Who is South Korea’s next golf super star?

December 9, 2015
South Koreans In Gee Chun, left, and Hyo Joo Kim celebrate major wins at the 2015 U.S. Women's Open and 2014 Evian Championship. Both golfers won a major on the LPGA Tour before joining full time. (AP Photos)

South Koreans In Gee Chun, left, and Hyo Joo Kim celebrate major wins at the 2015 U.S. Women’s Open and 2014 Evian Championship. Both golfers won a major on the LPGA Tour before joining full time. (AP Photos)

Hyo Joo Kim, left, and Chun In Gee.  (Courtesy of KLPGA)

Hyo Joo Kim, left, and In Gee Chun may continue their rivalry next year on the LPGA Tour. (Courtesy of KLPGA)

By Brian Han

So who is South Korea’s next golf superstar?

It doesn’t matter that world No. 2 Park Inbee completed her career grand slam in 2015. Or that world N0. 1 Lydia Ko (who is technically a Korean New Zealander, but born in South Korea nonetheless) came out dominant as ever this season at just 18 years old.

Here’s why.

Over the past decade or so, LPGA Tour has welcomed a flurry of undeniably talented golfers from South Korea. Of 31 events, South Korean-born golfers claimed 21 victories over the course of the 2015 season. That figure shatters the record for most wins in a single season by the country.

Furthermore, among the world’s 10 best players, six are Korean (seven if you count Ko).

But the question isn’t about addressing the talent of golfers from the country. It’s about which individual is most likely to separate herself from the pack.

That conversation begins with a short history lesson courtesy of Se Ri Pak. What the Hall of Famer did to inspire South Korea’s female youth is analogous to what Tiger Woods did for the next generation of PGA Tour golfers.

Without Pak’s legacy, the conversation about South Korea’s next big name wouldn’t even be a topic of discussion.

She hit the LPGA like a meteor in 1998 winning two majors in her rookie year, a time during which her home country endured difficulties including the South Korea’s worst recession South Korea in nearly 40 years. In a way, she became a symbol of hope, even an escape from a harsher reality.

She assumed the role as South Korea’s first women’s golf super star and arguably the country’s most famous athlete period.

Se Ri Pak

Without Se Ri Pak’s legacy, the conversation about South Korea’s next big name wouldn’t even be a topic of discussion. (Korea Times file)

When any of the current South Korean players on tour are asked about their role models, Pak’s name will always enter the conversation.

So who can fill those shoes and how do you measure other players against her storied career?

She racked up the most wins by any South Korean player with 25 on the LPGA Tour and 14 more on the Korean LPGA Tour.

The next closest player is 27-year-old Inbee Park with 17 wins and 5 others worldwide. She has already established herself somewhat as the successor to Pak and plenty of evidence points toward the continuation of that legacy.

“I feel really happy that I could inspire somebody like Se Ri did to me, and be in the kind of position where I’ve always dreamed of, where I’ve always wanted to go,” world No. 1 Inbee Park told ESPN back in 2013.

Park has already accomplished things Pak couldn’t.

The former has been No. 1 in the world for over 80 weeks — the most by any South Korean player by far. But to be fair, the world rankings didn’t even exist until 2006, which was towards the tail end of Pak’s prime.

Then there are the number of major wins, which Park already has an edge with seven over Pak’s five. Park most recently won the Women’s British Open making her the first-ever Asian female golfer to complete the career grand slam.

Her success and win total earn her the title of best modern day South Korean golfer, but there are three youngsters who are biting at her heels and quickly making a name for themselves — Hyo-Joo Kim, In Gee Chun and Sei Young Kim.

Of all the Korean golfers seemingly flooding the professional golf scene, these three are truly the elite.

Kim is an LPGA Tour rookie and is ranked 10th in the world. In 2014, she won the LPGA’s fifth and final major of the year, the Evian Championship in France. At the age of 19, her opening round 10-under 61, fueled by an electrifying performance, put her four strokes ahead of the nearest competitor in a field hosting only the world’s premier players.

She went on to win the tournament and followed up by entering her first full year on the LPGA tour in 2015.

To the rest of the world, Kim came out of nowhere, but just like Pak, Park and many successful golfers before her, she tested her metal on the Korean LPGA Tour, which is now widely considered a training ground for a whole new generation of uber-talented golfers.

In 2012, she debuted on the KLPGA, won two tournaments and racked up 14 top-10s. She was neck and neck for the Rookie of the Year award with, you guessed it, In Gee Chun. Kim eventually won the title, but it wasn’t by much.

She went on to win five more KLPGA tournaments before the 2015 LPGA season, which is part of the reason she was able to climb up the world rankings so quickly. So when she took home a major trophy in 2014, most South Koreans were already more than familiar with the name they saw resting comfortably atop the leaderboard.

Kim is the KLPGA’s golden child and her play in the past few years is too good to ignore.

But when Kim failed to make the cut at the 2015 U.S. Women’s Open, it was overshadowed by the fact that another South Korean 20-year-old found her way to the winner’s circle.

Just like Kim, In Gee Chun rose to the occasion in one of her sport’s biggest stages.

In fact, there are several similarities between the two players. Chun also won her first LPGA major title in 2015 before she officially obtained her LPGA Tour card. She declared that she would play full time in 2016. Both have already been ranked within the world’s top-10 and have the momentum to go further.

But Chun, currently ranked ninth in the world, accomplished a feat recently that no other South Korean player can claim. She won three major titles on three different professional tours in the U.S., South Korea and Japan all in a single season. These include the aforementioned U.S. Women’s Open as well as the Hite-Jinro Championship and the World Ladies Championship.

Sei Young Kim, of South Korea celebrates after chipping in a birdie to force a playoff with Inbee Park, of South Korea, during the LPGA Lotte Championship golf tournament at Ko Olina Golf Club, Saturday, April 18, 2015, in Kapolei, Hawaii. Kim won the tournament. (AP Photo/Eugene Tanner)

Sei Young Kim, of South Korea celebrates after chipping in a birdie to force a playoff with Inbee Park, of South Korea, during the LPGA Lotte Championship golf tournament at Ko Olina Golf Club, Saturday, April 18, 2015, in Kapolei, Hawaii. Kim won the tournament. (AP Photo/Eugene Tanner)

It’s something that separates her from her contemporaries and admittedly she may still be young, but among all the Korean names populating weekly leaderboards, it makes hers stand out just a bit more.

At 5-foot-9, she’s already at a height advantage against other South Korean players, but it’s not necessarily translating into power just yet. She’s averaging just south of 250 yards off the tee whereas South Korea’s longest hitter and fellow rookie Sei Young Kim is launching the ball over 260 on a regular basis while standing at a listed 5-foot-4.

Sei Young Kim didn’t win a major before joining the LPGA. She’s a little bit older than the other two names at 22 years of age. But her three LPGA Tour victories in 2015 secured her Rookie of the Year honors before the season even ended.

That title means much more considering the depth of this year’s rookie class.

Besides Hyo-Joo Kim and In Gee Chun, world No. 14 Ha Na Jang, No. 17 Minjee Lee and No. 23 Alison Lee all made their debut in 2015.

With talent from South Korea continuing to flood in, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if the LPGA Tour gets a few more phenoms in 2016.

For now, Hyo-Joo Kim, In Gee Chun and Sei Young Kim represent today’s best bet at tomorrow’s super star.

5 Comments

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  2. Roger Smith

    December 10, 2015 at 9:55 AM

    I am not sure why your paper keeps trying to claim Lydia Ko as your own? There is no such thing as a “technically Korean New Zealander” in our country. She is a Kiwi (New Zealander) and proud to be one. We are equally proud of her.
    Where I do agree with you is the tremendous ability of your own Korean golfers – especially Inbee, Hyo-Joo Kim and Sei Young Kim. As to In Gee Chun, let us see how she performs during a full LPGA tour season or two.

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