Where EAST meets the Northwest
UNUSUAL LPGA SEASON. In this highly unusual season, one thing remains
perfectly normal in the Ladies Professional Golf Association: players with Asian
Among the top players are:
Danielle Kang. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
Sei Young Kim. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)
Inbee Park. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
From The Asian Reporter, V30, #13 (December 7, 2020), page 8.
LPGA season punctuated by drama, South Korean dominance
By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter
In this highly unusual season, one thing remains perfectly normal in the
Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA): players with Asian heritage
dominate. The LPGA measures the success of its golfers with the Rolex Rankings;
at the end of November, eight young, dynamic players with Asian roots were in
its top 10. Most, if not all, of those eight will play in December’s season
finale, the United States Women’s Open Championship. How they play could affect
both the Rolex Rankings and South Korea’s Olympic team.
The top four South Korean players on the Rolex Rankings make their Olympic
team, but the selection faces a double COVID-19 whammy. Postponing the Olympics
due to coronavirus extended the competition for those four spots. And by halting
the LPGA season, it affected how those Rolex Rankings are calculated.
In normal times, the rankings are usually affected by more recent tournament
scores, and rankings drop when players don’t compete. No LPGA tournaments were
held for nearly six months, so when play resumed, some players did not compete
for safety reasons. In light of this, the rules were temporarily changed to
update players’ Rolex Rankings only during weeks when they play.
By playing in the LPGA of Korea (KLPGA), several South Korean players
benefitted from that rule change, including Hyo Joo Kim, currently tenth in the
Rolex Rankings. Kim debuted on the LPGA tour in 2015, winning her first major
with the lowest score ever for an LPGA major championship round.
Since then, Kim has won twice and finished in the top 10 at 38 others. This
year, Kim has played only in the lower-ranked KLPGA, keeping her ranking right
behind that of her countrywoman, Sung Hyun Park.
Park roared onto the LPGA scene in 2017, becoming the first player since 1978
to win both Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year awards. Park won two
tournaments that year, including one major, and then won three tournaments,
including another major, in 2018.
In 2019, Park won twice before a shoulder injury curtailed her season. The
coronavirus break allowed her to rehabilitate her shoulder, though it also made
her a bit rusty. In five tournaments since the break, Park’s best finish was
17th place, dropping her from fourth to ninth in the Rolex Rankings,
representing the fourth spot on the South Korean Olympic team.
Just ahead of Kim is Australia’s Minjee Lee, born in Perth to South Korean
parents. Since her 2015 LPGA debut, Lee has won five times, peaking in 2018,
when she notched 13 top-10 finishes, three second-place finishes, and her fourth
In 2019, Lee rose to second in the Rolex Rankings, then slipped to third
early this season before falling to ninth. One top-10 and three top-5 finishes
since the break brought her back into eighth, right behind Nasa Hataoka, the
lone Japanese golfer in Rolex’s top 10.
Hataoka is also the youngest in the top 10, a familiar feeling for her. In
2016, she was the youngest winner at the Japan Women’s Open Championship and the
youngest player at the Final Stage of the LPGA Qualifying Tournament, where she
earned her LPGA tour card.
After struggling with homesickness as a rookie, Hataoka brought her mom on
tour in 2018 and hit her stride. She won twice that season and finished in the
top 10 eleven times, then won again in 2019 with five more top-10 finishes.
This season, Hataoka twice finished in second place before leaving for Tokyo
during the pandemic. After returning, she notched three top-10 finishes and is
one slot behind Canadian Brooke Henderson in the Rolex Rankings.
Occupying fifth place in the Rolex Rankings is the legendary Inbee Park.
Among the first South Korean LPGA superstars, Park has won 20 tournaments,
including 7 majors, since joining the LPGA tour in 2007. But she has struggled
since 2015, winning only three tournaments, and no majors.
This season, Park started with a victory and a second-place finish, and she
remained hot after the break, finishing in the top 10 of three of her next five
tournaments. Park now sits close behind Korean-American Danielle Kang, whose
rise nearly overlaps with Park’s decline.
Kang joined the LPGA Tour in 2012, but she didn’t notch a Tour win until
2017, when she won her first major. Since then, Kang has won four more times,
including two wins this season after the break that vaulted her briefly into
second place in the Rolex Rankings. Falling to fourth since then, Kang trails
fellow American Nelly Korda, who sits a good distance from the top two golfers.
In second place is Sei Young Kim, who won the 2015 Louise Suggs Rookie of the
Year Award after winning three tournaments. Since then, Kim has won at least
once each year, including three wins last season. She finally won her first
major this year, following that with another victory that puts her within
striking distance of first place on the Rolex Rankings.
The top position is currently occupied by Jin Young Ko, who dazzled from her
first LPGA tournament in 2018, as only the second player ever to win her Tour
debut. Ko had 13 more top-10 finishes that season, clinching the Rookie of the
Year award with four events left to play.
But Ko was just getting warmed up. In 2019, she finished over half of her
tournaments in the top 10, including four wins (including two majors), three
second-place finishes, and five more top-10 finishes. She also shot 114
consecutive holes without a bogey, beating Tiger Woods’ record by four.
That season, she topped the LPGA money list, earning the Rolex Player of the
Year, along with awards for the lowest scoring average, the best record in major
tournaments, and the most top-10 finishes.
This season, however, Ko spent the lockdown playing in the KLPGA, returning
to the LPGA in November for just one tournament, tying for 34th. Her KLPGA
record kept her atop the Rolex Rankings, but that mediocre finish does not bode
well for her chances of holding off a red-hot Sei Young Kim in December’s season
However things turn out, COVID-19 has injected plenty of drama into this
season, but one thing seems sure: the Rolex Rankings winner will be a young
player with roots in South Korea.
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