PHOENIX – The LPGA ought to think about setting up a satellite office in Seoul.
South Koreans are looking determined to own this year in women’s golf.
Hyo Joo Kim kept the South Korean flag firmly planted in this LPGA season Sunday holding off Stacy Lewis to win the JTBC Founders Cup.
With a 5-under-par 67 in the final round, Kim fended off bold early charges from one challenger after another on a leaderboard that was tightly bunched on the front nine at Wildfire Golf Club. Her 21-under 267 total ended up being three shots better than Lewis (68) and five better than Ilhee Lee (66), Mi Hyang Lee (68) and Pornanong Phatlum (67).
South Korean or South Korean-born players have won all six LPGA events staged this year.
Na Yeon Choi won the Coates Golf Championship in the season opener. Sei Young Kim won the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic, Lydia Ko the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, Amy Yang the Honda LPGA Thailand and Inbee Park the HSBC Women’s Champions. Choi, Kim, Yang and Park are South Korean. Ko was born in South Korea and moved to New Zealand when she was 6.
Kim, 19, is part of a gifted wave of young South Koreans making up what may be the strongest rookie class the tour has ever seen.
“They’re fearless,” Lewis said.
Hyo Joo Kim was a major championship winner before even taking up LPGA membership. She won the Evian Championship last year while playing the Korean LPGA Tour, where she was the Rookie of the Year in 2013. She claimed LPGA membership at the start of this season by virtue of that Evian victory. Though she’s considered a rookie, Kim started this week No. 8 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings. She will move up to No. 4 this week.
“She put a lot of pressure on and was just solid all day,” Lewis said.
Kim wasn’t alone among South Koreans taking a lofty world ranking into their LPGA rookie season.
Remarkably, four rookies from South Korea started this year ranked higher than major championship winner Paula Creamer.
Ha Na Jang, who just missed a putt to force a playoff with fellow countrywoman Na Yeon Choi at the season opening Coates Golf Championship, is No. 21 in the world. Sei Young Kim is No. 22. Q Baek, who many South Koreans expect to make a big impact this year, is No. 12. They’re all proven winners in their homeland.
“I have known these players since we played the Korean ladies tour,” Kim said through a translator. “I know how good they can be. In fact, everyone on the LPGA is really good, otherwise they wouldn’t be here. I’m just trying to find my place.”
At one point on the front nine, six players were within a shot of Kim. The back nine turned into a duel between Kim and Lewis.
Kim was two shots ahead of Lewis stepping to the 10th tee, but she looked like she might open a door to Lewis there. After hitting her drive under a tree to start the back nine, Kim asked for relief from a “dangerous situation.” A large beehive hung near the top of the tree. Kim was denied relief. She appealed, but she was denied again. After punching out, Kim made bogey, allowing Lewis to move within a shot of her.
“I wasn’t frustrated,” Kim said of the ruling. “If anything, I was just scared of the bees.”
Sensing an opening, Lewis picked up her game, but Kim kept answering all the good shots Lewis made. Lewis birdied the 12th, 13th and 15th holes and didn’t pick up a shot.
“I fought like crazy,” Lewis said. “That back nine was pretty cool, the way we made birdies back and forth and on top of each other.”
Finally, at the 16th hole, Lewis narrowed the gap, but she had to hit a stellar shot to do so. After watching Kim carve her approach shot there to 7 feet, Lewis hit hers to 4 feet, making her birdie putt after Kim missed.
Kim wouldn’t waver again. In fact, she slammed the door on Lewis with a birdie at the very difficult 18th, where a tough hole location yielded just six birdies all day. Lewis made a good play from a divot in the fairway to give herself a 30-foot birdie chance, but she three-putted for bogey, giving Kim her three-shot margin of victory.
Lewis made four birdies in a six-hole stretch on the back nine.
Kim made five birdies over the final eight holes.
“In the morning, I wasn't concentrating on winning, because I was playing with Stacy Lewis,” Kim said. “I’m a rookie. I just felt that by playing with her, I would learn a lot from her. So, I was just trying to make a good impression.”
Kim did more than that.