SEOUL, South Korea – The LPGA Tour’s two-week swing through Asia begins this week in South Korea with the Rolex Player of the Year award still up for grabs.
Current leader Jiyai Shin will look to extend her narrow lead over top-ranked Lorena Ochoa in front of her home fans when the $1.7 million KOLON Championship gets underway Friday at Sky 72 Golf Club’s Ocean Course in the city of Incheon just west of Seoul.
Shin, who rallied for a win on the Japan LPGA Tour last week, has virtually clinched the Rolex Rookie of the Year award. She currently leads 20-year-old Michelle Wie by almost double the number of points on the list.
If Shin were to finish the year with both season-ending awards, she would be the first player to do so since Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez in 1978.
Ochoa began the season with wins at the Honda LPGA Thailand and the Corona Championship. However, the reigning three-time Player of the Year endured a summer drought before winning the Navistar LPGA Classic earlier this month.
Like Ochoa, Shin has three wins on tour this season, including the NW Arkansas Championship, where she overcame a 7-stroke final-round deficit.
This week will be Shin’s chance to separate herself from Ochoa by playing in her home country.
“I can’t waste an opportunity to win in Korea,” she said earlier this week.
Similarly, Ochoa will play in front of a friendly gallery when the tour moves to Guadalajara, Mexico, next month after a stop in Japan next week.
South Koreans won this tournament, formally known as the CJ Nine Bridges Classic, in its first five years between 2002 and 2006. The 2001 edition was canceled due to events surrounding the September 11th terrorist attacks.
Suzann Pettersen of Norway broke the Koreans’ winning streak in 2007 before Taiwan’s Candie Kung claimed the title last year.
Also among the 71-player field this week are Cristie Kerr, currently third on the LPGA money list, and fellow American Paula Creamer, ranked ninth in earnings.
This week’s tournament also comes after the LPGA announced Wednesday that marketing executive Michael Whan will be the tour’s next commissioner after Carolyn Bivens was forced out by players in July, citing a drop in sponsors.
The number of official money events has dropped from 34 in 2008 to 28 this year. This comes despite the growing popularity of golf worldwide, and the recent inclusion of the sport in the program for the 2016 Summer Olympics.