(Yonhap Feature) For some golfers, it will be about majors, and for others, making strong marks
By John Duerden
SEOUL, Feb. 3 (Yonhap) -- Golf is going from strength to strength in South Korea, to be demonstrated this year when 33 new courses open to take the total number to 468. The rise is partly due to the growing prowess of South Korean golfers on the world stage and as the new golf season gets into its stride, hopes are high for another successful year for both men and women.
For some, success will be measured in the majors, the most prestigious tournaments in the world, with only four up for grabs every year for both men and women. For others, however, it is just about making a mark.
It is impossible to predict if there will be a repeat of the stunning success of Yang Yong-eun (Y.E. Yang) at the 2009 PGA Championships when he defeated the legendary Tiger Woods to become the first Asian man to win a major. One thing, however, is certain: there will be more Korean players challenging than ever before.
Yang, a native of Jeju Island, is one of six South Korean men on the PGA Tour this year along with world's No. 15 Choi Kyoung-ju, better known as KJ Choi, Wi Chang-woo (Charlie), and Kang Sung-hoon. Bae Sang-moon and Noh Seung-yul are making their first appearances on the tour.
The majors make the headlines and make nations excited. The first is the Masters, always hosted in Augusta in April, then comes June and the U.S. Open. The British Open takes place in July and the PGA Championship is held in August.
Yang Yong-eun, also known as Y.E. Yang (Yonhap file photo)
"The obvious candidates are KJ Choi and Y.E. Yang, and they are indisputably good enough," said British golf journalist Nick Bonfield. "Yang's temperament and ability to deal with pressure are first rate and these are two qualities which outweigh golfing ability in the heat of a major. Chances are that he will be in contention for at least one major this season."
Bonfield believes that Choi's game is more suited to the Masters and will be watching out for the star in Augusta in April. "KJ Choi is a fine golfer, with one of the best wedge games on the planet, and victory at the 2011 Players Championship will do wonders for his confidence in the biggest events."
It is not all about the majors, though. For a player like Noh Seung-yeul, 20, on his first PGA Tour season, it is all about progress. He was the youngest ever player to win the Asian Tour Rookie of the Year Award in 2009 and he has been widely tipped to be as a candidate to do the same in the PGA in 2012.
Noh has been working on his swing. He said earlier in January he believes he will have no problems settling into life in the tour, especially with the South Korean contingent to keep him company, and insisted that he is ready for any challenge that lies ahead.
Noh Seung-yeul, to play on PGA Tour for the first time (Yonhap file photo)
"I have been dreaming of playing on PGA Tour since I was so young," said Noh then. "And this year I am starting my dream. I am really looking forward to it. I can't wait to play in my first PGA tournament."
Bae Sang-moon could also impress in his first season on the tour, according to Park Sae-jin, writer with Golf Chosun, who predicted Bae will leave an impression to the golf fans worldwide in 2012.
"He is a long hitter, and very skillful in short games. Also, he is one of very few players who practices after a tournament round until its dark. He even hones his skills when he is leading by a big score," said Park.
While Korean men are rising in golf, Korean women are already a global force. At the turn of the year, of the top 50-ranked women in the world, no less than 18 were from South Korea. It is an astonishing figure and a major would certainly not be a surprise.
Since Pak Se-ri became the first to win such a title in 1998 when she lifted the LPGA Championship trophy, the first of five from the star, South Korea has won 11 more with two coming in 2008 alone.
For the women, there are also four of the big prizes up for grabs. These are the Kraft Nabisco Championship in March in California, June's LPGA Championship, the U.S. Women's Open takes place in Wisconsin this July while the Women's British Open will be played in Liverpool, England, in September.
In 2011, Ryu So-yeon won the Women's U.S. Open. Park believes that 2012 could belong to the runner-up from that tournament, Seo Hee-kyung, currently world No. 33.
Seo Hee-kyung (Yonhap file photo)
"Seo is looking very fine. She was the top player in Korean LPGA league before she went to play in LPGA tour and, she is gaining confidence in playing in the big league," Park said. "I think she is the most likely player to win a major this year."
Bonfield identified world No. 8 Kim In-kyung, sometimes known as IK Kim, as one ready to challenge for the big prizes. "She is still very young, and finished in the top 10 of the LPGA Tour money list last season without a win... Look out for her to move into the top five in the world rankings," he said.