Two of South Korea’s brightest new stars are aiming to keep their homeland up late again.
In Gee Chun and Sung Hyun Park, the Korean LPGA Tour’s top stars the last two seasons, will play together in Saturday’s final pairing at the Evian Championship, the year’s final major.
Chun was the KLPGA’s Player of the Year and leading money winner last season. She also won the U.S. Women’s Open, which earned her membership on the American-based LPGA this season. Park is the KLPGA’s biggest star this year, a lock as its Player of the Year with seven tour victories.
A month after Inbee Park kept South Koreans up into the wee morning hours watching the telecast of her Olympic gold medal victory in Rio de Janeiro, there’s reason for Korean golf fans to stay up late again.
Chun shot a 5-under-par 66 Friday at Evian Resort Golf Club, moving to 13 under overall, two shots ahead of Park (68) and China’s Shanshan Feng (67). South Korea’s So Yeon Ryu is also in the mix as she seeks her second major. Ryu, the 2011 U.S. Women’s Open winner, posted 66 and is just three shots back.
Chun, 22, is trying to join Se Ri Pak as the only players to win major championships as their first two LPGA victories since the tour was formed 67 years ago.
“I always try not to think about winning,” Chun said. “Thinking about winning is more pressure. If I play my own game, wins will follow.”
Park is bidding to join Chun and Hyo Joo Kim as KLPGA players who have won major championships as LPGA non-members the last three years. Chun won the U.S. Women’s Open at Lancaster Country Club last year and Kim won the Evian Championship two years ago.
“I’m not greedy, to get the title, but I’m comfortable,” Park said.
Chun was a dynamo on major international stages a year ago. She won five “majors” overall, two KLPGA majors and two Japan LPGA majors.
On the American-based tour this year, Chun has done everything but win.
In 15 starts as an LPGA rookie, Chun has nine top-10 finishes, including three second-place finishes and three third-place finishes.
Chun is second among LPGA pros in scoring (69.78) and second in putts per greens in regulation, trailing only Lydia Ko in both categories. She’s also second in overall ball striking, a category that combines driving distance, driving accuracy and greens in regulation.
“She’s got such an aesthetically pleasing golf swing,” said Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz, who followed Chun Friday as an on-course commentator. “She isn’t short, and she’s awfully accurate.”
Park, 22, is one of the longest hitters in the women’s game. Over the first two rounds at Evian, her average driving distance is 15 yards longer than Lexi Thompson, one of the LPGA’s longest hitters.
“She looks really skinny, but she hits it really long,” said Feng, who was paired with Park the first two rounds. “She's long but accurate. That's really hard to do. And her putting is really good, also. She's a very strong player.”
If Park wins Evian, she could follow the same route Chun and Kim took to the American-based LPGA, taking up membership based on the victory. If Park goes on to win Evian, she has the option of immediately taking up LPGA membership through the remainder of this year and next year. Or, she can defer membership until the start of next year.
Even without a win, Park can still earn LPGA membership next year based on non-member earnings.
In five LPGA starts this year, Park has earned $393,793 in non-member winnings. That would rank 29th on the LPGA money list this week. She’s sure to pad that significantly this week. If Park ends the year with money that would be equivalent to top-40 earnings on the final LPGA money list, she can claim tour membership for 2017.
Park didn’t sign up for LPGA Q-School this year, and she hasn’t said yet whether she is interested in leaving the KLPGA next year for the American-based tour.
Feng said she asked Park this week if she wanted to join the LPGA.
“She was like, `I’m not decided, half and half,’” Feng said.
South Koreans have become a dominant force in women’s majors, but they’ve been shut out so far this year.
South Koreans have claimed at least one major in each of the last five seasons. Coming into this year, they had won 10 of the last 17 majors.
Chun, Park and Ryu are best positioned this weekend to add to the Korean major championship trophy totals.