|(From left, front row) Choi Na-yeon, Cristie Kerr pose with (from left, second row) Paula Creamer, Park In-bee, Suzann Pettersen and Ryu So-yeon during a press conference for the LPGA KEB-HanaBank Championship at the Sky72 Golf Club, Incheon, Monday. (Yonhap News)|
The world’s top two-ranked female golfers will take their battle for season-end honors to South Korea this week, as the LPGA Tour makes its only annual stop in the country in the season’s final stretch.
The Ocean Course at Sky72 Golf Club, near Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, will host the LPGA KEB-HanaBank Championship starting Friday. The 54-hole competition will have a $1.9 million purse.
This is the sixth year that the Ocean Course will stage the LPGA tourney, which started out in 2002 on a different course under a different corporate sponsorship.
Nine different golfers have claimed the tournament, six of them from South Korea. Choi Na-yeon of South Korea, who won in 2009 and 2010, and Suzann Pettersen of Norway, the 2007 and 2012 winner, are the two multiple champions.
This tournament is part of the LPGA Tour’s late-season Asian swing, which covered China and Malaysia, and will wrap up with events in Taiwan next week and Japan early next month. There will be four LPGA tournaments left after this week.
Park In-bee of South Korea, the No. 1-ranked female golfer, is also leading the tour’s money list and the Player of the Year points race. The 25-year-old had a blistering start to the season, winning three straight majors as part of her six victories, but she has cooled off considerably.
Since winning the U.S. Women’s Open at the end of June, Park has recorded just one top-10 finish in seven starts. Her leads in the world rankings, money list and the Player of the Year standings have all dwindled in the past four months, as Pettersen climbed to No. 2 in all three categories.
Pettersen, the defending champ this week, has three victories this year, two of them coming in September. She missed the cut at the U.S. Women’s Open but has since gone in the opposite direction as Park, posting six consecutive top-10s and winning the fifth major of the year, the Evian Championship.
Based on the latest rankings released earlier Monday, Park has 12.13 points to Pettersen’s 10.86. On the money list, Park has made $2.32 million, while Pettersen has earned $1.84 million.
Park has collected 290 points for the Player of the Year honors, with Pettersen trailing with 213 points. Park is trying to become the first South Korean to earn the honors. Golfers are awarded 30 points for a win and 12 points for a runner-up finish, and so forth. Points are doubled for major championships.
Park has visited South Korea for resting and corporate appearances since becoming No. 1, but this will be her first competition on home soil as the top-ranked golfer. At the pre-tournament press conference at the Sky72 Golf Club, Park said she is still trying to learn from other veterans of the tour.
“I may be No. 1, but I still have a lot of work to do,” she said. “I have not been as consistent as Suzann Pettersen or Stacy Lewis (former world No. 1 and the 2012 Player of the Year). That’s why I’ve slowed down in the second half of this year. I will see this week as a learning experience.”
Pettersen counted some fond memories she has of South Korea.
Since winning her last year, she picked up four more LPGA wins and one Ladies European Tour victory.
Asked about her chances of catching Park for major season-end honors, Pettersen said she will try to enjoy herself and let things take care of themselves.
“All I am trying to do is to become the best I can be,” she said. “I love waking up every day trying to get better. I try to approach my game in the most professional way. It’s a pleasure to be out here and be part of the tour. I feel very fortunate doing what I am doing.”
Pettersen has been a professional since 2001 and had her first full LPGA season in 2003. She said it’s become increasingly more difficult to win on the LPGA Tour.
“We have probably the deepest field on the tour compared to when I first came out,” Pettersen said. “It’s harder to win each and every week, and that puts In-bee’s performance in quite a special place. I feel like I’ve had a decent year, and if you do your best, the rest will take care of itself.”
This tournament will be the final LPGA event for the South Korean tour veteran Grace Park.
The 34-year-old, whose Korean name is Park Ji-eun, left the tour in June last year, but will briefly come out of retirement to play one last time before home fans on a special invitation extended by the organizers this week.
Park has six LPGA victories, including her lone major at the 2004 Kraft Nabisco Championship.
Park was part of the first wave of South Korean stars on the LPGA Tour in the late 1990s and early 2000s, alongside the Hall of Famer Pak Se-ri and the 1999 Rookie of the Year Kim Mi-hyun.
Kim retired from professional golf at last year’s LPGA KEB-HanaBank Championship.
Also competing this week will be three more South Koreans in the top 10 in the world rankings: reigning LPGA Rookie of the Year Ryu So-yeon at No. 4, two-time KEB-HanaBank champion Choi Na-yeon at No. 6 and three-time LPGA winner Kim In-kyung at No. 10.
The field will also feature 12 Korean LPGA Tour players, including the current money leader Kim Sei-young. (Yonhap News)