Posted by: happyfan08 | October 10, 2012

Ha Neul Kim: Blue Skies Again

Over the past six seasons, the Korean LPGA tour has experienced an amazing blossoming of talent.  Great and sometimes transcendent players have sprung up year after year to entertain fans and impress one and all.  Since 2005, the tour has produced players like Na Yeon Choi, currently the top Korean player in the world; Jiyai Shin, who has shattered one record after another; Major winner So Yeon Ryu, currently leading the LPGA Rookie of the Year race; Major winner Eun Hee Ji; Sun Ju Ahn, who has been the top player on the Japanese tour the past two years and might repeat that feat this season; and Bo Mee Lee, Hee Kyung Seo and Ha Neul Kim, who combine great looks with Player of the Year level credentials.

Ha Neul Kim with her many trophies from last year’s KLPGA Awards Show

Yes, it has been a great ride, but the nature of the KLPGA is that great players don’t tend to stick around more than a few years before moving on to more lucrative careers on other tours.  Choi and Hee Young Park left in 2008; Shin left in 2009 after sweeping the tour Majors in 2008.  Seo and Ryu won official LPGA events to earn tour cards in America.  Lee left after her Player of the Year season in 2010.  One by one, all the stars from this fertile period left for other places – except for one.  That player is 2011 Player of the Year Ha Neul Kim.

In some ways, the glamorous Kim is the last of her era.  Since 2010, several players have come along who have the potential to become dominating stars on the KLPGA, but none have been able to live up to the recently departed superstars (at least so far).  Soo Jin Yang is the most likely to become a huge star.  She has consistently been a top five player since her second year on tour in 2010; has won the Korean Women’s Open and Match Play, two of the toughest events on tour; and is very popular with galleries.  But even Yang has not yet had a dominating run like Ryu or Seo did in 2009, or Kim did last year.  Also waiting in the wings is the amazing teenager Hyo Joo Kim, who earlier this year won a KLPGA event as a 16-year-old by a jaw dropping 9 shot margin.  She might be able to pick up the gauntlet left whenever Kim departs.  But for now, Ha Neul Kim is the one true superstar on the KLPGA tour.  And last week, after a somewhat below par season for her, she at last entered the winner’s circle and threw herself headlong into the race for Player of the Year.

Ha Neul Kim won the 2007 Rookie of the Year award on the KLPGA, and had a three win breakout season in 2008.  But after that, she went into a bit of a slump, not winning again until early in the 2011 season.  But it was towards the end of last year that Kim emerged as a genuine superstar on the KLPGA.  At that point, most observers were predicting that So Yeon Ryu, who had won the US Women’s Open in July, was going to wind up winning all the season ending hardware in Korea.  But Kim would have none of it.  She started her blistering run at the third Major of the year, the Hite Cup.  Ryu took the lead there after two rounds, but an unusual rules infraction in round 3 knocked her for a loop, and an amateur golfer, In Ji Jeon, rose up to take the lead.  Jeon was cruising in the final round, taking as much as a four shot lead on the back nine.  After a late triple bogey, she fell out of the lead, and Kim took advantage.  Just a few holes later, it was Ha Neul Kim hoisting her first Major trophy.

Kim continued her torrid pace the rest of the year.  She finished second to Amy Yang at the year’s final Major, the KB Financial Star Championship, then won her third title of the year at the Edaily KYJ Golf Women’s Open.  She was poised to win for a fourth time at the final event of the season, the ADT-CAPS, but lost an interminable seven hole sudden death playoff to Young Ran Jo.  Nonetheless, her finish was still good enough to allow her to lock up most of the big awards for the 2011 season, including Player of the Year and Money List leader.  She was even voted the Most Popular Player by the fans!  To cap off her year, she won an unofficial event featuring the top players on tour shortly after that.

Ha Neul at the Edaily, one of the three late season events she won last year

Kim continued playing fantastic golf as the 2012 season began.  She finished tied for second, just one shot back, at the RACV Australian Ladies Masters, her best ever international finish.  She shot 65-64-67 over the final three rounds to get to that point.  She managed only a 24th place finish the following week at the Australian Women’s Open, and later notched a 20th as a sponsor’s invite at the Kia Classic.  At the year’s first Major, the Kraft Nabisco in late March, she just missed out on her first career top ten in a Major, finishing tied for 11th.

Ha Neul before the Nabisco Championship

All signs were pointing towards a great 2012 KLPGA season for Ha Neul.  She came into the first event of the main part of the KLPGA season in mid-April, the LotteMart Women’s Open, expecting to establish herself as the player to beat.  But as it turned out, the spotlight was totally stolen by another player who was not even a member of the tour.  That player was 16-year-old amateur Hyo Joo Kim, who took a share of the first round lead following a 66, while Ha Neul struggled to a 75, nine shots back.  Anyone who thought the amateur was going to ease up in round two was in for a shock: she shot a 67 to zoom to a staggering seven shot lead.  Ha Neul shot a 69 to move up to 13th place, but found herself massively down to the teenager with two rounds to go.  Hyo Joo increased the lead to 10 shots early in the third round before struggling a bit and winding up with a 73.  Ha Neul made some ground up but was still 7 shots down, although she was now in third place.

On the final day, Ha Neul went out in 33, but still lost ground to the unstoppable teen.  But on the back nine, something gave way in Ha Neul.  It was as if she had given it her all and had run out of steam.  She made four bogies and two pars and slipped to third, a mind-blowing 13 shots behind the high schooler.  It was no doubt a humbling experience for the superstar, and not surprisingly, her next event was one of the worst of the past few years: she barely made the cut and finished 63rd.

Ha Neul in round 3 of the LotteMart Open

The next few months, she made a number of top tens to keep herself near the top of the money list, but was not able to get a win.  Meanwhile, a new superstar burst onto the scene.  With her looks and style, Char Young Kim has been attracting attention since her rookie season in 2010.  Her results haven’t been too bad, either: she finished 14th on the money list in her rookie season and 19th last year.  But the 21-year-old has made a quantum leap in her career this season.  It all started at the Woori Investment and Securities Ladies Championship in May.  Hyo Joo Kim was in the field and made a run at a second win, but Mirim Lee seized the lead and looked like she had the thing wrapped up.  Char Young would have none of it: she birdied three of the final four holes, caught Lee, forced a playoff, and won on the first playoff hole.  Suddenly, one of the tour’s biggest glamour girls had a title in her pocket.

And she wasn’t done: she won the next event on tour as well, the Doosan Match Play, beating last year’s Rookie of the Year Yeon Ju Jung in the finals.  Kim collected a third win in August to solidify her status as the top player on the money list.  Meanwhile, Ha Neul continued to collect top tens, but was not able to get a win.  The gauntlet had been thrown down.  Could Ha Neul, the original tour It Girl, beat the younger model?  Could she find the form that allowed her to dominate the end of 2011, or would Char Young continue her march towards the Player of the Year?

The new rivalry on tour: Char Young Kim vs. Ha Neul Kim

Ha Neul Kim’s chance finally came in October at the Rush and Cash Charity Classic.  Char Young Kim was skipping the event to help an undisclosed injury heal.  But in the first two rounds, the player who seized the day was Young Ran Jo, the same player who had beaten Kim in the season ending playoff the previous year.  By the end of the second day, Jo had a three shot lead over second place and a four shot lead over Kim.

Ha Neul putts during round 2 of the Rush & Cash event

Things didn’t seem to be getting better for Ha Neul in round three.  Jo made two more birdies and at the turn, with nine holes to play, she held a five shot lead.  But on the back nine it was a different story.  Jo bogied 13, 15 and 16 to fall back to 7 under total.  At the same time, Ha Neul Kim made her move, making birdies on 11, 14 and 16.  By the time she birdied 16, Kim had climbed into the lead for the first time all week.  And this time, Jo was not able to make the extra birdie she needed to force another playoff.  After an 11 month wait, Ha Neul Kim had her 7th career KLPGA win.

Ha Neul has the win within reach!

The victory vaulted Kim into second on the money list behind Char Young, and first in the Player of the Year standings.  This is the precise time last year when Kim made her big move to win the big prizes; in fact, she defends her title at the Hite Cup as the next tournament she plays.  Char Young Kim will be in that field, and rest assured that the two Glamour Girls will be duking it out for the tour honors the rest of the year.  But at last, Ha Neul Kim has re-established herself as the tour’s resident superstar.  For Ha Neul, whose name translates as ‘sky’, the sky is once again literally the limit!

Ha Neul with the Rush & Cash trophy

Posted by: happyfan08 | September 24, 2012

Jiyai Shin’s Liverpool Oratorio

Jiyai Shin is arguably the greatest Korean golfer of her generation. From 2006 through 2008, she dominated the KLPGA like no golfer before or since. She won three LPGA events before even joining that tour, something no other player has ever done. In just two years on tour, her win total already was eight victories, including a Major. In late 2010, she became the first Korean golfer to ever reach the #1 ranking in the world, and also was the first Korean to ever lead the LPGA money list. Even the legendary Se Ri Pak never managed that feat.

But Jiyai Shin had not won an LPGA event since claiming the Mizuno Classic in November of 2010. Injuries and swing changes hampered her efforts, and though she came close on several occasions, her once vaunted ability to close out a win seemed to have deserted her.

At long last, after 22 months of waiting, Shin’s slump came to an end at last week’s Kingsmill Championship in Williamsburg, Virginia. But she had to work for it: after battling Paula Creamer all day for the title, Creamer three putted on the final hole to send the two stars into a playoff. After playing the 18th hole a staggering 8 times, they were still unable to end the deadlock. It took a Monday morning restart, and a ninth playoff hole, before Shin finally got to hold the trophy. It was the second longest sudden death playoff in LPGA history, and the longest ever between just two players.

Jiyai with her first trophy of 2012

Shin’s back story is well known among LPGA fans. As a teenager working her way up the amateur golf ranks, she was busy practicing one day when her mother and two siblings were involved in a deadly car accident. Her mother was killed, and both her younger brother and sister were seriously injured. Shin wound up moving into the hospital to help take care of the two; it took them nearly a year to get well. Meanwhile, Shin, toughened by the horrible experience and buoyed by her mother’s insurance money, started winning tournament after tournament. She says she had never won before her mother’s death, but after that, dedicated every win to her memory.

While still in high school, Shin won her first KLPGA tournament. The bespectacled, small in stature Shin was no one’s idea of a killer, but she had steel in her spine and was deadly when a win was in sight. Turning pro at the end of 2005, she almost immediately won a professional event, the Hong Kong Open. She joined the KLPGA the following season, and by the end of the year had won three events and claimed the Player and Rookie of the Year awards. Among her wins that season was a victory at the Korean Women’s Open, where she stared down and beat top LPGA star Cristie Kerr in the final round. She broke Se Ri Pak’s decade old record for most money made in a single season.

Jiyai won the 2006 Korean Women’s Open as a rookie

For the next several years, Shin broke record after record on the KLPGA tour.  When she started playing internationally on a regular basis, she had the same stunning success wherever she went.  All of this culminated in her becoming the first Korean golfer to ever ascend to the #1 ranking in women’s golf.

But starting in 2011, a series of injuries and attempts to add more distance to her drives resulted in a massive downturn in her game.  Ya Ni Tseng became the uncontested top player in the world that year, while Shin was not able to win even a single event on any tour.  She continued to struggle with injuries and less than stellar play through the start of 2012. Even when she did play well, Tseng was there to knock her back down. Then she needed to have a hand operation, which caused her to miss several Majors.  She finally returned to action in July, and immediately showed a promising return to form. After a 31st at the Evian Masters, she was tied for the lead going into the final round at her next event, the Jamie Farr Toledo Classic. That week, however, So Yeon Ryu, who was also tied for the lead, was unstoppable, firing a 62 in the final round to romp to a seven shot win. At her next event, the Safeway Classic, she was again a non-factor, but the next tournament after that, the CN Canadian Women’s Open , once again saw Shin in the final group on Sunday. This time, though, it was the 15-year-old wunderkind Lydia Ko who could not be beaten, and Shin finished tied for third. Signs were good that Shin would get more chances to earn her first trophy in nearly two years.

Jiyai Shin douses Lydia Ko with water after her win at the CN Canadian Women’s Open

Her next event was a new one on the schedule, the Kingsmill Championship. A new tournament, but not a new location, for Kingsmill was the site of the late lamented Michelob Ultra, which once upon a time was one of the LPGA’s top events. For this week, Shin was working with a new caddie, and was apparently feeling a lot of comfort with her game, for in the very first round, she blistered the course, shooting a 9 under par 62 to take the lead. That definitely gave her a little of her old confidence back, and she shot a 68 on day two to move to 12 under total. She maintained her lead despite a brilliant round from rookie Danielle Kang, who went ultra low to move into second place.

But the biggest threat to Shin’s week would not come from Kang but from another top player who had not won on tour since 2010. American Paula Creamer produced rounds of 65, 67 and 65 to move ahead of Shin in round 3 with a total of 16 under par. Shin shot a third round 69 but now trailed Creamer by two shots. They would be paired in the final round, and sure enough, fireworks ensued. The two battled it out all day, both determined to finally end their multi-year winless droughts. Creamer started well, with two early birdies to hold off Shin, who also had two birdies early. But Creamer made a big mistake on the 6th, hitting her approach into a nasty place and making double bogey, her first serious error in several days.

Jiyai Shin drives during round 4 of the Kingsmill Championship

They were still tied at the turn, but Shin made some serious mistakes after that, resulting in bogies on 10 and 11. Creamer seemed in control, but a Creamer bogey on 12 allowed Shin to hang in there. Creamer managed to make a clutch up and down on 13 to maintain her lead, then followed that with a birdie on 14 to move to 2 up again. But Shin was not going to make it easy on the young American. She made a birdie on 15 to again move to within one, and traded birdies on 16 to maintain that one shot deficit.

And so it stayed until the 18th, when both players reached the green in regulation. It looked like Shin was going to go home disappointed after a valiant effort, but Creamer unexpectedly missed a short par save to fall into a tie with Shin at the end of regulation. It was time for a playoff. And what a playoff it ended up being.

Jiyai Shin and Paula Creamer battled all day Sunday for the Kingsmill title

They would play the 18th hole again and again until a winner emerged. But time after time, they matched pars, and the playoff went on and on and on. Shin very nearly ended it on the first playoff hole, but she left a five foot birdie putt two rolls short of the cup. They both had chances to win on the second try but missed. On the third go round, both players wound up in bunkers and made great up and downs to maintain the tie. They continued to match pars with two putts a fourth, fifth, and sixth time.

By now the playoff itself had stretched to over two hours, and it was looking like they might not be able to finish before light ran out. There was something about the hole that made it really tough to birdie. Neither player was long enough to get a short iron approach that would have made a birdie a strong possibility. And so, it looked like the event would end when one of them made a mistake. But Shin, in full terminator mode, was determined that she would not be the one to do that.

Jiyai Shin after one of her misses during the Sunday playoff

On the 7th playoff hole, Creamer had to scramble but made a five footer to tie yet again. They both two putted the 8th, although Creamer’s birdie attempt almost made it that time.  By now it was simply too dark to continue, although they both went back to the tee and thought about it. And so, what had become the longest two player sudden death playoff in LPGA history would resume on Monday morning. Thankfully, this time they decided to play hole 16, then 17, then 18 if necessary. It would prove a wise decision. Both players hit the fairway on the 9th playoff hole, but Shin got her approach much closer, and Creamer’s putt went well by the hole. Shin had yet another chance to win, but missed her birdie. But she had left it close, and this time, finally, Creamer was not able to save par. Shin tapped in, and at long last, she had another trophy to add to her collection.

On Monday morning, Jiyai finally won the endless playoff

One of the real oddities about the event was how many times the number nine reappeared for Jiyai Shin. She went 9 under in the first round. The win was her 9th career LPGA win, beating a player who also had nine career wins. She won the event on the 9th playoff hole after the two players made nine total shots. The playoff had started on September 9th, or 9/9. Shin would not have much time to celebrate, as she and Creamer immediately hopped on a plane to journey to Liverpool, site of the year’s final Major, the Ricoh Women’s British Open. Liverpool, of course, is the birthplace of the Beatles. John Lennon of the Fab Four considered nine his lucky number (he was born October 9th, as was his son), and he infamously wrote a song called Revolution #9. But how would Shin do on this course she had never before seen, when she would get less chance to play the course than almost anyone else in the field? In fact, thanks to her late arrival and poor weather, she would only get a chance to play practice rounds on – the front nine holes. Maybe the fact that she played only that particular number of holes was an omen!

Weather is usually a big factor at the Women’s British Open, and this year, with the event taking place more than a month later than usual to avoid conflicting with the Olympics, it was a dominating factor. Indeed, it made the seaside links course play at times like one of the toughest tests the women had ever faced. On the first day, only a few players were able to finish under par, including Koreans So Yeon Ryu and Haeji Kang, who were tied for the lead at 2 under. Shin shot a 71, a great place to be after all her travels. Shin then got the break of the week. On day two, the weather was so atrocious that they finally decided to postpone the round entirely. Shin got a much-needed day of rest, and was raring to go Saturday morning.

Shin not only took advantage of her rejuvenated condition, she wound up shooting one of the best rounds of her entire life: an immaculate 8 under par 64, the lowest competitive round ever shot at the course, male or female. She hit all but one fairway and all 18 greens. She started her round on the 10th hole by sinking an eagle from 30 yards, and followed that with birdies on 11, 12 and 13. In just four holes she was five under for the day. By the end of the day she had a five shot lead over Inbee Park and was well on her way to earning her second career Major. But as brilliant as her Saturday was, the hard part was yet to come. Shin had to play 36 holes on Sunday, and the weather was bound to be treacherous at times. This was a course where one or two holes could change everything if she was not careful. No lead was safe.

Jiyai was electric during a brilliant Saturday 64 at the British Open

Shin made mistakes during her first 18 holes of the day, but managed to shoot a 71. That allowed her to maintain a three shot lead over the surging Hall of Famer Karrie Webb. By the time Shin started her fourth round, just a few minutes after ending her third, the weather had changed drastically. Suddenly the wind and rain was whipping, and Shin paid the price on the first hole, one of the toughest of the week. By the time she was done, she had made a triple bogey and fallen to 7 under total. Fortunately for her, Webb made double bogey herself on that hole, and soon fell off the pace. Only Park looked like she might threaten Shin if Shin could keep it together.

And Jiyai did just that, making clutch pars to calm her nerves, then two birdies on 6 and 7 to move back to 9 under total. From there, she managed to maintain a big lead through the rest of her round. The weather did not make it easy. It calmed down for a while, but at one point on the back nine it got so bad that her umbrella was shredded by the wind and they had to halt play for a few minutes. Still, she continued to play steady golf, making three more birdies and two bogies while almost everyone else struggled to make par. When she reached the 18th hole with a 10 shot cushion, suddenly the sun came out, bathing the entire course in an eerie orange light (the commentators resisted the obvious Here-Comes-the-Sun Beatles reference). Moments later, she wrapped up the win, her two-year drought a distant memory. Her final total score was – yup – number 9 number 9 number 9 under par, a 9 shot margin over Park. It was the biggest margin of victory (by four shots) in the event’s history as a Major tournament. John Lennon would have been proud.

The sun finally came out as Jiyai walked up the final fairway

Jiyai Shin skipped the next LPGA event to travel back to Korea, where she received a heroine’s welcome at the airport. We can only wait with bated breath to see if she can continue the hot streak at her next event! But every indication is that the greatest player of her generation is back on track, so the rest of the world better watch its step!

In semi-darkness, Jiyai Shin holds her second career Major trophy

Posted by: happyfan08 | August 30, 2012

Lydia Ko: School’s Out For Summer

Last week’s CN Canadian Women’s Open on the LPGA tour had a storybook ending, as 15 year old amateur Lydia Ko became the youngest girl in history to win on that tour.  Ko achieved this incredible feat at the tender age of 15 years, 4 months and a few days, shattering the record of 16 year, 8 months, which had been set only a year ago by Lexi Thompson.  Ko, who was born in South Korea but moved to New Zealand as a six year old, bested a field that included 48 of the top 50 players on the LPGA tour.  In the final round, she was paired with former world #1 Jiyai Shin and current world #2 Stacey Lewis, and beat them both handily.  Without question, this is one of the biggest stories of the year in golf.

Lydia Ko stunned the world at the CN Canadian Women’s Open

Although her win was historic and more than a little surprising, it did not come out of thin air.  Ko has been the #1 ranked amateur in the women’s game for well over a year, and had been shattering records for several years before that.  Young Lydia first took up the game seriously after she and her family relocated from Korea to New Zealand when she was just six years old.  She began taking lessons with a local golf coach, Guy Wilson, and it didn’t take long for him to realize that his pupil had some serious game.  There is amazing footage on Youtube of Ko as an 8 year old, practicing her game, doing cartwheels at the course, and hitting some truly amazing shots.  Lydia tells a reporter in the piece that she practices golf every day.  Even though she had only been playing for two years at that point, the seeds of potential greatness were already apparent.

Here’s a story about Lydia showing clips of her at 8 years old: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XIUdRq-96G4

Ko was fortunate that another Korean transplant a couple of years older than she, Cecilia Cho, was blazing her own trail in New Zealand golf at the same time.  This gave her a rival against which to match her game as she moved up the rankings.  They met at the 2009 New Zealand Amateur Match Play finals where Cho, 13, defeated Ko, just 11.  In 2010 she was named to the national team, and stunned everyone by managing a 7th place finish at a professional event, the New Zealand Women’s Open.  The tournament featured a bunch of decently ranked professional golfers and was won by former world #1 Laura Davies.  Davies, who managed to beat Ko by just five shots, praised the unbelievable young starlet in her acceptance speech.   Ko would go on to win several more amateur events that year, and helped lead her home country to a second place finish behind Korea at the Queen Sirikit Cup.  She finished fourth in the individual standings at that tournament.

Lydia at the 2010 New Zealand Open, where she finished 7th as a 12 year old

2011 was in many ways Ko’s breakout year.  She had clearly risen to be the second best golfer in the women’s game in her country, behind only her friend and rival Cho, and early in the year, they would repeatedly clash for supremacy.  In January, she played at the New South Wales Open, a professional event on the Australian Ladies Tour.  She was brilliant all week, and came into the final hole with the lead. But nerves got the better of her, and she three putted the final hole to hand the tournament to pro Caroline Hedwall.  Had Ko won the event, she would have been, at 13 years old, the youngest woman to ever win a professional event, breaking the former record by more than THREE YEARS.  Soon thereafter, she managed a 4th place at the New Zealand Women’s Open, even better than her performance the previous year.

By March, Ko had risen to third in the world rankings, with her rival Cho rising to second.  It seemed like every amateur event, those two would be in the mix, slugging it out for the title.  She beat Cho at the Australian Stroke Play Championship in a playoff, but lost the Match Play in the quarterfinals.  She then won the New Zealand Stroke Play Championship, beating second place Cho by nine shots.  A few days later, those two met yet again, this time in the New Zealand Match Play final.  Once again, the younger Ko got the best of Cho, winning despite the fact Cho had won the title the two previous years (including in 2009, when she had beaten Ko in the finals).  Thanks to all these wins, Ko leapfrogged Cho and became the new #1 amateur golfer in the women’s game, a ranking she still holds as of this writing.

Lydia with one of her 2011 trophies

Later that summer, she finally had a chance to play in some of the biggest amateur events in Europe and America.  She was co-medalist at the US Women’s Amateur, but lost in the second round of match play.  She also bowed out early at the British Women’s Amateur.  But the 14 year old had gained valuable experience that would help her in the future.

Ko missed the next few months of action due to school and a wrist injury that required an operation to repair.  By early 2012, she was back at it.  In January, she won the Australian Match Play Championship, setting a truly astounding record in the process: she became the first woman to simultaneously hold the Australian Match Play and Stroke Play AND New Zealand Match Play and Stroke Play titles.  And she was still only 14.  It really boggles the mind.  And that wasn’t even the most amazing thing she did in January, let alone 2012!

Once again playing the ALPG’s New South Wales Open, the event she had narrowly missed winning the year before, she left nothing to chance.  She shot a blistering second round 64 to take a four shot lead, then hung on to grab the win, in the process becoming the youngest person, male or female, to EVER win any professional golf event.  She broke the previous record for women held by Korean star Amy Yang by two years.

Lydia holds the trophy that made her the youngest to ever win a pro tournament

Ko played in two more pro events in Australia, finishing 32nd at the RACV Australian Ladies Masters and 19th at the Australian Ladies Open, her first ever LPGA event.  Later in February she managed only a 17th at the New Zealand Open, a relatively weak result but still pretty impressive for a 14 year old.

Ko continued to hold onto the #1 ranking firmly.  That ranking earned her an exemption into the field of the US Women’s Open in July.  Ko was one of only three amateurs to make the cut.  For much of the weekend, she was well ahead of the other two amateurs, seemingly guaranteeing that she would get the low amateur honors.  But she struggled mightily on the final three holes, making big numbers and almost losing her entire lead over the other amateurs as a result.  Fortunately for her, she just held on and earned the prestigious award.

Her performance at the Open earned her the right to play in another USGA event a couple of weeks later, the US Girls Junior.  She finished second in the stroke play portion to the Thai star and defending champion Ariya Jutanugarn.  As Ko worked her way through the matches towards the finals, it looked likely she would clash with Jutanugarn when she got there.  But both she and Jutanugarn, the #2 ranked amateur in the world behind Ko, were upset in the semifinals.

Lydia during round 4 of this year’s US Women’s Open

Ko played in her second US Women’s Amateur three weeks ago.  She took the lead in the first round of stroke play, but Korean amateur superstar Hyo Joo Kim, who had already won two professional events herself in 2012, wound up beating Ko by a stroke for the stroke play medalist honors.  Ranked 1 and 2 thanks to those results, it was possible they would meet, for the first time ever, in the finals.  Alas, Kim lost in the third round, so it was not to be.  But Ko ruthlessly worked her way through the match play opponents, reaching the semifinals, where Jutanugarn awaited.

It was a pity that the first ever match play clash between the two top ranked amateurs in the world would happen in the semis and not the finals, but it certainly lived up to its billing.  Jutanugarn is enormously long off the tee, and outdrove Ko most of the time.  But Ko’s short game was far superior, and time and again, she would give herself birdie chances or make easy par saves when she needed to.  Her refusal to make mistakes eventually wore the Thai star down, and Jutnaugarn hit a terrible approach on the 17th hole that wound up costing her the match.  Ko would have her chance to win the Amateur against American Jaye Marie Green.

Although Green was a game opponent, she was truly no match for Ko.  They were close in the morning 18 holes, but in the afternoon, Ko went on a four hole run that put her strongly in the lead.  Ko made a couple of mistakes after that to give Green a chance of an upset, including one lost hole caused when she tried to make a par putt with an awkward stance to avoid stepping on Green’s putting line.  But despite that gift, Green muffed her approach on 17, much like Jutanugarn had the day before.  Moments later, she conceded the hole, and Ko had her first US Women’s Amateur trophy.  She was the second youngest to ever win the title, arguably the most important in all of women’s amateur golf.

Lydia Ko wins the 2012 US Women’s Amateur

And so it was that Ko arrived in Vancouver in late August to play in the CN Canadian Women’s Open.  She certainly was on a high after her recent win, but few, including herself, would have called her a favorite to win.  For her part, Ko was hoping to first make the cut and then, if she did that, go for a top 15, which would have been her best LPGA finish to date.  She enlisted the aid of club member and accomplished golfer Brian Alexander as her caddie, and used his thorough knowledge of the course to learn about the ins and outs of the tricky greens and fairways.

On Thursday, Ko got out to a great start, shooting a 4 under par 68 to put herself just two shots out of the lead.  But most of the attention on day one was given to Ya Ni Tseng.  The #1 golfer in the world, Tseng had struggled mightily with her confidence over the past few months.  But when she shot a 6 under par 66 to take the lead on Thursday, it looked as though the world beater might be back in action, ready to contend and win tournaments again.  Sitting in second place was the current US Women’s Open champion, Na Yeon Choi.  With those two powerhouses ahead of her on the leaderboard, Ko was just a footnote in most reports of the day’s results.

Ko started day two with nine straight pars.  She was not setting the place on fire, but she was for the most part making routine pars, with just the occasional hole requiring her deft short game touch to rescue herself.  But on the back nine, Ko went to work, making four birdies to shoot her second straight 68.  With Tseng struggling and Choi stalling, Ko suddenly found herself tied for the lead with Chella Choi, who shot the round of the tournament that day, a nearly perfect 8 under par 64.  Up to this point, Ko had been largely ignored, but as she crept into the lead on Friday, word got around, and the buzz grew.  By the time she had finished her day, she was the talk of the tournament.

Lydia and her caddie Brian Alexander during round 2 of the Canadian Women’s Open

When she got to the course on Saturday, playing in the final group with Choi, suddenly everyone knew who she was.  Whereas on Friday she had maybe 40 people following her (this reporter being one of the gallery), on Saturday her gallery numbered in the thousands.  The Canadian fans had adopted the teenaged Kiwi with the Canadian caddie as their own, cheering her every move, and trying their best to will her to the victory.  But Saturday was her weakest day of the event.  Whether it was the newfound pressure or just a natural downturn in her play, Ko suddenly struggled with her putting, making several three putts, including on the final hole.  Yet she still played well enough to maintain her position at 8 under par, and with Choi going over par, Lydia ended the day in the lead all by herself.  She had survived her worst day and actually improved her position.  But danger still lurked.  Immediately behind her were two formidable opponents: former world #1 Jiyai Shin, and current world #2 Stacey Lewis.  Neither of these proud pros wanted to lose to a high school student.  And other great players like Chella Choi, Na Yeon Choi and Inbee Park were also close behind.  It looked like Ko was in for the fight of her life.

Lydia during round 3

On Sunday, her galleries had increased even more, and the air was electric with the possibility of history being made.  Through the first nine holes, the leaderboard was tight.  Ko was playing great, hitting fairway after fairway, giving herself decent birdies chances, and making few mistakes.  But she was not able to shake her pursuers, and found herself tied with Chella Choi after 9 holes, with several other top pros still very close behind.  At this point, it seemed likely that the pressure would finally get to the amateur, or that one of those great pros would blow past her and end her fairy tale run.  But at that moment, it was not the pros but the amateur Ko who stepped up.  Like all transcendent talents, she found a way to up her game to another gear that perhaps even she was not aware she had.  Suddenly, she was not only splitting every fairway, she was striping every approach to within a few feet of the hole.  And suddenly, she was making putt after putt.  She made four straight birdies from 10 to 13, narrowly missed a birdie on 14, and made another on 15.  Hole after hole, her lead increased, while Major winners and superstars struggled to keep pace.  By the 15th hole, her lead was 5, and only a complete collapse on her part would end her chances.  That didn’t happen.  Even after Inbee Park made a miraculous pitch in on 18 to move to 10 under, and Ko struggled a bit on that same hole moments later, Ko still made bogey to claim the three shot victory.  The crowd erupted in a standing ovation as Ko established the new benchmark for youngest to ever win on tour.  She was also the first New Zealander to claim an LPGA victory, and the first amateur to win on tour since 1969.  Park took home the $300,000 first place prize, as Ko, being an amateur, was not eligible to earn prize money.

Lydia’s glove from the Canadian Open win will go to the World Golf Hall of Fame!

After her win, Ko reiterated that she had no intention to turn pro.  But as the magnitude of what she has accomplished sinks in, one has to wonder how steadfastly she will stick to that plan.  She wants to stay amateur, finish high school and play golf in college.  But she is already better than any college golfer in the world; by the time she is 18, the difference ought to be so stark that it hardly seems worth her time to play in college tournaments.  Meanwhile, as she continues to play pro events (including the British Women’s Open, which she is slated to play in a few weeks), she will doubtless continue to leave money on the table.  She is not from a wealthy family, and there have been times when she has had to pick and choose which events to attend to save on travel expenses.  Does it really make sense for her to maintain amateur eligibility?  What will she gain by playing amateur events, where anything less than a win at this point would be considered a disappointment?  Turning pro would not force her to join a tour; she could just play in the occasional event via sponsor’s exemptions and whatnot, and use what she earns to finance college, travel and whatever else she fancies.  It will be interesting to see how things go over the next few months.

Lydia on a trip to Korea to visit relatives; she couldn’t hide from the press!

But in the meantime, Ko has the world at her feet.  She is an amazing young star who has lived up to the hype time after time, and in some cases far exceeded it.  Golf fans the world over eagerly wait to see what her next impressive accomplishment might be.

Posted by: happyfan08 | August 16, 2012

So Yeon Ryu’s Gold Medal Sunday

Last week, the Jamie Farr Toledo Classic returned to the LPGA schedule after a year off in 2011.  The defending champion was Korean star Na Yeon Choi, who defeated three women named Kim – Koreans IK and Song Hee, and Korean American Christina – in a playoff in 2010 to capture that crown.  That result may have been particularly impressive for the Koreans, but it was hardly unusual: since Se Ri Pak first captured the title in Toledo back in 1998, Koreans have won there an amazing eight total times.  Pak alone has captured the crown five times, with Mi Hyun Kim, Eun Jung Yi and Choi capturing the other three titles for the ladies from that country.  Pak is so tied in with the history of this event that she even invited Farr to her Hall of Fame induction dinner in 2007.  (Given the dominance of Korean ladies in Toledo, it’s an interesting coincidence that Farr is best known for appearing in a television show set in Korea during the Korean War.  Still, Farr often jokes that he is known in Korea far more for hosting the tournament that Se Ri Pak has won five times than for M*A*S*H.)

Na Yeon Choi holds the trophy at the 2010 Farr

This year, the event once again saw Korean golfers all over the leaderboard.  Early on, it was promising newcomer Chella Choi who took the lead.  Choi (no relation to defending champ Na Yeon) has had a breakout season in 2012.  She lost in a playoff a few weeks ago at the ManuLife Classic – a playoff that featured three Koreans and Brittany Lang, but was won by the American – and has appeared on leaderboards a few other times.  Choi is 21, and the future looks bright for her indeed.  But this would not be her week; she slowed down in the final two rounds and finished tied for third.

But as she faded somewhat, other Korean stars rose to the occasion.  By the end of the third round, four Korean players were tied for the lead at 11 under par, with two more a shot back tied with Japanese player Mika Miyazato.  One of the four leaders was So Yeon Ryu.  Ryu’s rookie year of 2012 had to that point been fantastic, with seven top tens already, most of those top fives.  Ryu had gained membership on tour thanks to winning the 2011 US Women’s Open.  But she had not won anywhere in the world since that win, more than a year before the Farr.  She was hungry to get her first victory as an LPGA player.

So Yeon Ryu in round 3 of the 2012 Jamie Farr

The other three Korean women tied for the lead were all just as hungry.  IK Kim had lost to Na Yeon Choi in the 2010 Farr playoff, and was trying to return to form after an injury that had derailed her earlier in the year.  Kim’s last win had come in 2010 at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational, the tournament where she famously donated her entire champion’s check to charity.  More recently, she had missed a one foot putt on the final hole of the Kraft Nabisco that would have given her the first Major of her career.  The third leader, Jiyai Shin, is an eight time winner who, like Kim, has been dealing with injuries the past few months.  Shin also had not won since late 2010.  Lastly, the woman Ryu had beaten at the 2011 US Women’s Open in a playoff, Hee Kyung Seo, was also the woman she would be paired with again Sunday.  Besides the runner up finish at the Open, Seo had come close to winning at least three other times, most recently at the MaunLife where, like Chella Choi, she had lost in a playoff.

Hee Kyung Seo in round 3 of the 2012 Jamie Farr

Ryu had more to worry about besides those three, naturally.  This was a course where it was quite possible to go low, so even a player four or five shots back could capture the win if she got hot on day four.  Inbee Park, who had just won the previous tour event, the Evian Masters, sat ominously just a shot behind Ryu, as did second round leader Chella Choi.

Ryu’s life journey had definitely taken an amazing turn since she unexpectedly won the Open, becoming the third youngest woman in history to claim the most coveted title in women’s golf.  At the time, she was a full time member of the Korean LPGA tour who had earned an exemption into the Open field by virtue of her fourth place finish on the KLPGA money list in 2010.  She was a full time college student in her Junior year at Yonsei University, who still managed to maintain a highly successful career as a professional golfer on the side.  But with the Open win, she had to decide whether she wanted to accept full LPGA membership in 2012 – which would make finishing her final year of college more challenging – or forego this prize, finish her education, then decide what she wanted to do.  She took the riskier course, joining the LPGA as a rookie this season.

So Yeon Ryu poses with a photo of herself hoisting the 2011 US Women’s Open trophy

If continuing her studies was distracting her, she didn’t show it.  Right from the start of 2012 up until the Farr, she had repeatedly played well.  Back in February, she rocked her first event of the year, the RACV Australian Ladies Masters, by shooting a second round 61 to zoom into the lead.  She struggled to maintain her lead over the next two days and eventually lost by a stroke, but still managed a tie for second place.  The next week at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, her LPGA debut, she again zoomed to the top of the leaderboard, and played in one of the final groups on Sunday. Paired with her old friend/nemesis Seo, she tenaciously hung onto a share of the lead, and looked poised to win her very first event as an LPGA member.  But on the final hole, faced with a twenty foot birdie putt to possibly win, both she and Seo raced their putts too far by the hole, then watched in anguish as they both missed the par saves as well.  Their two bogies led to a six way playoff, eventually won by Jessica Korda.  It was Ryu’s second straight top two finish, but nonetheless a disappointment considering what almost was.

Both Ryu and Seo missed potential tournament winning putts on the final green of the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open

Over the next few months, she played well and often found herself on leaderboards, but was not able to get over the hump and get the win.  She had a 4th in her first LPGA tournament on US soil, the RR Donnelly, and after a few so so events, another 4th in Hawaii at the Lotte Championship.  Her next two events were another fourth and a fifth.  She cruised out to a large lead in the Rookie of the Year race.  But as she later admitted, she was feeling pressure to win again, to show that the Open victory was no fluke.

She continued to put up good finishes.  She missed the four way playoff at the Manulife by a single stroke after shooting a final round 64.  Around that time, she also journeyed to the site of the upcoming US Women’s Open, which was to take place at BlackWolf Run in Kohler, Wisconsin.  This is, of course, the site of the most famous victory in Korean golf history, where in 1998, 20 year old Se Ri Pak won a 20 hole playoff to electrify her home country.  Pak traveled there with Ryu to meet the press, and even accompanied Ryu  as she played a practice round on the course.  Ryu was thrilled by the chance to hang out with the woman who had inspired her to take up the game way back when.  She was determined to have a good showing in defense of her title.  In the end, she played decently, carding a 14th place that would have been a top ten were it not for a big mistake on the final hole that led to a double bogey.  A good showing, but again not a win.

Ryu and Pak visiting BlackWolf Run during media day in May, 2012

And so, Ryu teed it up on Sunday at the Farr, once again paired with Seo, hoping this time to get the win that had eluded her for more than a year.  The previous evening, she had spoken with a good friend, Yeon Jae Son.  Son is a rhythmic gymnastics star, touted as a possible medalist, who was at that moment in London for the Olympics.  She had managed to make the finals of the individual all-around, and after two of four rounds had been in third place, primed for a medal.  But at that point, she got ahead of herself, thinking too much about the medal, and ended up finishing fifth.  “She said don’t think about winning or the trophy. Just keep concentration on your ball and just thinking about your game,” Ryu later told the press, when talking about their conversation, adding, “It helped me a lot…”

Yeon Jae Son talking to the press after returning from the London Olympics

Ryu got out to a good start, making par on the first hole when had bogied it the other three days, and carding early birdies on the third and fifth holes.  But she also missed makeable short opportunities on three other holes.  By the end of the 8th hole, she held a slim lead, but knew she would have to kick it into another gear if she were to win.

So Yeon concentrates during round 4

On the ninth hole, she found that next level.  She made a longish putt for birdie to move to 14 under par, and that gave her the confidence she needed to really go to town.  For the next five holes, she was unstoppable, knocking one approach after another close to the hole, then draining the birdies.  All told, she made six straight birdies, and by the time she made par on 15, she had moved to 19 under par, and was thoroughly in control of the tournament.  “I got par (on 15), but it felt like a bogey”, she said, reflecting on how impressive her birdie run had seemed to her.

For good measure, she punched a lovely pitch shot past the hole on 18 and watched as it snapped back to about two feet for her ninth birdie of the day.  She drained it for a blistering 62 – nine under par (the Farr course plays to a par 71) – and finished a scintillating 20 under total, seven shots ahead of the second place golfer.  At last, she had her first win as an LPGA member.

So Yeon during round 4

The 62 was the lowest final round in Farr tournament history, three shots better than the next best.  She became only the fifth golfer in LPGA history to shoot a 62 in the final round of a tournament and win the title: the other four who did that are all Hall of Famers.  The win also increased her lead in the Rookie of the Year race to more than 400 points over second place Lexi Thompson.  But most importantly, it has renewed her confidence.  “I’m just really, really happy, and I’m so glad to win the tournament”, she said.  “So I really wanted to make a win as soon as possible, and today I made it…This is just my turning point. I just want to make a lot of wins again”.

So Yeon and her Farr trophy

Posted by: happyfan08 | July 13, 2012

Na Yeon Choi: Major Star

Blackwolf Run, the site of the recently completed 2012 US Women’s Open, is practically hallowed ground in Korean sports culture.  It was there in 1998 that Se Ri Pak became the first Korean and youngest golfer to win the most prestigious event in women’s golf.  I talked all about it in the previous blog entry, which you can access here:

https://seoulsisters.wordpress.com/2012/07/03/back-in-blackwolf/

This year, the Koreans came into the event in a bit of a drought.  Despite having several good chances to win in 2012, they had only managed a single LPGA win all year.  Fortunately, that win came at a Major, the Kraft Nabisco, but still it continued a troubling trend for them (started in the 2011 season) of contending a lot but only winning on occasion.

Before last week, Sun Young Yoo was the only Korean to win on the LPGA in 2012

The Koreans were especially motivated to win the Open this year, given where it was being contested.  Many of the top stars on tour were inspired to take up the game thanks to Pak’s win.  So Yeon Ryu, the defending champ, even posed for a photograph with her shoes off, hitting a shot from the same water trap as Pak had hit her iconic rescue shot from all those years ago (alas, the trap was drained at the time, lessening the effect Ryu wanted).  To win an Open on this course would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to join the immortals.  Even Pak herself had organized her entire season around her return to the site of her greatest triumph.

So Yeon Ryu takes off her shoes and socks to emulate her hero Se Ri Pak

After two rounds, however, things weren’t looking so great for the Koreans.  Inbee Park was in the thick of things, and Na Yeon Choi was still in it, four shots back, but most of the rest of the Korean stars were six or more shots behind and needed to have a fantastic weekend to climb back into the hunt.  On Saturday, many of the Korean golfers faded under the pressure.  They were not alone.  Even the top players in the world were producing some of the worst scores of the year.  Blackwolf Run was playing extremely tough.  Cristie Kerr, Suzann Pettersen and world #1 Ya Ni Tseng all shot 78, while top Korean star Hee Kyung Seo and world #2 Stacey Lewis shot 80.  If even those great players were struggling, you can only imagine how some of the lesser players were doing.

But amidst the carnage and an average score of nearly 77, one player emerged, shooting a round so brilliant than some are calling it the greatest ever produced at a US Women’s Open.  That player was Na Yeon Choi.

Na Yeon during her unbelievable Saturday round at this year US Women’s Open

Choi had already started playing golf when Se Ri Pak won the 1998 Open.  She was good enough even back then to have as her goal a professional golf career.  But when, as a nine year old girl, she witnessed Pak’s extraordinary win in Wisconsin, her entire outlook was irrevocably changed.  “After Se Ri won on the LPGA tour, I think all the Korean people or even a lot of players has bigger dream than before,” Choi said. “And even me, just dream was professional golfer on KLPGA tour. But after she won… I changed my goal. I have to go to the LPGA tour and I want to win on the LPGA tour. We have bigger dream because of (that).”

Like so many other girls of her generation, Pak’s win drove Choi to practice extremely hard.  She wedged in practice where she could.  Her father owned a gas station, and she worked there part time.  When she had a moment, she would work on her pitching by hitting balls over a heater.  At other times, she would hit balls into a field near her house, collecting the balls when she was done.

Through hard work like this, she became a great amateur, but she really emerged in the Korean public’s consciousness when she played a professional KLPGA event while still a 16 year old high school student.  The year was 2004, and the event was a new one, the ADT-CAPS.  Earlier in the year, Se Ri Pak had qualified for the LPGA and World Golf Halls of Fame, but since then she had struggled mightily to return to her superstar form.  At the end of the year, things started to look better, and Pak agreed to play in the ADT-CAPS.  Choi would get a chance to play a tournament with her idol for the first time.

After playing brilliantly in round two, Choi found herself in the lead, with a chance to win a KLPGA event and in the process beat the woman she called ‘The Legend’.  She started round three in about as great a way as you can: with two birdies and an eagle, the latter after dunking a shot from the fairway.  Unbelievably, she now had a nine shot lead over Pak.  She would go on to win the event easily (Pak finished second), and many were predicting great things for the young star.

Choi was all smiles after the second round of the 2004 ADT-CAPS Championship

Choi would turn professional shortly after that and joined the KLPGA as a 17 year old in 2005.  She instantly became one of the most popular players on tour, and landed several lucrative endorsement deals as a result.  She would have a very solid rookie season.  Although she lost the Rookie of the Year race to Hee Young Park (also now a player on the LPGA), she still finished in the top ten on the money list that year.  She continued to be one of the top players on tour in 2006 and 2007, winning several more events and finishing in the top five on the money list both years.

Na Yeon hoists a KLPGA trophy in 2005

It was time for Choi to try her luck in America.  But unexpectedly, Choi was only able to snag conditional status at 2007 Qualifying School.  She would have to play really well in possibly limited action to improve her status and get her into more fields.  This is exactly what she did.  Playing with stunning consistency, it took Choi only three events to score her first top five.  By the time the year’s second Major had arrived, Choi had climbed into a comfortable lead in the Rookie of the Year race.  But then another rookie by the name of Ya Ni Tseng won the LPGA Championship to overtake Choi.  The two proto-stars would continue to battle for the rest of the year for that title, with Tseng finally putting Choi away at the last event of the year.  Those two players are currently #1 (Tseng) and #2 (Choi) in the world.

Choi quickly became a popular player. Here she poses for Korean Marie Claire magazine in 2009.

Choi’s LPGA rookie year was a preview of all the things that would make her great; chief among them, consistency.  In 2008, Choi did not finish outside the top 40 at any event until October, and did not miss a single cut all year.  She also notched top 20s in all four Majors.  She did not, however, manage a win.

It’s not like she did not have her chances.  In 2008 alone, she finished second at the Sybase Classic and had good chances to win two other events.  Finally, at the Evian Masters, everything seemed aligned properly.  She took a big lead in the fourth round, but with just a few holes to go, she blinked, and veteran Helen Alfredsson caught her, forcing a playoff.  Choi would lose that playoff to continue her winless ways.

Na Yeon was all smiles early in the fourth round at the 2008 Evian Masters

In 2009, Choi continued as she had the previous year: tons of top tens and top 20s, but no wins.  She finally broke through in the Fall at the Samsung World Championship.  At one point she had a seven shot lead, but then Japanese star Ai Miyazato began a relentless climb up the leaderboard.  Miyazato actually caught Choi on the final hole, but made a big mistake there to give Choi a chance.  Choi made a clutch birdie on that hole to eke out the win.  To prove it was no fluke, she won her second title just a few weeks later in Korea.

Na Yeon was all smiles after her second LPGA win of 2009 in her home country

Choi’s consistency and brilliance allowed her to claim three more titles in the next two seasons; she may be one of the few players on tour who has more career wins than career missed cuts!  She also topped the LPGA money list in 2010, only the second Korean to ever do that, and won the Vare Trophy for low scoring average to boot.  By 2011, she had climbed to #2 in the world.  But a gaping hole in her resume remained: she had yet to win a Major.  Like when she was trying to get her first win, she certainly had some great finishes at the tour’s biggest events.  In 2010 alone she managed a second at the US Women’s Open and a third at the British Women’s Open.  But victory eluded her time and again.

And so it was that Choi arrived at Blackwolf Run in July, 2012.  She told the press later that the course had her feeling like she had when she first started the game as an elementary school student; perhaps she was reminded of watching Pak’s victory all those years ago.  To actually be walking onto that course with a chance to win the biggest prize in women’s golf was a dream come true.  And after two days, she was in the hunt, four shots out of the lead.  Saturday would prove to be the most challenging day yet, with the toughest pin positions and some wind to test the players.  But amidst all the high scores that even the best LPGA stars were shooting came Choi’s unbelievable round.  Her consistency, her greatest hallmark, held her in remarkable stead.  She hit green after green, fairway after fairway, and made an amazing number of birdies, all without a mistake.  By the ninth hole, she had shot a 4 under par 32 to move to 5 under total and a one shot lead.  But she wasn’t done yet.  She made birdies on the 10th, 11th and 12th as well, and just like that, the lead was 4 strokes.  Choi finally had her first hiccup on the brutally tough 13th hole, when she three putted on the tricky green.  But she quickly righted the ship, making one more birdie on 17 to finish the day with an almost unearthly 65.  Her round had been insanely good: 12 shots better than the average of the field, and four shots better than anyone else had produced.  Only one other player, countrywoman Amy Yang, shot in the 60s on that day, and her score was a 69.  The next best score after that was 71.  The other players were dumbstruck at what had happened.  Choi had shot the greatest round of her career at exactly the right time.

Na Yeon and her new caddie Shane Joel consult during round 3

Choi went into the final round holding a six stroke lead over Yang.  The largest ever final round comeback in tournament history had been five shots.  Choi seemed thoroughly in the driver’s seat.  But this course had seen stars suffer big collapses, and Choi herself doubtless remembered her Evian collapse, or the near disaster at the Samsung.  Yang was brilliant in Majors, and like Choi was looking for her first Major win (in her case, first LPGA win, period).  It was not going to be a cakewalk.

Once again, though, Choi’s consistency and mental toughness came through.  On the front nine, she shot even par, and though Yang had cut into the lead slightly, Choi began the final nine holes nursing a five stroke advantage.  Everyone else seemed to be collapsing.  Yang was the only player who seemed capable of taking the prize from Choi.

Cruising along: Na Yeon after the 8th hole on Sunday

But then the troubles started.  Choi hit a terrible drive on the long par five tenth hole.  The ball went left into a hazard, and thanks to the way it crossed the hazard line, she was forced to hit her third shot from the tee.  Her fifth shot, from the rough, was terrible, scooting along the ground towards the hole.  She wound up with an extremely shaky triple bogey, and just like that, her lead was down to two.

Disaster? Na Yeon returns to the 10th tee after hitting the ball into the hazard.

Choi was not about to go gently into that good night.  The very next hole, she striped her approach to within three feet to make birdie and return her lead to three.  But on the 12th hole, she once again flirted with oblivion.  She hit her approach there into very high grass above the green.  The lie was so terrible that she consider taking an unplayable, but that might have led to dropping her ball into a lie no better than the one she already had.  She had no choice but to try to hit the ball out.  This she did magnificently, somehow punching the ball onto the green within 20 feet of the hole.  She followed that with a stunning double breaking par save.  The hole could have ended up costing Choi her entire lead; instead, she lost no ground at all.  The toughness that Choi had demonstrated ever since she was a kid, when she had taken up Tae Kwan Do as a pastime, had allowed her to work a bit of magic.

Stress during the 4th round

On the next hole, it was magic of a different sort that intervened.  The 13th hole featured water all along the right side, and the flag this day was on the right side as well.  It was a sucker pin position, and player after player had dunked their tee shot into the water.  Choi would have been wise to hit well to the left, but her tee shot traveled right and flirted with the water.  Amazingly, the ball bounced on the rocks next to the water and bounded left onto the grass just past the green.  It was a jaw dropping bit of luck.  Choi smiled to herself, and a few minutes later she made par again.  One or two more strokes saved.

Choi fixed what was wrong after that.  Hole 14 was a routine par.  She made birdie on 15 after knocking it close, and another birdie on the 16th to move back to 8 under and a five shot lead.  At that point, it was academic, and even a final hole bogey did little to slow her down.  Na Yeon Choi was a Major champion at last.  She was met by the customary champagne bath on the green, orchestrated by her hero, Se Ri Pak.  Choi gave Pak a little bow, a show of deep respect for the woman who had made it all possible, before giving her a long hug.  Choi later said that Pak had congratulated her for a job well done.  “She (said), `Hey, Na Yeon, I’m really proud of you. You did a really good job, and you (were) really calm out there,'” Choi said. Nothing could have meant more to her than hearing those words, from that person, at that place.

Na Yeon hugs her idol Se Ri Pak after winning the Open on the same course as Pak, 14 years later

For Amy Yang, it had to be a bit disappointing.  She finished at 3 under, four shots clear of the third place golfer.  Most years, it would have been Yang holding her first Major trophy.  But Choi’s brilliant weekend had made even Yang’s great week look bad in comparison.  Na Yeon, meanwhile, had a night to think about her win, then hopped on a plane and returned to Korea, where she was greeted with a hero’s welcome at the airport.  Previously she had dropped to #5 in the world, but the win put her back at #2, behind only her old rival Tseng.

Na Yeon arrives in Korea after her US Open victory

What will happen in the future is anyone’s guess, but Choi ought to have more confidence than ever.  If she can channel a little of the magic from that incredible Saturday in the future, she could very well become a legend to rival her hero Pak.  In the meantime, it’s time to enjoy the emergence of a superstar!

Na Yeon Choi, US Women’s Open Champion

Posted by: happyfan08 | July 3, 2012

Back in Black(Wolf)

One of the greatest moments in South Korean sports history happened not in Korea, but on a golf course called Blackwolf Run in the small town of Kohler, Wisconsin.  In July of 1998, 20 year old Se Ri Pak was attempting to become the first Korean golfer to ever win the US Women’s Open.  After 72 holes, she was tied with another 20 year old, a Thai- American amateur named Jenny Chuasiriporn.  They played an 18 hole Monday playoff, but after 17 holes, they were still tied.  Then Pak hit her drive on the 18th hole dangerously close to the water on the left.  Across the Pacific, an entire nation held its breath.

What happened next is indelibly etched in the minds of millions of Korean fans who had stayed up all through the night to watch the playoff as it happened.  Times were tough back then.  South Korea, which for decades had been on an economic upswing, suddenly found itself in crisis, forced to get a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.  The people needed a pick-me-up, and Pak delivered.  The ball sat perched in the grass near the water.  She could do a drop and take a penalty stroke.  Or she could try to hit the shot , a risky play. After spending several minutes assessing the situation, Pak calmly removed her shoes, revealing pale white feet that contrasted with the deep tan on the rest of her body.  She stepped into the water and hit the shot out onto the fairway.  She went on to tie Chuasiriporn on that hole, forcing sudden death, which she won two holes later.

Se Ri hits out of the water at the 1998 US Women’s Open. The shot that launched a revolution.

Rarely has a single moment changed an entire sport, but this one did.  South Korea went golf crazy.  Se Ri Pak, in taking her shoes off to get the job done, was the right lady at the right time for the beleaguered nation.  Korean television played Pak’s shot from the water over and over again.  Pakmania gripped the nation.  She was mobbed by reporters when she returned home in the Fall, eventually winding up in a hospital suffering from exhaustion.  Not missing a beat, the reporters followed her into her hospital room, filming her with IVs coming out of her arms and tears rolling down her cheeks.

Overnight, thousands of little Korean girls started playing golf, to be just like Se Ri.  Those players worked themselves half to death, all in the hopes of becoming the next star to carry on in Pak’s footsteps.  In a matter of just a few years, Korean membership on the LPGA tour exploded.  Only three Koreans had played in the 1998 US Women’s Open.  By 2011, that number had grown to over thirty, with five finishing in the top ten, and two vying for the title in a playoff.  Before Pak, there had been just three Korean victories on the LPGA tour.  Since that time, that number has ballooned to nearly 100. Before Pak, no Korean had won a Major on the LPGA.  As of mid 2012, 8 other Koreans have captured Major titles on the LPGA, and one on the PGA.   In 2012, there are over forty full-time Korean players on the LPGA, and a third of the top 100 woman golfers in the world hail from that country.  And all because Se Ri won the ’98 Open.

So Yeon Ryu & Se Ri Pak walk the Blackwolf Run course in May of this year

Inbee Park was ten years old when she was awakened by her parents watching that tournament.  She so enjoyed what she saw that just a few days later, she took up golf.  Five years later, she won the US Girls Junior championship.  Five years after that, in 2008, she became the youngest player to win the US Women’s Open at 19 years of age, breaking Pak’s record.

Na Yeon Choi had been playing junior golf before Se Ri’s win.  She says that after Pak’s win, the number of girls playing tournaments skyrocketed.  It was the singular event that convinced her she could contend and win on an international circuit like the LPGA.  “I think a lot of Korean people didn’t believe a Korean could win on the LPGA Tour”, Choi said in a recent interview.  “But when I watched her play, when she made the winning, I changed my goal… we have to go to the LPGA and try to win. That is our goal. I think she makes all the people (dream) bigger.”  In 2004, Choi won her first KLPGA event as a high school student, beating her visiting idol Pak, who finished second.  She went on to become the number 2 player in the world, winning five LPGA tournaments, and in 2010 earned a Vare Trophy for low scoring average, becoming only the second Korean to lead the LPGA money list that year.

Na Yeon Choi was the third Korean to win the trophy for low scoring average on the LPGA

Jiyai Shin was another one of those young girls who was inspired to play the game by Pak.  Like Choi, she won her first KLPGA event while still an amateur.  She joined that tour in 2006, and in 2007 broke many of Pak’s records by winning 9 times, including a sweep of the three Majors.  The next year, she won three LPGA events before joining that tour, including the Ricoh British Women’s Open.  Soon after, she became the first, and thus far only, Korean woman to attain the #1 ranking in the world.

Jiyai Shin was the first and thus far only Korean to ever become #1 in the world. She has won 8 times on the LPGA tour.

As seismic as Pak’s win was for women’s golf in Korea, it had a far reaching effect throughout golf.  YE Yang, when he became the first Korean to win a PGA Major winner, made sure to mention Se Ri’s achievement during his victory interviews.  Ai Miyazato of Japan and Ya Ni Tseng of Taiwan, both top stars on the LPGA today, cite Pak as an important role model.

This year, the US Women’s Open returns to Blackwolf Run for the first time since Pak’s win, and the anticipation is running high for the Korean players and fans.  In late May, Pak and 2011 US Women’s Open Champ So Yeon Ryu appeared at a media day in Kohler.   Ryu also played the course for the first time, with Pak tagging along to give her pointers.  It was a dream come true for the 21 year old Ryu, who had grown up idolizing Pak.  When they got to the 18th hole, Ryu could not resist taking her shoes off and getting her photo taken at the iconic water trap, even though it was not filled with water (it will be during the tournament, fortunately).  You have to believe that photo opportunity will be irresistible to any Korean player during the practice rounds!

Although the iconic water hazard was not filled, So Yeon Ryu could not resist taking her shoes off for a photo anyway

Later, the two players met the press.  “Before 1998, golf was not a famous sport in Korea,” said Ryu, who was seven years old that year.  “After [she] won, golf is a really famous sport, and that’s why I am here”.  Like so many other girls, Ryu only seriously took up the game after Pak’s win.  Pak added, “Se Ri Pak was born at the US Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run”.

Ryu and Pak had a laugh with Herb Kohler when the two Koreans visited Blackwolf Run in May

Se Ri injured her shoulder back in April, and it looked like her reappearance at this venue was in doubt.  But she stunned everyone by appearing at the LPGA Championship in June, even leading the tournament after the second round.  She said she was 200% sure she would be at the Open, and had even visited Korean neighborhoods in nearby Chicago to drum up fan support for the big week.  One thing’s for sure: if Se Ri plays this year anything like she did in 1998, millions of Koreans may be in for another sleepless night!

Se Ri and the 1998 US Women’s Open trophy

Posted by: happyfan08 | June 19, 2012

Say ‘Good Night’, Gracie!

The situation could not have been tenser.  Grace Park had been establishing herself, slowly but surely, as one of the top golfers on the LPGA tour. In her first four seasons on tour, she had won four times and finished as high as third on the money list.  But she had yet to win a Major, and those four special events are the most important signifier of a player’s status.  Now, at the 2004 Kraft Nabisco Championship, Park held on to a two shot lead as her group reached the final hole.  Not only was her Major title at stake, but also the possibility of becoming the first from her country to win this prestigious event.

Grace during the 2004 Kraft-Nabisco

Playing with her, and in second place, was the teenager Aree Song.  Song had been achieving miraculous results since she had notched a top ten at this very event as a thirteen year old.  Now 17 and a tour rookie, Song knew she had to go for the green on this par five, to see if she could make eagle and steal the trophy right out of Park’s hands.

Song hit the green with her second shot, leaving her ball about twenty five feet from the pin.  Grace decided to play it safe, and laid up to about 100 yards.  She hit her third shot within a few feet of the flag and shivered in relief.  But after the twosome had crossed the bridge, Song lined up her lengthy putt and, improbably, incredibly, drained it.  Eagle!  And just like that, Song was tied with Park.

Grace during the Nabisco

Suddenly, the six foot birdie putt seemed like a hundred miles.  Grace had come close to winning a big one before, including losing in a playoff the previous year to Annika Sorenstam at the LPGA Championship.  She did not want to get into another playoff if she could help it.  She later revealed that her hands were shaking so hard she could barely pull the club back, but nonetheless she fired a perfect putt and dropped the birdie to take the one shot victory.

Grace Park

Grace takes the victory dive

Ecstatic, Grace Park took the traditional plunge into Poppy’s Pond.  With all she had accomplished in her young career and all the promise she still had, it seemed as though this would be but the first of many such moments for her in years to come.

Grace with her only Major trophy

Grace would go on to have her best season in 2004, winning a second tournament later in the year in front of Korean crowds at the CJ 9 bridges.  She finished second on the money list, behind only the unstoppable Sorenstam, and won the Vare Trophy for low scoring average.  At last, Grace Park had arrived as a superstar.

But as it turned out, that Kraft Nabisco was the only Major Grace would ever win, and after 2004, she would never even come close to winning another tournament.  Injuries got the best of her, completely destroying one of the most promising careers in Korean golf history.  After a top ten in Korea during her title defense in 2005, she would not even make another top ten on tour until nearly five years later.  Whole seasons were lost as she struggled through operations, rehab, injuries and more injuries.

Before her major injuries, the Korean government awarded Grace the Fierce Tiger Award

Last week at the Wegman’s LPGA Championship, Grace Park had finally had enough.  Healthy for the first time in years, she had made a solid attempt over the past year to return to her former level, but found success elusive.  She announced on Friday, after finishing with a 6 over par total and seemingly missing the cut, that this would be her last LPGA event.  But amazingly, the cut line slipped, and Grace got to play two more rounds after all.  She would finish last in the field among those who made the cut. Repeatedly distracted by tears, particularly on the final nine of her career, she still hung in there.  Korean superstar Se Ri Pak paid her visit on her final tee, wishing her well.  Grace striped her final drive perfectly down the fairway and made a fine par save, receiving a standing ovation from the crowd around the 18th green.  Grace Park’s LPGA career was over at the age of 33.

Grace in a candid pose from 2011

If Se Ri Pak was the big name of the original three Korean golf superstars, and Mi Hyun Kim was the player who got the most out of her diminutive size, Grace Park had, at least during her professional years, sometimes seemed like the underachiever.  Certainly none of the Koreans came into the league with a gaudier amateur resume.  Park had moved to the United States as a 12 year old to hone her golf game.  Almost immediately, she became one of the best junior golfers in the States, winning the AJGA Player of the Year award and the NCAA Player of the Year.  She won the US Women’s Amateur in 1998, the same year as Pak turned Korea on its ear when she won two Majors as a 20 year old rookie.  Interestingly, Park defeated the same player in the final, Duke player Jenny Chuasiriporn, as Pak had beaten in the Open playoff.  In fact, in 1998 Grace Park won the ‘Women’s amateur Grand Slam’ in one season, a feat no woman had been able to accomplish for nearly 60 years.

Early in her career, Grace met Jack Nicklaus

Park brought a formidable set of skills to the table.  Insanely long off the tee (at her best, she might well have been the longest of all the Korean golfers thus far), she could hit the ball high and soft like few women could.  Because she had grown up in Arizona, she could speak English fluently, making her accessible to both Korean and American fans.  She was also glamorous and beautiful like almost no other golfer of the time.  In short, she was the complete package, and women’s golf eagerly awaited her arrival as a professional.  She had the potential to become a superstar in every way.

Grace got endorsements most women golfers didn’t. Here she is in an ad for Pantene shampoo

After turning pro, Park wasted little time showing what she could do.  She played ten events on the Futures Tour in 1999, winning five of them to easily capture an LPGA tour card.  At the 1999 US Women’s Open, before she turned pro, she destroyed Jenny’s Chuasiriporn’s record for lowest score achieved by an amateur, finishing 8th in the process.  She also had the longest driving average for the week, eight yards ahead of the next longest competitor.  At the 1999 Safeway Classic, she played on a sponsor’s invite and finished second (Pak finished 4th).  Her imminent arrival on the LPGA was like a freight train coming.

On the Futures Tour, Grace carried her own bag!

Grace joined the LPGA in 2000, but in her first couple of years, she was dissatisfied with her performance.  She started her rookie year weakly, missing a bunch of cuts and not finishing that well in most other events.  But after a few months, she started scoring top tens, culminating with her winning her first LPGA event in April.  At that point, it looked like she was on her way to the Rookie of the Year award, which would have made her the third straight Korean to win it, after Se Ri and Mi Hyun Kim.  But ominously, at about that point she was sidelined for a while with a rib injury.  It was a sign of things to come.  Meanwhile, American Dorothy Delasin won an event, and would go on to edge Park in the Rookie standings by the end of the season.

Grace with her first LPGA trophy in 2000

2001 was another up and down year for her.  She managed a second victory, but only six total top tens.  And she had more injuries, with her driving distance suffering as a result.  She still was unable to finish in the top ten on the money list.

Grace finally had her first great season in 2002.  She started the year in fine form with a tie for 6th in the year’s first event, and notched top tens in 6 of the next 8 events.  She was not getting wins, but the consistency she had lacked for so long had at last arrived.  Her third win came in October at the Cisco World Match Play, and Grace finished the year 6th on the money list, her first ever appearance in the top ten.

Grace paired at a pro-am with Hootie of Blowfish fame

The next two years, Grace relentlessly rose up the league rankings.  In 2003, she finished third on the money list, earning over 1 million dollars for the first time in a single season.  She finished third in scoring with an average of 70.11.  In just 26 events played, she finished in the top ten an incredible 19 times, still the second highest number of top tens ever achieved by a Korean golfer (Se Ri managed 20 top tens in the same season).  She had 10 straight top tens to finish the year.  But even with all those accomplishments, she still only managed a single win, at the event at Kingsmill.  She had four second place finishes (including a second at the LPGA Championship, her best Major finish to date) and four thirds.  She was undeniably a superstar, but still was not able to get multiple wins in a season on a tour that featured Se Ri Pak and Annika Sorenstam at the height of their powers.  But she was younger than either of them, and it seemed just a matter of time before she got to their level.

Grace’s win at Kingsmill in 2003 produced this memorable victory hug

2004 was even better for Grace than 2003.  She started the year with three straight top threes, including her first Major win at the Nabisco.  The season might have been truly transcendent, but her back acted up again in the summer, affecting her results at the big money events and Majors that happened at that time.  But in the Fall she had arguably her best ever stretch of golf, notching second place finish after second place finish before finally getting her second win of the year at the event in Korea.  She wound up with a scoring average under 70, giving her the Vare Trophy for lowest average of the season.  She finished second on the money list behind only Sorenstam.  For the first time, Grace was the top Korean on the LPGA tour.

Grace donned a traditional Korean dress (a ‘hanbok’) after winning in her home country in 2004

Grace Park was at the pinnacle, and looked poised to get better and better.   She was only 25 years old.  But 2004 would prove to be her last great, or even good, season in professional golf.  For the next eight years, she would suffer from all sorts of injury problems, and never again played top level golf.  After a top ten in defense of her Korean title in 2005, she would not have another top ten until 2010.  She missed more tournaments than she played, and when she did play, she was either struggling with pain, or was so rusty that her results rarely soared.

Finally, in 2011, Grace announced that she was over her injuries and ready to make another push to return to top form.  She worked as hard as she had in years, but the results just never came.  Her best finish was a tie for 13th at the Safeway Classic.  In 2012, it was more of the same.

Grace in 2006

Grace had decided at the beginning of the 2012 season that this would be her last year on tour.  Her initial plan was to play on the LPGA through the summer, then return to Korea to play there the rest of 2012.  She has been engaged to her fiancé for some time, and was planning on finally tying the knot in the Fall.  But her struggles were such that she decided just two weeks before the LPGA Championship that she would make that event her final LPGA tournament.

Grace Park waves goodbye to fans during her final round at the 2012 LPGA Championship

Is this the last we will hear from Grace Park?  Even she isn’t sure, but I suspect she’ll be back sooner or later.  She may no longer have it in her to play golf at the highest level, but she will almost certainly find some way to stay involved in the sport.  She even left the door open for her to play later in the year on the KLPGA tour, like she had originally planned.  Stay tuned for that!

Even if she never strikes another golf ball, however, she has without question been one of the most significant golfers of the past decade and a half.  Yes, her promise was so much greater than her actual results, especially once she got to the big leagues.  But she helped usher in not just one but several revolutions in her sport.  Women’s golf was much less diverse when Grace entered the league, and she, along with the other pioneering Seoul Sisters, helped make it into a huge sport in Asia.  She also injected a much needed jolt of style into a sport that had once been fairly frumpy and colorless.  As well, she helped usher in the youth revolution in her sport.  In just the last decade, the average age of players on that tour has consistently dropped as younger and younger players qualify for the big leagues.  Park, who joined the tour as a 20 year old, was a big part of that change.

A glamour shot of Grace

Most significantly, Park was a figure that showed that the Korean “invasion” was not a force to be feared; it could be embraced by non-Asian fans as well.  With her perfect English, relatable style, and fiery personality, she had something that appealed to everyone, Asian or American.  Even Cheyenne Woods, Tiger’s niece, who made her pro debut at the same event where Grace finished, tweeted that she would miss Park immensely, as she had been her favorite golfer growing up.

Congratulations once again to Grace Park, and good luck to her as she starts the next part of her life!

Posted by: happyfan08 | May 29, 2012

Glamour Girl Makes Good

Every year on the Korean LPGA tour, there is only one match play tournament: the Doosan Match Play Championship.  It might be the hardest event on tour to win: the champion has to prevail in six often grueling head-to-head matches to claim the trophy.  Even great players can struggle when put in that crucible.

Last week, the winner of that tournament was 21 year old Char Young Kim.  Kim was coming off a victory in the previous tournament, the Woori Investment and Securities Ladies Championship.  She had won that tournament in a playoff, perhaps a good indication what she was capable of in head-to-head matchups like the ones she would face at the Doosan event.  Her win at Woori was also her first career win, and after her back to back titles, Char Young Kim sits atop the year’s money list.

Char Young Kim with the Match Play trophy

Before her recent burst of success, Kim was better known for her looks and style than her golf game, although her golf game was certainly nothing to sneeze at.  Golf Digest’s Korean edition often profiles top KLPGA stars in their magazine.  In the past year or so, they have featured articles on player like Sun Ju Ahn, Ha Neul Kim, So Yeon Ryu, Hyun Hwa Shim and Soo Jin Yang, as well as Char Young Kim.  What’s interesting is that, all of the aforementioned players other than Kim had already won events, sometimes multiple events, before they received the star treatment by the magazine.  Ryu had won the US Women’s Open; Yang the Korean Women’s Open.  Ha Neul Kim was the top player on the KLPGA last year, Shim the second best, and Ahn the top player in Japan.

Char Young Kim in a film noir pose from a Korean golf magazine

Char Young Kim had no such success on her resume back then, but nonetheless, she could often be found in the pages of golf and fashion magazines in Korea.  In the States, that sort of thing happens more often: attractive players like Natalie Gulbis or Anna Rawson, for instance, get attention entirely out of proportion to their actual achievements.  But because there are plenty of attractive Korean players who also star on the fairway, there never seemed to be much of that thing happening in the Korean press.  And when it does happen, the player often shows herself worthy of that attention sooner or later.  And so it has been with Kim.

To be fair, Kim’s level of success in her rookie year of 2010 was commensurate with other top rookies of recent vintage.  She did not win an event, but did manage a second place finish, 7 top tens and a 14th place on the money list.  Pretty solid numbers for a lady not even 20, although not good enough to capture the Rookie of the Year title from Yoon Ji Cho.  People took notice.  By the start of the 2011 season, she had quickly become one of the It Girls of the tour.  Nefs signed her to a lucrative sponsorship deal, and she was featured in an unusual pictorial in January of 2011.  As the year progressed, she appeared in several other magazine features as well.  Without winning a tournament, Char Young Kim had become one of the more well known players on tour.

Char Young signed a lucrative endorsement deal with Nefs last year

She had another decent golf year in 2011, finishing 19th on the money list with six top tens, but still was not generating the results that would justify all the attention.

Char Young posed for an interesting series of pix at the start of 2011

She didn’t start the 2012 season in a way that suggested things had changed much.  In her first three events, she missed a cut, finished 46th, and had a single top ten, a 9th, at the year’s first tournament in China.  But like a lightning strike, when Kim caught fire, she did it suddenly and explosively.  Her success started two weeks ago, at the Woori event.  The first round saw perennial star Ran Hong shoot a blistering 63 to take a four shot first round lead.  Kim started slowly with a 70.  But in round two, she made her move, producing a 65 to vault into a share of the lead.  Round three, the final round, saw a bunch of players jockeying at the top of the leaderboard before young star Mi Rim Lee took over.  She climbed to 12 under, a three shot lead, and it looked like she had the trophy in her pocket.  But Char Young Kim showed reserves of brilliance she had not before hinted she had in her.  She made birdies on three of the final four holes to catch Lee and force a playoff.  The head to head tiff lasted only a single hole, and Kim stayed cool, making a par while Lee blinked and made bogey.  Just like that, Char Young Kim had her first tournament victory.  The Glamour Girl had made good on her promise.

Char Young celebrated her first career win two weeks ago at the Woori event

And she wasn’t done yet!  The next week came the Doosan Match Play Championship.  The top stars dropped like flies through the first two rounds.  Defending Champ Soo Jin Yang lost in the opening round, while Ha Neul Kim lost in the quarterfinals.

Char Young, meanwhile, kept chugging along.  In the round of 16, she had her first big test, facing multiple winner Ran Hong.  But what should have been a challenge turned out to be pretty easy.  She won 5 & 4, her biggest win of the week to that point.  Kim next beat another tour winner, Yu Na Park, by a 3 & 2 score to advance to the semifinals.

Char Young during round 2 of the Doosan Match Play

Sunday would require all four of the remaining ladies to play two matches: first two semifinals in the morning, after which the two winners would meet in the championship match, while the losers would meet in a consolation match in the afternoon.  Char Young faced another tour winner in Ji Na Lim, while, at the other side of the bracket, 2011 Rookie of the Year Yeon Ju Jung squared off against Chae Yoon Yang, who had beaten Ha Neul Kim in the quarters.

Jung’s match was a close affair, but she managed to eke out the 1up win over Yang.  In fact, Jung was 1 down on 16, but birdied 17 to tie the match, then won the whole thing when Yang bogied 18.  Meanwhile, Char Young’s match was close on the front nine, but Lim fell apart on the back nine, making bogey on almost every hole.  Kim cruised to an easy 4 & 3 win to set up the final match between her and Jung.

Char Young beat Ji Na Lim in the semifinals of the Match Play

In the finals, if Kim was nervous, she didn’t show it.  She steadily made par after par, while her opponent was shakier.  Jung tied Kim on the fifth hole, but after that she got into a habit of making a bogey to fall a hole back, then a birdie to catch back up again.  Finally on the 16th hole, Jung made a bogey, but was not able to make another birdie and lost the match 1 up on the final hole.  By playing steadily, Kim had allowed her opponent to make the mistakes that cost her the match.

Char Young wins for the second straight week

Char Young Kim thus became the first player to win multiple tournaments in 2012.  Last year, the only player who managed that feat, Ha Neul Kim, also won the Player of the Year award.  To be honest, only one multiple winner in a season was a bit of an anomaly, and it is likely one or two other players will achieve multiple wins this season.  But Kim has a nice head start on the field: her win gave her 208 million won earned in 2012, more than 80 million won ahead of the #2 player on the money list.

Even before her two wins, Kim had many endorsements, like this deal with Fila Korea

She should still get plenty of publicity for her looks and style, but from here on in, she will also have to deal with scrutiny of her game like never before.  It’s possible that this past two weeks is a blip and she will fall back to the pack, but it’s also quite possible that we have been witness to the birth of a new star.  Kim will certainly have her steadiness and nerves tested the rest of the season like they were at the Match Play, and it will be fun to see if she can beat back the big names on tour and become the top gun on the KLPGA this year!

Char Young Kim posed for some interesting KLPGA promotional photos in April, 2011

Posted by: happyfan08 | April 19, 2012

New Kim In Town

Last week’s LotteMart Ladies Open was the start of the main part of the KLPGA’s 2012 season, and what a start it was! Among the returning pros and incoming rookies in the field were a few amateurs. One of them was Hyo Joo Kim, who for some time has been among the top rookies in the country. Kim wasted little time making her presence felt: she shot a 6 under par 66 in the first round to take a share of the lead, then followed that up with a 67 to cruise to an enormous 7 shot lead with two rounds to play. In just two holes on Saturday, she increased that lead to 10 shots, but struggled to a 73 to make it seem like there was still a chance one of the pros would catch her. No way: in the final round she again shot a 66 to achieve a massive 9 shot victory over KLPGA star Hyun Hee Moon.

Amateurs have won on the KLPGA many times in the past. In fact, Kim was the 21st different amateur to achieve a victory on that tour, and her win was the 30th win by an amateur in history. But her victory hit like a thunderclap in Korea, where it was big news the next day. Only once before had a Korean amateur managed such a resounding victory over her professional sisters. That event came in 1995, when a teenager named Se Ri Pak achieved a 10 shot win on the KLPGA. Pak, of course, went on to become the biggest star in the history of Korean golf, and perhaps Asian golf. Could it be that in years to come, last week’s KLPGA event will be looked at as the birth of another superstar?

Hyo Joo and her first professional trophy

Pak’s win was impressive, but the KLPGA was a different tour back in the mid-90s. It is true that these days, many of the big stars leave the tour after a few years to try their luck internationally, whereas back in the day, the big stars largely stayed at home. But it is also inarguable that never before have there been more top flight Korean golfers than right now. Kim went toe to toe with Ha Neul Kim, last year’s KLPGA Player of the Year, who recovered from a slow start on the first day to climb into the final group on Sunday. But even with a 3 under par 33 on her front nine, she still lost ground to the 16 year old, who countered with a 31 over that same stretch. On the back nine, it was the pro who struggled, making four bogies in her final six holes to plunge into a tie for third, 13 shots behind the teen. Also in their group that day was multiple winner Hyun Hee Moon, who as mentioned before finished second. Hyo Joo had shown she could play with the best the tour had to offer and not only hold her ground but extend her lead.

Ha Neul played well in round 3 but still couldn't catch the kid

Amateurs have not won all that often in the past few years, but this stat is a bit misleading. For although they have not collected a lot of trophies, they certainly have come close on several occasions. The last amateur to win on the KLPGA was Hee Kyung Bae, who won the LIG Classic in August of 2010. Before her, you have to go all the way back to Jiyai Shin, who won as a teenager in 2005, and Na Yeon Choi, who won the previous season. But there have been a lot of close calls in the meantime. Last season, for instance, In Gee Jeon, a teenage amateur who is now a rookie on tour, had the lead at the year’s third Major, the Hite Cup, going into the final round. She made a few big mistakes late, however, and Ha Neul Kim grabbed the trophy. In 2009, teenager Ha Na Jang had a chance to win not one but two Majors. She finished third at the Hite Cup, won by Hee Kyung Seo. At the next Major, however, she had a share of the lead until Seo made a birdie on the 17th hole to win that Major as well. Jang finished second.

Ha Na Jang (in background) finished just behind KLPGA superstar Hee Kyung Seo at the 2009 KB Star Tour Grand Finale, the year's final Major

In 2010, second year player Soo Jin Yang found herself in a battle with several amateur stars for the title at the Korean Women’s Open, another KLPGA Major. She needed a par on the final hole to grab the title, but made bogey and wound up in a playoff with amateur Eun Joo Lee. Nervous, she nonetheless beat the amateur in three playoff holes for the title. But Lee finished second, while amateurs Soo Yeon Kim finished fourth and Jung Eun Han 8th.

Perhaps the most bizarre close call came at the 2010 Hyundai Engineering Seoul Economic Women’s Open. This event came just one week after Bae had won the LIG Classic, and another amateur, Soo Yeon Jang, was poised to make it two in a row. After a birdie on 14, she moved to a two stroke lead. But after missing the green on 15, her father, who was also her caddie, laid her clubs down pointing in the direction her chip should go. Someone watching on TV called to report this rules violation, and it cost her two strokes. As it turned out, she ended regulation tied for the lead with pro Jung Eun Lee, who won in a playoff. But for that weird rules violation, she would have had the title.

Soo Yeon Jang's bag position on this hole led to a two stroke penalty and eventual loss

At the start of the last week, Hyo Joo Kim was ranked 25th in the world in women’s amateur golf. That is almost certainly too low, but it points to how difficult it can be to rank amateur golfers. Unlike in the pro ranks, there are few events where a large number of top amateurs congregate, and many amateurs end up playing primarily in their backyard rather than traveling all over the globe to face top challengers. Currently the top ranked amateur in the world is also a Korean. She is Lydia Ko, a 15 year old who has lived in New Zealand for the past 8 years and plays for that country internationally. Ko has certainly had an amazing career to date, becoming the first woman to ever simultaneously hold the Australian Stroke and Match Play titles AND the New Zealand Stroke and Match play titles. As if that weren’t enough, she became the youngest person to ever win a professional event when she captured the New South Wales Open in January at the age of 14 years. An amazing achievement made more incredible by the fact she nearly had won that same event the previous year as a 13 year old, losing thanks to a three putt on the final hole.

Lydia Ko has gotten used to hoisting trophies lately

My information on Hyo Joo Kim has her being 16 years old right now. The Korean press says she is 17, but Korean tradition considers one to become a new age on the first day of the year, not on one’s birthday, so she is called 17 as of January 1st even if her birthday is in July. So she was 2 years older than Ko when she achieved her win last week. But she did it against a field much more impressive, in my opinion, than the one Ko faced. Ko’s win was an Australian Ladies Professional event, not exactly a tour that is as packed with top players as the KLPGA. And Kim’s win was far more dominating than the one Ko achieved. I believe that a fair ranking of the top amateurs in the world would put Kim far closer to the top ranking than she is now.

Kim’s record to this point has been fairly impressive. In 2009, as a 14 year old, she contended at the KLPGA’s Hite Cup, sitting fifth late in the fourth round before stumbling. She also managed a top five start at the year’s final Major, but wound up 34th there in the end. In 2010, she tied for third at the Rush & Cash Charity Classic, and among her amateur achievements that year was a dominant win in singles at the Queen Sirikit Cup, an important Asian golf tournament. She finished 8 shots ahead of second place there, and led the Korean team to a huge win as well. In July of that year, Kim won the R & A Junior Open Girls title, beating New Zealand Korean Cecilia Cho among others (at the time, Cho was ranked in the top five in the world).

Hyo Joo putts at the 2009 Hite Cup

Kim continued to excel in 2011. She won the Callaway World Junior Championship 15-17 year old division by five shots, and managed a fifth place finish at another KLPGA event. She also led the Korean Women’s Open for the first two rounds, but a poor weekend sunk her chances for the win. She had an additional KLPGA top ten later in the year. Kim finished her year with another auspicious international amateur win, capturing the Junior Orange Bowl in Florida. She led the entire week, but had to make a clutch birdie on the final hole to secure the title.

Has Kim’s win opened up the floodgates for another Korean phenom? The press over there are already labeling her the next Jiyai Shin, and have heartily embraced the latest schoolgirl star to emerge there, much as they did Shin and Na Yeon Choi half a decade ago. An interesting test will come this week: Kim will play in the LPGA’s Lotte Championship in Florida on a sponsor’s exemption. Will she have anything left in the tank after her incredible victory in Korea? The Hyo Joo Kim story is just beginning!

Watch out for Hyo Joo Kim!!

Addendum:

Kim has had a very successful few weeks since her KLPGA triumph!  The week afterwards she played in her first LPGA event, the Lotte Championship in Hawaii.  She finished just outside of the top ten, tied for 12th.  The week after that, she led South Korea to an overwhelming victory at the women’s team golf event called the Queen Sirikit Cup.  Korea beat the second place team, New Zealand, by a whopping 25 strokes, with Kim claiming the gold medal in the individual standings by six shots over world’s #1 amateur Lydia Ko.  Kim’s ranking has moved from 25th to 13th as a result of her great few weeks.

Posted by: happyfan08 | April 9, 2012

The 2012 KLPGA Primer

This week marks the start of the main part of the 2012 season for the Korean Ladies Professional Golf Association, or KLPGA. Thus, once again, it’s time for our annual KLPGA preview. Here’s where I’ll talk about who’s back, who’s gone, who’s likely to emerge, and who might reign supreme as the season swings into action.

(Helpful footnote: the first event of the season, the Hyundai China Ladies Open, took place last December. But the main part of the KLPGA schedule starts this week at the LotteMart Ladies Open).

Moving On
Two big stars are leaving the KLPGA in 2012 for other pastures. Bo Mee Lee was the 2010 KLPGA Player of the Year. She qualified for and joined the Japanese LPGA last year, but after the tsunami in March caused the cancelation of a number of events, Lee spent much of the rest of the year shuttling between Korea and Japan. She played well enough in Korea last year to earn the award for lowest scoring average. But she didn’t do so well in Japan, so this year she has vowed to focus on that tour, appearing only rarely on the KLPGA. This idea has already paid dividends: she won an event earlier this year in Japan for her first victory on that tour.

Bo Mee hoisted her first JLPGA trophy in in March

The other big name who won’t be on tour in 2012 is So Yeon Ryu. Ryu won 7 events on the KLPGA from 2008 – 2011, although she never won a Major or a Player of the Year award. She finished third on the money list in 2011, and might have stayed in Korea in 2012 until she finished college this year, but for the fact that she won the US Women’s Open last July, thus earning full privileges on the LPGA. In 2012, she has gone to America full time, and has already taken the lead in the Rookie of the Year race, with a second and fourth place finish among her results thus far.

So Yeon is ready to do battle on the LPGA tour in 2012

The Superstar
The top player on the KLPGA in 2011 was Ha Neul Kim. Personable, beautiful, fashionable, spunky, and uber-popular, Kim won three events (and another invitational event) on tour last year, including her first Major, to capture the Player of the Year, Money list, Most Wins, and Most Popular Player awards. Without question, she is the biggest gun on tour in 2012, and she will be looking to repeat as Big Kahuna. But she also intends to take as many opportunities as she can to play abroad, hoping to win an event on the LPGA to qualify for that tour without having to go to Q-School. That’s not as farfetched a scheme as it might seem, as former top KLPGA stars Jiyai Shin, Hee Kyung Seo and Ryu all got their tour cards that way. But it does make one wonder how focused she will be when playing the KLPGA. This might make it harder than she might think for her to repeat as Player of the Year.

Ha Neul Kim and her many trophies at the 2011 KLPGA Awards Show

She has already made a little noise abroad in 2012. She finished tied for second, just one shot out of the lead, at the RACV Ladies Masters in Australia, and also just missed a top ten at the year’s first Major, finishing tied for 11th at the Kraft Nabisco Championship.

If Kim plays with anything like the same level of skill and focus in 2012 as she brought to the tour last year, she’s going to be tough to topple for the big awards. Based on her international results of late, she is certainly showing that her level of talent has become world class. But will she still put the same level of commitment into an average KLPGA event as an LPGA Major? Time will tell.

Ha Neul finished tied for 11th at the year's first Major, the Kraft Nabisco

The breakout stars
Two ladies made a big name for themselves in 2011. The question this year is: will they be able to build on that and become superstars, or were they just flashes in the pan?

Hyun Hwa Shim (sometimes spelled Sim) is a 23 year old player in her fourth year on the KLPGA. She had a decent rookie season in 2009, finishing 23rd on the money list, and produced 5 top tens to finish 30th in 2010. But in 2011, she took a quantum leap forward. She won her first and thus far only career event, and followed that with 5 top tens in her next six starts. She hovered near the top of the money list for most of the first part of the season. When the season resumed in the fall, she faltered somewhat, but towards the end of the year rebounded with several more strong finishes, including a second place finish at the year’s final event. She wound up second on the money list behind only Kim.

So who is the real Hyun Hwa Shim: the journeyman of 2009-2010, or the proto-superstar of last year? Can she live up to the new pressure in 2012, or will she return to the middle of the pack?

Hyun Hwa at this year's Kraft Nabisco. She missed the cut.

The other breakthrough star of 2011 was Yeon Ju Jung, the runaway winner of the Rookie of the Year award. The teenager won the year’s first Major, the Korean Women’s Open, for her only career victory to date. She had 7 total top tens in 2011 and finished 5th on the year’s money list. One notable finish came at the LPGA’s Hana Bank Championship, where a final round 65 vaulted her into the top ten. Jung has certainly shown great promise based on those results. But she will have to step up her game to challenge Kim for the top spot.

Yeon Ju Jung showed she could dance at last year's KLPGA Awards Show

The returning big names
Several long time players have established themselves as names to watch on tour. So let’s watch them!

Hye Youn Kim is one of those players that never seems to get the attention she deserves. Kim is primarily known in Korea for being very cute and for her unusual swing sequence, which involves her taking a step towards the ball in the downswing. But last year she had another very strong year. She won the first event of the season, the Orient China Ladies Open, beating Ha Neul Kim AND So Yeon Ryu down the stretch. She compiled six other top tens, including a second and a third, finishing 6th on the year’s money list.

Kim successfully defended her title in China in December, claiming the only win to date in the KLPGA’s 2012 season. So, she sits on top of the money list as the year gets going in earnest. With four career wins and a lot of moxie, Kim is definitely a player who could vie for the year’s top honors.

Hye Youn Kim at last year's KLPGA Awards Show

Now 20 and entering her fourth season, young gun Soo Jin Yang led the tour in driving distance last season. She plays well year after year, and 2011 was no exception. She achieved her only 2011 win at perhaps the year’s toughest event, the Doosan Match Play Championship, where she beat Hyun Hwa Shim in the finals. She also managed a second place at the KLPGA Championship, the year’s second Major, and is a former winner of the Korean Women’s Open as well.

Yang made more noise by capturing the lead at the Hana Bank Championship after two rounds, before fading to a tie for third, three shots behind champion Ya Ni Tseng. She ended up 4th on the year’s money list.

Soo Jin had a great week at last year's Hana Bank Championship

Yang is a great player who has gone from strength to strength, finishing in the top five on the money list the last two seasons. If any one player is poised to break through to superstardom on the KLPGA this season, my money would be on her. Despite being slight in stature, she hits the ball far, a quality that should hold her in good stead whenever she leaves Korea for international tours. She could well end up being Ha Neul Kim’s biggest threat in 2012.

Shin Ae Ahn beat Soo Jin Yang as the Rookie of the Year in 2009, and had a great 2010 season as well. But she struggled somewhat in 2011. She had a 2nd and a 3rd place finish last year, but only three total top tens. Thus, she finished only 22nd on the money list. She did much better abroad, where she contended much of the week at the LPGA’s Evian Masters before ending up tied for 9th. Ahn is known in Korea as the Sexy Queen, given that nickname after she was chosen the ‘sexiest Korean golfer’ in an internet fan poll. But make no mistake about it, this lady is more than a pretty face; she has game. She needs to return to the form she displayed in 2010, but if she does, she could be a big winner in 2012.

Cover Girl: Shin Ae Ahn on the cover of JGolf Magazine

LPGA Transplants
Once upon a time, Grace Park was the second best golfer on the LPGA tour. That year, 2004, she won two events and became the first Korean to ever win the Kraft Nabisco Championship (and until two weeks ago, the only one). But just when she was at the height of her powers, infirmities got the best of her. She has spent the last decade struggling with severe back problems that have at times threatened to end her career entirely.

Last year, Park successfully qualified for the KLPGA tour, and intends to play on that tour quite a bit this season (she still has membership on the LPGA tour and will also play a few times in America). Grace has never played on the KLPGA tour beyond a few isolated events, so it will be interesting to see how she fares. If she brings any of her monstrous talent to bear, she could upset the entire calculus of the year-end races. But, if she continues to struggle with her game, she may not make much of an impact at all. Of one thing there is no doubt: Grace Park will be noticed, either through her play or through her mere presence.

Grace Park last December

Park joins a number of players who, in the past few years, have transplanted themselves from America back to Korea. Sarah Lee, Gloria Park, Jin Joo Hong and Sung Ah Yim are all former LPGA players who made that move. None of them have managed to win in Korea since coming back, but there’s always the chance that could change this year.

The one transplant who HAS made a big splash is HJ Choi.  Choi stunned the tour by shooting a final round 62 at the KLPGA Championship to blitz the field and capture the Major victory.  She didn’t do much else of note in 2011, but it shows that these LPGA veterans do still have plenty of game in them.

Rookies to watch
Every year, a new crop of young hopefuls join the tour, and this season is no exception. Two names seem to be getting the most buzz at this point.

In Ji Jeon is a former member of the Korean National team who very nearly won last year’s Hite Cup, the year’s third Major, as an amateur. She had a three shot lead in the final round at one point, but nerves got the better of her, and Ha Neul Kim wound up capturing the title. Jeon’s consolation prize was snapping up a sponsorship with Hite, the company who sponsors that Major as well as LPGA star Hee Kyung Seo.

Rookie In Ji Jeon signed a sponsorship deal with Hite Beer earlier this year

Ji Hee Kim comes into the league with a hefty sponsorship of her own: Nefs, the same company that sponsors Soo Jin Yang, LPGAer Kyeong Bae and Char Young Kim. Kim was also a national team mainstay the last few years, but made her biggest splash at 2010’s Asian Games when she won the individual Bronze Medal in women’s golf as a 16 year old (and also helped South Korea win the team gold medal at the same event).  The gold medalist, Hyun Soo Kim, is not yet on the big tour.

Rookie Ji Hee Kim signed a sponsorship deal with Nefs earlier this year

Another name to watch is Hye Rim Kim, who led the Dream Tour Money List last year (the Dream Tour is the KLPGA’s developmental tour).  She is 22 and will be playing her first full season on the KLPGA in 2012.  She, too, is sponsored by Nefs.

Will one of those two star rookies capture the Rookie of the Year? Or will another player trump them both? Stay tuned!

Other Notables
Some of the other returning stars who could make noise in 2012 include:

He Yong Choi. The 2008 KLPGA Rookie of the Year (beating Ryu and Hye Youn Kim), Choi has not played great golf the last few years, but she hasn’t been bad, either. She was 8th on last year’s money list without a win.

Ran Hong. Glamorous Ran Hong had a weak season on the KLPGA in 2011, but made a big splash when she contended at the LPGA’s Evian Masters and wound up 6th in the end.

Ran Hong cohosted last year's KLPGA Awards Show

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

'Honey' Moon (the best nickname in golf?) at the 2011 KLPGA Awards Show

Ha Na Jang. The can’t-miss rookie prospect in 2011 did in fact miss. She had a frankly disappointing year, but she’s still young. She is very long off the tee and contended at multiple KLPGA Majors when she was still in high school. Sooner or later she’ll figure it out and become a force. 2012 might be her breakout year.

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »

Categories

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 25 other followers