At this time last year, the name Shi Hyun Ahn didn't carry much clout, if any, in LPGA circles. She was an unproven rookie on the Korea Ladies Professional Golf Association (KLPGA) Tour and had never played in an LPGA event. Today, all of that has changed, as the talented 20-year-old has already secured the 2004 Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year Award, is 17th on the ADT Official Money List and is about to defend her first-career tournament.
Ahn and the rest of the LPGA Tour return to South Korea this week for the $1.35 million CJ Nine Bridges Classic Presented by Sports Today. In 2003, Ahn prevailed as the unlikely winner of the limited-field event, which features a mix of LPGA and KLPGA stars, and earned LPGA membership. And her LPGA performance to date has not disappointed.
Ahn began the year with back-to-back top-five finishes and has recorded a total of 12 top-20 finishes in 22 events. Her consistent play earned the young player Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year honors, making her the fourth Korean player to win the award in the past seven years.
This week she looks to get back into the winner's circle, but it will not be easy as the best players in the world will try stop her. Annika Sorenstam has been Ahn's biggest roadblock from victory this year. The Swede won both events-the McDonald's LPGA Championship Presented by Coca-Cola and the John Q. Hammons Hotel Classic presented by Ford-where Ahn finished as the runner-up. Sorenstam makes her first appearance in the CJ Nine Bridges Class Presented by Sports Today since 2002.
Sorenstam has been the most dominant golfer in the game for several years now and shows no sign of relinquishing her top spot anytime soon. The LPGA Tour and World Golf Halls of Fame member has won six of her 15 LPGA starts this year and has only finished outside of the top 10 twice, both times tying for 13th.
Lorena Ochoa, who ranks second on the ADT Official Money List and was the
2003 Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year, is also sure to be a factor.
The young star has won twice this year and is a top-10 machine. In her 23 starts, she has 17 top-10 finishes, which includes stretches of six and eight consecutive top 10s.
Ochoa is one of the most aggressive players in the game, leading the Tour in birdies with 380 (Jeong Jang is a distant second with 350) and is second in eagle with 17. She ranks in the top 10 in every statistical category except putting (17th) and driving accuracy (75th). Her scoring average of 69.88 is second on Tour to Sorenstam (68.93) and makes them the only two players with an average under 70.
Grace Park leads a contingency of Korean players looking to win in their native country. Park, who won the Kraft Nabisco Championship in March, has 10 top-three finishes this year in 20 events. Outside of her win, she has six runner-up finishes, including the last two events, and has placed third three times.
Last year, Ahn became the sixth-youngest tournament winner in LPGA history after posting rounds of 65-71-68=204 (-12) to top 2002 champion Se Ri Pak, Grace Park, Gloria Park and Laura Davies by three shots.