And now, the conclusion of this year’s Seoul Sisters Awards!
The ‘It’s About Time’ Award:
And the Winner Is: Hee Young Park wins her first tournament on the LPGA tour.
Even before she turned pro and joined the KLPGA back in 2005, Hee Young Park was a golfer who had a superstar trajectory. She first burst onto the scene by winning the Hite Cup while still in high school; fellow superstars Jiyai Shin and Na Yeon Choi also won their first KLPGA event before joining the tour. She continued on script by winning in her rookie year and securing the tour’s Rookie of the Year award, beating Na Yeon Choi for the honor (Choi is currently the highest ranked Korean golfer in the world). In 2006, she finished second on the money list to Shin, and continued to be a top player on that tour over the next two seasons. Even her fellow golfers on the KLPGA recognized her potential: they voted her as having the best swing among all Korean female golfers, even Se Ri Pak.
Hee Young Park and Na Yeon Choi in 2007
Park finished in third place at the 2007 LPGA Qualifying School, and joined the LPGA full time in 2008, the same year as Ya Ni Tseng and Choi. It seemed like it would just be a short while before she would join the elite Koreans on tour as another force from that golfing powerhouse.
Well, she didn’t exactly play poorly, easily maintaining her tour card each year and contending from time to time. But she didn’t win tournaments, either. For whatever reason, the Sure Thing had some growing pains when she arrived on the big tour. Meanwhile, her rival and friend Na Yeon Choi, who had not even gained full tour status at 2007 Q-School, played brilliantly right out of the gate. She battled Tseng for the Rookie of the Year award right until the year’s final event, and won twice in her second season and twice again in 2010.
Park became known as Rocket for her ability to make bunches of birdies at a time and shoot up the leaderboard. But like a rocket, when she fizzled she often crashed, producing terrible rounds. And whenever she got in contention, she was never able to keep her nerve and close the deal.
Hee Young in 2009
She came agonizingly close to winning her first event at the 2011 Safeway Classic. She needed a par on the final hole to get into a playoff with Choi and Suzann Pettersen. But she made bogey and finished third. That finish qualified her for the season ending CME Titleholders Championship, and it was there that Rocket finally got her first win, four years after joining the tour.
In the end, it was her ability to stay focused, once one of her liabilities,that won her the trophy. She was chased all day by many of the big names in the game, including Choi, Tseng, Sandra Gal and Paula Creamer. But she kept making big putts to maintain a slim lead over Gal. On the final hole, she was left with a tricky up and down from off the green. Missing that might have opened the door for Gal. But Park hit a great chip and drained the short par save to put the win away. For the super talented Rocket, this win might be the spark that lights the fuse for greatness at last!
Hee Young Park in December
Most Improved Player
And the Winner Is: Ha Neul Kim
Ha Neul Kim had a great career trajectory going her first two years as a professional. She won the KLPGA’s Rookie of the Year award in 2007. In 2008, she managed three victories en route to a third place finish on the money list.
Ha Neul was the 2007 KLPGA Rookie of the Year
But just when it looked like Kim was going to become a superstar, she began to have trouble with her swing. 2009 was not a terrible year, but she did not manage a victory. 2010, however, was a bit of a scare for those who admired the talented golfer. That year, she did not even finish in the top 20 on the money list, and had few top finishes to give her hope.
But 2011 proved to be a major comeback season for her, and so she wins this award for Most Improved Player. It started in the very first event of the season in China, when she came just a shot away from getting into a playoff with winner Hye Youn Kim. A few months later, she claimed her first win in two years at the Hyundai Construction Seoul Economy Women’s Open.
That would have been a pretty satisfying comeback in and of itself, but Kim had much more in store for her fans. Towards the end of the season, she went on a tear, winning her first Major at the Hite Cup, notching a second place finish behind Amy Yang at the year’s fourth Major, corralling a third win at the EDaily KYJ Golf Ladies Open, and losing a seven hole playoff for her fourth win at the ADT-CAPS, the year’s final event. By the time she won the EDaily, she had secured her first ever Money List title. She added Player of the Year with her second place finish at the ADT. As a punctuation, she added a fourth (unofficial) title when she claimed the Queen of Queens trophy in a year ending special event that pitted her against several other top players on tour. In her final five events played in Korea in 2011, she had three seconds and two wins.
Ha Neul with her third KLPGA trophy of 2011
With her heroics, Kim established herself as the top player on tour without any question. Quite an improvement from her struggles of 2010, and good reason to hope that her 2012 season will be even more amazing.
Rookie to watch in 2012: So Yeon Ryu
In 2011, I had the following to say about a Rookie to watch for 2011:
(Hee Kyung) Seo is the player I think is most likely to be the Rookie of the Year by the end of the season… For me, the one variable is, how long will it take Seo to get used to living and traveling in the States? If it doesn’t hit her too hard, I don’t doubt she will be making noise on tour by the end of the season. And though there are many solid rookie prospects, all Seo’s pro experience will hold her in good stead in her battle for Rookie of the Year.
A good call by me, I’d say. Hee Kyung Seo did not have a fabulous year by her high standards, but she was consistent, and ended up winning the LPGA’s Rookie of the Year award pretty easily.
So, who are the Korean rookies to watch for the coming year? One name leaps out at me, and I have to say I probably don’t deserve too much credit if I predict great things for her. Her name is So Yeon Ryu, and she is a 21 year old college student who earned her status on the LPGA tour by winning a tournament. That in itself would be pretty impressive (it’s how Jjiyai Shin and Hee Kyung Seo got on tour), but it gets better: that tournament happened to be the US Women’s Open, inarguably the most important event in all of women’s golf.
So Yeon at the US Women's Open
With a pedigree like that, the expectations on Ryu will be high. But she should be able to meet them if she can acclimate to the rigors of living and traveling on the LPGA tour. In her previous few years on the KLPGA tour, she has managed seven career wins and finished in the top five on tour multiple times. Unlike Seo and Shin, she never won a KLPGA Major or finished first on the money list. But her consistency should make her tough to beat for the LPGA’s top award nonetheless.
So Yeon Ryu
Another factor in her favor is that the field of her fellow rookies is not as deep as it generally is. The most well known of Ryu’s rivals is Alexis Thompson, who has also already won an LPGA tournament. Thompson does have a ton of talent, and is very long off the tee, which always helps. But she will only be 17 years old when she joins the tour, and amateurs or pros with limited professional experience, even great ones, tend to take a little longer to get up to speed on tour than pros from other tours do. Another notable rookie is two-time US Women’s Amateur champ Danielle Kang – who struggled to get her card at Q-School, but who certainly has the talent to be a star at some point – and several other strong amateurs such as Stephanie Kono and Cydney Clanton also merit mention.
Several interesting names, to be sure, but if Ryu plays up to the level she has already demonstrated, or even comes remotely close, she should still be the rookie to beat on the LPGA in 2012.
Rookie of the Year
And the Winner Is: Hee Kyung Seo
To my mind, there were two Korean golfers this year who could legitimately be considered the best rookies on their respective tours, and both of those golfers won Rookie of the Year awards. They were Hee Kyung Seo, the 2011 LPGA Rookie of the Year, and Yeon Ju Jung, the KLPGA’s top rookie star. The competition for the Seoulie between these two was definitely fierce. Both had solid years, with the edge going to Jung. But Seo succeeded on the tougher tour, against harder competition, so I give her the edge for the honor.
Hee Kyung Seo with her 2011 LPGA Rookie of the Year trophy
Seo had a decent if mostly unspectacular rookie year on tour. After winning the 2010 Kia Classic to gain tour membership, in 2011 she duked it out with a group of strong former amateur stars for top rookie. She wound up beating them by a sizable margin for that award, despite not winning in 2011.
She came close to a win, though, and never closer than at the US Women’s Open, where she held the lead as play stopped on Sunday. Were it not for a phenomenal birdie on the final hole by her old Korean rival So Yeon Ryu, or perhaps an ill timed bogey at the 17th hole by Seo as light faded on Sunday, Seo would have had the trophy. That was really her best shot at a win, but she did notch two other top tens: a fourth place at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational that clinched the Rookie of the Year award for her, and a tie for 6th at the Avnet Classic.
Seo at the US Women's Open
Seo’s secret weapon was her consistency. Though she had few other great finishes, she had an awful lot of solid ones. In fact, she had 8 other top 25 finishes, each one moving her a little closer to her goal. She did miss three cuts, including at the Kia Classic in defense of her title. Her money total of $619,429, more than half of which came at the Open, earned her 21st place on the money list.
Jung, meanwhile, had her own Major moment in 2011. It came when she won the Korean Women’s Open, arguably the most important event on that tour. It was her only win last season, but Jung had a bunch of other great finishes throughout the year. She racked up 7 top tens, 4 of which were top fives, and did not miss a single cut all year. Quite an achievement for a gal not yet out of her teens. She wound up 5th on the year ending money list.
Jung accepts her 2011 KLPGA Rookie of the Year award
In a lot of ways, Jung had a better season than Seo. She finished higher on the money list, had more top tens and top fives, and won the biggest event on her tour, where Seo only finished as the runner up in her tour’s biggest event. Both ladies dominated their respective Rookie of the Year races. But I’m still picking Seo narrowly over Jung as our Rookie of the Year. There’s no doubt that Seo had the tougher competition, but she also had the bigger learning curve. She had to travel all over the world to play in events, while Jung played almost exclusively in Korea. True, Jung is a young kid in her first season on a major tour, so she had her own learning curve, but you can’t underestimate how tough it can be to live in a new country where you don’t speak the language fluently, and where you have to get used to far longer traveling distances, different culture, customs, and food. I might still have given Jung the nod if she had been a little stronger on the KLPGA or Seo had been a little weaker. But given the facts as they were, Hee Kyung Seo is our 2011 Rookie of the Year.
Other Nominees: Yeon Ju Jung
Player of the Year
And the Winner Is: Sun Ju Ahn
If the Rookie of the Year was a tough choice, this one was really tricky. There were no obvious candidates for this award like in years past. Na Yeon Choi, Danielle Kang, Ha Neul Kim, So Yeon Ryu – you could make a case for any of those ladies as the Player of the Year. Almost every one of them did something historic in 2011. But my choice is Sun Ju Ahn, who also made history in 2011 by becoming the first foreign born player to ever lead the Japanese tour money list for two years.
It’s a bit challenging for me to talk about Ahn, because I don’t really follow the JLPGA all that closely. But the numbers speak for themselves. Though she gets almost no coverage in the States, she is as of this writing the second highest ranked Korean golfer in the world rankings, behind only Na Yeon Choi and ahead of former world #1 Jiyai Shin (for the record, Ahn is currently ranked #6). She is also the only golfer in the top ten not playing full time on the LPGA tour. She reached these lofty heights by being a superstar in Japan from virtually the moment she landed there as a rookie in 2010. Last season, she became the first Korean and only the second non-Japanese player to ever lead their money list, winning four times in the process. This year, she won four more times, including her first Major, the Salonpas Cup, to again lead the money list and break the 100 million yen barrier. (Even more amazingly, Ji Hee Lee was second on the money list, the first ever foreign 1-2 finish on that tour). Her four wins make her the Korean golfer with the most wins on any tour in 2011.
Sun Ju Ahn
Ahn joined the KLPGA tour in 2006. She had a great rookie season, winning once and finishing in the top ten 8 other times, including two second place finishes. But she was thoroughly outclassed in the rookie race that year by Jiyai Shin, who had three wins. Shin would continue to overshadow her friend over the next few seasons, winning the Player of the Year award from 2006 – 2008. But Ahn quietly amassed an impressive record of her own. If there is a Korean superstar in all the world with a lower profile than Ahn, I’m not sure who it would be. But a superstar she certainly has been and continues to be.
For instance, in 2007, she notched top tens in both Australian events she played, then won the Korean Women’s Open, beating Cristie Kerr among others in the field. That win put Ahn (temporarily) in first place on the KLPGA money list. It wouldn’t last: Shin reasserted her dominance with three straight wins and nine total, but Ahn still managed two more wins in 2007 and 12 total top tens. She finished third on the money list.
Ahn in the winner's circle in 2007
By that point, Ahn was considered one of the Big Three on the KLPGA tour, along with Shin and Eun Hee Ji. Ji left the KLPGA in 2008 to join the LPGA, and within a couple of years had won two events, including the 2009 US Women’s Open. Shin, meanwhile, not only won the KLPGA money list title for a third straight year in 2008, she also won three LPGA events to boot, including the British Women’s Open. By comparison, Ahn’s season was a bit slow to get off the ground. She did eventually win an event late in the year, and contended a few other times. But the birth of a new superstar, Hee Kyung Seo, impacted Ahn at the St. Four, an event jointly co-sanctioned by the KLPGA and the European Tour. Seo made birdies on her final four holes to catch Ahn and beat her after Ahn had led most of the week.
With the new generation of KLPGA stars rising, Ahn decided it was time to join Ji and Shin on the LPGA. She went to 2008 LPGA Qualifying School, winning her sectional. But at the Finals, she suffered an injury and had to bow out. Deflated, she returned to the KLPGA in 2009. That season, most of the focus was on Seo and another new superstar, So Yeon Ryu. Those two finished 1-2 on the money list, but Ahn hardly had a poor year: she won twice, amassed 14 top tens, and finished third on the money list. But all the press coverage went to the big Seo-Ryu rivalry and tended to ignore the jovial big woman.
Ahn found herself in the shadow of Hee Kyung Seo in 2009, when Seo won 5 times
Ahn then made an interesting decision. Instead of trying to qualify again for the LPGA, like she had in 2008, she chose to join the Japanese tour instead. She made it through Q-School with little problem, and sent a message that a new force had arrived by winning her very first tournament by five strokes. Included in that field were two other golfers who now had membership on that tour: Jiyai Shin and Inbee Park, the winner of the 2008 US Women’s Open.
Ahn went on to win the money list on the 2010 Japanese tour by an impressive margin. Ahn dyed her hair red and began referring to herself by the unusual nickname of ‘Ahn of Green Gables’ (being a fan of that story), although I suspect ‘Raggedy Ahn’ might have been more appropriate.
Sun Ju Ahn is known for her red hair -- though this is obviously a wig!!!
In any event, she definitely came into the 2011 season with a target on her back, but she went on to do in 2011 what she had done in 2010. She won four times, including a Major, broke the 100 million yen barrier for the second straight year, and beat the second place Lee by ~25 million yen. In addition, her win at the Sankyo Ladies Open In October was the 100th win by a Korean on that tour, a victory that mirrored the 100th Korean win on the LPGA achieved by Na Yeon Choi at about the same time (interestingly, the first win on both tours by a Korean was achieved by the same golfer, Ok Hee Ku). She made more history as the only foreign born player to ever repeat as money list leader.
Sun Ju Ahn is the 2011 JLPGA Player of the Year
Keep an eye cocked towards Japan in 2012, to see if Sun Ju Ahn can continue her dominating ways in the Land of the Rising Sun!
Other nominees (and why I didn’t choose them):
Ha Neul Kim
Ha Neul Kim
Ha Neul Kim had a fantastic year on the KLPGA, winning the Player of the Year and money list titles, claiming her first Major, and generally establishing herself as top cat over there. Her achievement was all the more impressive considering she was competing with So Yeon Ryu, who had become a Major winner in 2011 by capturing the US Women’s Open. Ryu had a great season in Korea, and even led many of the categories listed above for a time, but in the end she just couldn’t stop Kim.
I was tempted to give Kim the award, since I consider the Japanese and Korean tours to be similar in terms of competitiveness. Kim had one fewer win than Ahn, but she did win an unofficial All-Star event at the end of the season, barely lost the ADT-CAPS in an interminable playoff, and finished second to Amy Yang at the year’s final Major (Yang being a bit of a ringer, in that she does not usually play on the KLPGA tour). But Kim gets to play most of her tournaments in her home country, while Ahn has to deal with living in a foreign country while she does her thing. And her historic achievement as the first two time foreign money list leader is another important consideration. So Ha Neul gets credit, but Ahn gets the award.
Na Yeon Choi
Na Yeon in Taiwan in December
Na Yeon Choi is the highest ranked Korean in the world (#3 as of this writing). She had a few struggles early in the year, including just her second missed cut at the US Women’s Open. But she righted the ship after that and had some great tournaments. She beat world #1 Ya Ni Tseng head to head in Malaysia, barely lost to her in Korea, and had a great chance to claim a win in Portland as well before her game fizzled in the final few holes and the playoff. She had 12 top tens in all and finished third on the LPGA money list.
That may not be as impressive as her 2010 performance, when she led the money list and won the Vare Trophy, but it was certainly a great job nonetheless. As if that were not enough, she also achieved the 100th win on the LPGA by a Korean or Korean American when she won in Malaysia. This historic moment was a BIG DEAL in Korea.
Na Yeon at a celebration of 100 Korean wins on the LPGA tour in December
So why is she not the Player of the Year?
The main factor, as I see it, was number of wins. Choi had only one win on the LPGA tour and a second win on the Korean tour. It’s arguable how to compare those two wins against the four Japanese tour wins (one Major) Ahn had. My feeling is that Ahn’s record was a little more impressive. So, I give it to Ahn in a close contest. But no question, it was another Player of the Year caliber season for Na Yeon Choi.
So Yeon Ryu
So Yeon Ryu
So Yeon Ryu was not as consistent as Na Yeon Choi or even Ha Neul Kim in 2011, but she did have the single biggest win of any Korean all year when she took the US Women’s Open crown. This not only made her the first Korean in two years to win a Major, and the third youngest to win that particular event, it also made her the first Korean to ever earn her tour card by winning the most prestigious title in women’s golf. She was also the winner of the first ever playoff between two Koreans for a Major title. Her performance the entire week, and particularly in the playoff, was the best any Korean produced in 2011.
Ryu also won an event on the KLPGA, but found herself finishing well behind Ha Neul Kim in the season ending award race in Korea. It’s arguable whether Ryu would even be considered to have had a better season than Kim, let alone Ahn. Sure, the Open title goes a long way towards forgiving any other shortcomings she had in her battle with Kim for supremacy. But in my opinion, she needed just a bit more consistency, or one or two more wins, to have deserved the title over Sun Ju Ahn.
Danielle Kang at the British Women's Open
Danielle Kang’s golden moment came in winning the US Women’s Amateur for the second straight year. She is the only woman of Korean ethnicity to ever manage that feat. Grace Park never did it; nor did Jennifer Song. And her performance all week, and particularly in the final round, where she utterly destroyed her worthy opponent, Moriya Jutanugarn, was one for the ages. Nor was it her only moment of brilliance in 2011; she was also the low amateur at 2011’s Ricoh British Women’s Open.
But Kang struggled a good deal more towards the end of the year, barely earning a tour card for the 2012 LPGA tour. And as impressive as her Amateur win was, winning that tournament was not as impressive as Ryu winning the Open. If Ryu doesn’t rate the Player of the Year, it seems like Kang shouldn’t either.