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Where EAST meets the Northwest

So Yeon Ryu. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Ariya Jutanugarn. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Lydia Ko. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

From The Asian Reporter, V27, #15 (August 7, 2017), pages 13 & 16.

Young Asian golfers take turns atop LPGA

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

No major American sport has seen more rising Asian talent than the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), and this year is shaping up to be one of the most exciting Asian-dominated seasons ever. Already, three different golfers of Asian heritage have captured the top spot in the LPGA’s Rolex Rankings and eight of the top-ten golfers are also of Asian descent.

This season began with Lydia Ko at number one in the Rolex Rankings, after just missing winning the top spot for the second-straight year in 2016. That near-miss inspired the Korea-born New Zealander to change her clubs, caddie, and instructor at the start of this season, and Ko promptly finished in the top ten in three of the first four tournaments.

Then she missed the cut at the Kia Classic in March and fired her new caddie in April, shortly before an eye infection forced her to withdraw from the Texas Shootout. Top-ten finishes in her next three events suggested Ko was back on track, but she hadn’t won any of the season’s first 11 events, and that’s not the way to hold onto the number-one spot in the LPGA.

Breathing down Ko’s neck has been 21-year-old Ariya Jutanugarn, the Thai golfer who edged her out for the top spot in 2016. Jutanugarn not only won the 2016 Rolex Rankings, she also won the money title and the Race to the CME Globe — all in just her second season on the tour. Only one other player has taken all of those three awards in the same year: Lydia Ko in 2015, also in her second LPGA season.

Jutanugarn built on her 2016 finish with a strong start to 2017. In her first 11 tournaments, she finished in the top ten of eight of them, three of those in the top three. Heading into the Manulife LPGA Classic in June, Jutanugarn stood just a hundredth of a point behind Ko, so close that an LPGA miscalculation had mistakenly put her in first before the error was discovered.

But instead of a dramatic showdown at the Manulife, Ko chose not to play, and Jutanugarn won the tournament in a playoff, placing her correctly atop the Rolex rankings. It was the first time a Thai golfer — male or female — had reached number one in the world.

Jutanugarn’s reign would not last long, however. The following week, she tied for 22nd place in the Meijer LPGA Classic — a respectable finish, but not good enough to stay in first place after South Korea’s So Yeon Ryu won the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

Now Ryu stands at the top of the Rolex Rankings, a move that has surprised few LPGA fans. Another excellent young golfer, Ryu won the 2011 LPGA U.S. Women’s Open before even joining the tour, and then she took the Rolex rookie award the following season.

Though Ryu had only won three other LPGA events before this season, she consistently finishes in the top ten of tournaments thanks to her very precise game. In 2016, she ranked second on the tour in greens in regulation, sixth in scoring average, and 10th in rounds under par. She began this season with an active streak of making the cut in 55 consecutive tournaments.

Ryu has continued her consistency. Though she broke the streak at 64 straight tournaments in June by missing the cut at the ShopRite LPGA Classic, Ryu has still notched five top-five finishes this season (including a victory at the ANA Inspiration in March) and four more finishes in the top ten.

Since ascending to the top spot, Ryu has played well while Ko and Jutanugarn have struggled. Ryu tied for 14th at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and tied for third at the U.S. Women’s Open. Ko, meanwhile, tied for 59th at the PGA Championship and tied for 33rd at the Open, starting strong in both events before faltering over the final rounds.

Jutanugarn, however, has completely lost her groove, in part due to a flare-up of an old injury. In the tournament following the Meijer LPGA Classic, she missed the cut at the PGA Championship after shooting a poor 77 on the first day. She shot a 78 at the Thornberry Creek LPGA Classic a week later, then withdrew because her right shoulder was bothering her.

This was the same shoulder Jutanugarn had surgery on in 2013 to fix a torn labrum. It undoubtedly contributed to her missing the cut at the U.S. Women’s Open after again opening with a disastrous round — this time a 79 — and following it up with a 72. She is currently in third in the Rolex Rankings, just a whisker away from Jutanugarn and American Lexi Thompson. Along with Canada’s Brooke Henderson, Thompson is one of just two non-Asian golfers in the Top Ten.

These two, along with the other top-ten golfers, will continue to put pressure on Ryu. In addition to Jutanugarn, Ryu, and Ko, the top-ten Asian group includes four South Koreans — Sung Hyun Park, In Gee Chun, Inbee Park, and Amy Yang — along with China’s Shanshan Feng.

All of these Asian golfers are formidable forces; each has won at least one event this season except for Chun, who has merely come close, with four second-place finishes. And there’s more Asian talent behind them: 16 of the top 25 golfers have Asian roots.

As the east continues to dominate the women’s tour, Asian sports fans can look forward to more dramatic battles, whether it’s last season’s down-to-the-wire finish or this season’s Asian triumvirate atop the Rolex Rankings. And golf fans from all nations can appreciate the skill, passion, and drive for excellence these women bring to the game.

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