second.

Posted by: happyfan08 | January 12, 2013

2012 SeoulSisters Awards (1 of 7): Best Start

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!

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Best Start to the Season

And the Winner Is: So Yeon Ryu (2 straight runner-up finishes in Australia)

So Yeon Ryu from a magazine spread in late 2011

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.

So Yeon Ryu at the 2011 Swinging Skirts

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.

So Yeon Ryu

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!

So Yeon misses a crucial putt at the Australian Open

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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.

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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.

Na Yeon tosses the ball during the second round of the CME

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.

So Yeon posed for pics with fans after her final round

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 won the battle against So Yeon and took the $500K first place check

Other Nominees:

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.

Inbee Park with her second LPGA trophy of 2012 at the Sime Darby Malaysia

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.

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Best Korean Finish

And the Winner Is: CN Canadian Women’s Open

Lydia gets the victory soak at the Canadian Women’s Open. Water only, please, she’s just 15!

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.

Other Nominees:

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.

Jiyai Shin holds one of the three Major trophies won by Koreans in 2012

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!

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