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HanaBank can pave way from Korea to U.S. tour

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INCHEON, South Korea – The HanaBank Championship offers more than a trophy this week for South Korea’s up-and-coming stars.

It offers a golden ticket.

A victory opens the door to the LPGA.

The winner gets a two-year exemption to the LPGA, and while that pass is available to any non-member who wins this week, South Koreans have a history of taking advantage more than anyone else.

Jin Young Ko won last year playing as a Korean LPGA Tour member and used the exemption to join the American-based tour this season. She was the fifth KLPGA pro in the last 15 years to take the fast track to the United States by winning HanaBank Championship, the only regular LPGA event in South Korea.

The event is likely to get attendance rivaling the massive turnout at last week’s UL International Crown, which was played 12 miles down the road.

Beginning next year, South Korea will become host to two regular tour events, with the new BMW Group Korea to be played in Busan.

But, for now, this may be the biggest individual week of the year for the local players.

“For Korean golfers out there who wish to go to the LPGA, the HanaBank would have more significance than a major event of the KLPGA,” Ko said.

The field features seven of the top 10 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, including No. 1 Sung Hyun Park, No. 2 Ariya Jutanugarn, No. 3 So Yeon Ryu and No. 5 Lexi Thompson.

Ko said that chance at LPGA membership ratchets up the pressure yet again on Koreans looking to shine.

As a co-sanctioned event, 12 KLPGA members have earned spots in the field. A small hand full of other KLPGA players are playing on sponsor exemptions.

Seon Woo Bae, who won the Hite Jinro Championship on Sunday, a Korean major, is one of the dozen KLPGA players who qualified. It was her second KLPGA major. This will be her fifth try at winning the HanaBank.

“In the past four years, I didn’t do so well,” Bae said. “But I feel like I’m on a winning streak.”

Koreans have used this fast track to the LPGA as their own personal highway, not just at the HanaBank. In Gee Chun earned LPGA membership winning the U.S. Women’s Open three years ago. Hyo Joo Kim earned LPGA membership winning the Evian Championship four years ago.

“If I win, I would have to have a chat with Jin Young Ko,” Bae said.

Ko’s victory at the HanaBank was dramatic last year. She was grouped with Korean superstars Sung Hyun Park and Chun in the final threesome and outplayed them both to hold on to her 54-hole lead.

“That was really memorable,” Ko said.

Ko is taking advantage of her LPGA opportunity. She won the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open near year’s start and leads the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year standings. She’s looking to become the fourth consecutive South Korean to win that title.

“I am the defending champion,” Ko said, “and I’ve prepared well.”