Over the past year or so, it’s been pretty indisputable who the best Korean women’s golfer in the world is. Since the start of 2009, Jiyai Shin joined the LPGA tour, won three times, dominated the Rookie of the Year race over a tough field which included a Major winner, and missed winning the Player of the Year award by the closest imaginable margin. This on the heels of a KLPGA career which saw her collect a staggering 20 wins, sweep the Majors in 2009, and set record after record in the process. Though winless in 2010, Shin continues to play brilliantly, becoming the first Korean to ever reach the #1 ranking in the world. Even an appendectomy did not slow her much; after missing just two weeks to recover, she notched a third place at a Major and a fifth place at last week’s Jamie Farr Classic.
But if Shin is clearly the best Korean golfer right now, the mantle of second best is much murkier. There are at least three golfers currently playing on the LPGA tour who could legitimately lay claim to that title. As it turned out, last week fate stepped in and provided a chance for all three of those ladies to go toe to toe in a single playoff. At this year’s Jamie Farr Classic, the tournament came down to a four way playoff which involved the second, third and fourth highest ranked Korean golfers in the world (and Jiyai Shin, currently #1, was one birdie away from joining them in that tussle). Yet another top 20 Korean, Inbee Park, finished just two shots out of the playoff. So here at last was a chance to see how these top players stack up; if it wouldn’t settle the question of who was second best definitively, it would at least give one of them bragging rights for a while.
Na Yeon at the 2010 Jamie Farr Classic
The contestants were Na Yeon Choi, Song Hee Kim and In Kyung Kim, who were joined by Korean American Christina Kim. Yes, three Kims and a Choi in one playoff. Choi was the one who had the most to lose. She had led the tournament decisively the first two rounds, carving a five shot lead at one point. But Christina Kim moved within one shot of her by the end of the third round, and in the fourth round, back to back bogies on the back nine actually cost her a share of the lead for the first time in days. But Choi proved her mettle by nailing a clutch 15 foot birdie on the final hole to win a place in the playoff. Song Hee Kim, who was profiled in this blog last week, was five shots back to start Sunday, but shot a brilliant 66 to earn her spot, while In Kyung Kim was even more amazing, shooting a 64 in round 4.
After all four golfers parred the first playoff hole, they played the 17th, a par five. All four were in the fairway after two shots. Song Hee overshot the green and was not a factor after that. Christina got to within 20 feet, In Kyung to within 12. But Choi lasered her approach to two feet, putting pressure on the others to make their birdies. Neither did, and Choi won her third career LPGA event.
Na Yeon wins the 2010 Farr.
So, is Na Yeon Choi the second best Korean golfer right now? A case could certainly be made. Song Hee Kim has been the most consistent Korean, perhaps including Shin. This year she has notched top tens in all but one tournament, and has a second and third place finish in the year’s two Majors. But Kim has not won a tournament anywhere in the world since leaving the Futures Tour in 2006. In Kyung Kim has two career LPGA wins, like Choi had before last week. But she is not nearly as consistent as Choi or Song Hee Kim.
A candid Shot of Na Yeon
Choi’s record has in fact been quite impressive, on the LPGA tour and before. She started playing golf at the age of ten, and within very short order was winning tournaments in Korea. As one of the top amateurs in the country, she was invited to play at the KLPGA’s ADT-CAPS Championship in 2004. She had some august company: none other than Korean legend Se Ri Pak was in the field that year. It was no surprise that Pak played well, but amazingly, at the end of the week it was the gangly high schooler Choi who held the trophy, besting the superstar by four shots (Pak finished second).
Choi turned pro soon thereafter, and had a wonderful career on the KLPGA tour, winning several times and always hanging around near the top of the tour’s money list. Interestingly, she lost the Rookie of the Year award to Hee Young Park, and both women would also move to the LPGA tour the same year (2008). They both went to LPGA tour qualifying school late in 2007, but while Park finished 3rd to earn an exempt card, Choi finished two shots out of the score she needed to get one. She still earned conditional status on tour, but it was a bit of a disappointment for the young prodigy.
Na Yeon wins another trophy on the KLPGA tour (2006)
In 2008, however, Choi quickly proved that she was a far better golfer than her tour status indicated. In just her third event on tour, she tied for fifth. She notched a 6th place at the year’s first Major and another top ten the following week. In fact, during her rookie season, her consistency was awesome. Not only did she not miss a cut, she finished no worse than 43rd, and collected 18 top 20s during that season. Despite those stellar numbers, however, it looked as though Choi would once again be shut out of Rookie of the Year when her rival Ya Ni Tseng won the year’s second Major, the LPGA Championship. But it was a mark of Choi’s talent that despite that win, Choi was able to catch and pass Tseng in the Rookie rankings late in the season. In fact, it was not until the final event of the year when Tseng finally put Choi away and earned the top rookie award. Still, Choi had nothing to be ashamed of: although she did not win in 2008, she earned 9 top tens and finished 11th on the money list.
Na Yeon enjoying herself at the 2008 Ginn Tribute
Choi had almost had her breakthrough win in 2008, and had she pulled it off, probably would have been the Rookie of the Year as well. At the Evian Masters in July, she had a four shot lead on the back nine on Sunday and was getting the kind of lucky breaks you need to win tournaments. But suddenly, Helen Alfredsson of Sweden began making every putt she looked at, and Choi stalled. In the end Alfredsson beat Choi and Angela Park in a playoff to earn the title. Choi was momentarily crushed, but she soldiered on, earning more good finishes the rest of the year.
Na Yeon Choi at the 2008 Evian
2009 was much of the same for the young superstar who was nicknamed ‘Pretty Face’ in Korea. As in 2008, she made every cut, notching a bunch of top tens and twenties in the process. But she still searched for her first win on tour, the breakthrough that would take her to the next level. Finally, her moment came at the Samsung World Championship. She carved out a huge lead on the back nine on Sunday, and it looked like even nerves would not be enough to cost her this win. But just like at the Evian, she saw her lead rapidly shrink through a combination of bad shots and a brilliant run by Japanese star Ai Miyazato. Indeed, Miyazato caught Choi by the final hole, and went for the par 5 18th green in two shots. Had she made it, she might have won, but she hit her shot into the water and gave Choi an opening. Minutes later, Choi had her own chance at that hole, and cashed it in. She chipped her third shot close, then dunked a knee knocking birdie putt to at long last collect her first LPGA win.
Na Yeon with her first career LPGA trophy (at the Samsung)
Choi would not have to wait long to gain her second. Perhaps emboldened by her victory, Choi had a much easier time winning her second title at the Hana Bank Championship in her native South Korea just three weeks later. In that tournament, Choi found herself in a pitched battle with her old nemesis Yani Tseng coming down the stretch. But this time, Choi played with cool relaxation, while Tseng and long bombing Maria Hjorth made the mistakes. In the end, Choi had to once again make a birdie on the final hole, and once again she delivered, claiming her second title by a stroke.
Na Yeon won her second LPGA tournament in Korea
2010 has been another great year for Choi, although she did finally miss a cut at the LPGA Championship (and even then, by just a single stroke). The missed cut lit a fire in Choi’s belly, and she came out at the Farr with something to prove. And that she did, leading the event almost the entire week and beating her vaunted Korean rivals in a playoff to claim her third victory.
Na Yeon — or a Bond Girl?
So, is she the second best Korean in the world? She is nearly as consistent as Song Hee Kim, but she has three LPGA victories and Kim has none. She has both more wins and more consistency than In Kyung Kim or Inbee Park. Song Hee is probably having a better overall 2010 than Choi, as is reflected by her 7th in the world ranking (compared to 8th for Choi). But whoever the better golfer is, Choi can at least claim some bragging rights thanks to her victory in Toledo. Choi has definitely shown that she is more than a ‘Pretty Face’; if she keeps playing as she has been, she could soon end up being the Face of Korean golf!
Na Yeon Choi is in a good place right now