It's neat to see Tim Maitland coming out with another feature on Ji-Yai Shin around the same time that Happy Fan awarded her the Seoulie for Heartbreaker of the Year over at the Seoul Sisters blog.
Ji-Yai Shin: You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet!
21-year-old Korean sensation Ji-Yai Shin missed out by one shot on becoming only the second woman ever to win both the LPGA's Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year titles in 2009. As she prepares for the 2010 LPGA season and the defence of her HSBC Women's Champions title in Singapore she does so with the feeling that last year was almost the first backward step in her short career. Tim Maitland reports.
By anyone's standards, Ji-Yai Shin had a great year last year.
She won the rookie title at a canter, finished atop the LPGA's money list with over US$1.8 million, added two other LPGA wins to her HSBC Women's Champions title, which she clinched with two near-faultless rounds of 66 on the weekend, and found time to add another win on the Japan Tour. She missed out on matching Nancy Lopez's achievement in 1978 of claiming the Player of the Year title by one shot on the final hole of the final day of the final tournament.
By anyone's standards, Ji-Yai Shin had a great year--except by the standards she's already set for herself.
"It looks like a really, really great season, but inside--in my golf--it was not perfect," said Shin after another hot day in the subtropical sun of Australia's Gold Coast, following her winter migration from frigid Seoul to prepare for the 2010 season in sub-tropical Queensland.
"To other people it looks like 100 per cent but, for myself, it was a 70 or 75: too many mistakes. In 2008 I was more consistent. There was a really big difference; it was more like 99 out of 100. I've been having really good season each year for the last four or five years. In my three years in Korea my golf was really consistent. Moving to the States and having to travel a lot more, feeling so tired, having some worries about my English and everything, I felt I had big ups and downs."
That feeling is backed up by her stats. In 10 LPGA events in 2008 she had three wins including her first Major at the British Open and six top-ten finishes. In 25 events in her first full-season she had three wins and finished in the top ten 12 times--impressive still, but not at the same pace she set for herself when she first announced herself to the golf world.
"In 2008 she was always close to the lead and a lot of the times she was in the top five going into the last round. That defines how good a season you're having. Not the number of wins," says her caddie of the past two seasons Dean Herden.
"In 2009 we didn't have as many opportunities. The end of the season summed up that she'd played too much golf."
The fact that a 21-year-old can be less than satisfied despite topping the LPGA's money list on her first full season on the tour is a sign of just how much the girl known in Korea as "The Final Round Queen" and "The Little Angel" has achieved in a short career that has seen her become the first woman to win all of Korea's Majors in the same season, smash the Korean LPGA's career earnings record in just 30 tournaments, and become the first Korean in LPGA history to take the LPGA's money-list title.
"To have a slight sense of disappointment after one of the greatest rookie seasons in the history of the LPGA shows how much of her potential Ji-Yai has already realised. Watching her win last year was a treat for Asia's golf fans. I'm sure they're hoping can put on another display like last year's in Singapore this February," said HSBC Group Head of Sponsorship Giles Morgan.
"We had Shin earmarked as a potential winner of the HSBC Women's Champions long before the first tournament was held and the emergence of talented young Asians, the young Koreans and especially her age-group--the Dragon Ladies--was one of the factors considered when we moved our golf sponsorship from the U.S. to Asia. It wasn't a surprise to us when she finished seventh and leading Korean in 2008 and the only surprise about her winning in 2009 was that she was so far behind after two rounds," Morgan added.
The Shin Ji-Yai who emerges when the 2010 season starts with the Asian spring swing in February and returns to Asia in late October will be leaner, fitter and stronger after deciding with McRae on a radical change of approach for her pre-season camp. Gone are the 10-hour days on the driving range that Shin and the rest of her ultra-talented 1988-born Year of the Dragon age-group were weaned on. Instead, her training has been far more focused on physical preparation, so as she and fellow Dragon Lady Ji-Young Oh winter on the Nicklaus-designed Lakelands Golf Club in Merrimac, among the rivers and creeks that wind around behind the beaches that made Surfers Paradise famous, she is spending an unprecedented amount of time without a golf club in her hands. The aim is to avoid a repeat of the agony of losing that player of the year title by failing to birdie the 72nd hole of the season-finale LPGA Tour Championship.
"It was very, very frustrating! I think I was almost in tears when I watched it fall apart," says Ji-Yai’s Australian coach Steve McRae.
"But I knew it was always going to be tough to beat Lorena, given she's such an athlete and very, very fit. Her back end of the year was very good and I knew where Ji-Yai was heading. Basically she was going downward because she had just played too many events and it all caught up with her. It was close and it was exciting, but in one way it was disappointing because she's good enough to have achieved the thing that only Nancy Lopez has done before."
Not only did Ji-Yai run out of steam at the end of 2009 but, again, by her own lofty standards, she was struggling even as the year began. She proves this by her description of her mindset before she stormed around Tanah Merah to win the HSBC Women’s Champions with a weekend of near-perfect shot making. Three weeks before, for the first time in her entire life she had missed a cut--in the season-opening SBS Open in Hawaii--and then had failed to get into contention at the Honda LPGA Thailand.
"I was nervous. I felt pressure. I was afraid," she admits candidly.
"The first and second day [of the HSBC Women's Champions] was so-so. I tried to change my feeling in my body, but my confidence was already gone. My confidence was zero. I realized I had to change my mind[set]. After the Friday round, I decided I had to think about my winning times. I had to find my winning feeling. I needed that and I was thinking a lot on Friday night. On the Saturday the feeling came back. It was a really simple game that day; seven birdies and one bogey. I just made it a simple game. My shots were so good and I made a lot of birdie chances."
The next day she lived up to the "Final Round Queen" nickname by overhauling Katherine Hull despite the Aussie having a three-shot lead at the turn.
"The biggest thing on Sunday was making birdies on the first four holes; a 15-foot putt on the first hole, on the next hole 22 or 23 feet. I missed the green on the third hole, and was trying to make par, but in my practice swing it just felt like I could make it. The hole looked really big. It looked open. The hole was calling my ball 'C'mon, c'mon! Come in!' The next hole, number four, is a tough hole. I hit a five or six iron to about 20 feet, but I had the same feeling. The hole was calling my ball 'Come in!' and when it went in I thought 'Wow! Maybe I can get close to a win today.' I was thinking that already. I had so much confidence in my shots and I got more aggressive and made everything. There were lots of Koreans watching me and Mi-Hyun Kim. They were calling 'nice birdie' and 'good job Ji-Yai' so my feelings got even higher and I kept that good feeling for all 18 holes to win. I felt like the Final Round Queen. My score was telling me that. On Sunday, I had tension, but it was good tension. It can sometime make it hard and cause more pressure, but that Sunday it felt very light. Since winning the HSBC, every time I see one of their banks anywhere in the world I look at the sign and say to myself 'Ah! I won that tournament!' I look around and say 'Oh, there's the HSBC! I won that!'"
Winning in Singapore was, however, a rare highlight in the first half of the season. The problem was that, in starting her season at the ANZ Masters on the Gold Coast, Shin caught a virus that gave her with aching joints and left her physically exhausted. While the symptoms did not linger, in bravely battling through the illness to complete the event in temperatures as high as 35 degrees Celsius her shoulders slumped and stayed that way. Unaware, Shin's normally immaculate ball striking suddenly disappeared, but that wasn't the only result.
"I was having very bad headaches a lot all through the year. Standing up quickly gave me [head] pain. When I got my shoulders loose it was gone. It was interesting. I stopped the massages after the season and in two weeks the headaches came back again, so I knew it was really important for me," she explains.
The problem was only spotted when McRae came onboard as Ji-Yai's coach in June. He immediately sent her to the Tour's physios who confirmed his suspicions and quickly began working on the muscles in her upper back.
"The first massage was at McDonalds and I finished third and had good scores but my hitting was so ugly. At the address I was worried about my impact because it wasn't clean. Once the massage got my shoulders open I had good impact and won the next tournament--the Wegmans--so that was exciting,' says Shin, whose seven-shot victory margin there was one of the year's most dominant performances.
Shin added the P&G Beauty NW Arkansas Championship title in September, beating Angela Stanford and Sun Young Yoo in a play-off after charging from near last on the final day. She won again in sudden death against Yuko Mitsuka and Akiko Fukushima in October at the Japan LPGA Tour’s Masters GC Ladies Open in Hyogo, but time-and-time-again her scores betrayed her fatigue. One characteristic of her game has always been that, as sure as night follows day, she gets stronger as the tournament proceed. In the second half of 2009 the opposite was often true.
"My physical condition was really tired. Usually in Korea we play three rounds and the LPGA is usually four rounds. There's a big difference. In Korea the maximum drive is four hours. In America we once drove for 12 hours from New York to Atlanta and usually you're travelling for 6 or 8 hours," she explains.
McRae goes even further and says that, despite all the accolades showered on his player as she topped the LPGA Money List, tiredness had caught up with her long before the Player of the Year award slipped agonisingly through her grasp.
"She was even close to being done and dusted mid-year. It’s a shame. She got sick in Danville [in September], only played one round and missed the following week, which was a godsend in a way because it made her last to the end of the season. I was hoping she could get two weeks off multiple times, but she had commitments in Japan, commitments in Korea and was playing the LPGA. She should have won at least six extra events last year. She won four, she should have won ten. She was in a position to win them."
To avoid a repetition of 2009 Ji-Yai and her father Jessop, a former lay preacher, are working on a more modest 2010 schedule with more rest. Meanwhile McRae has brought in two Queensland-based specialists in physiotherapist Michael Dalglish and athlete development specialist Richard Nizielski. They have run a three-dimensional biometric analysis of Ji-Yai's physical strengths and weaknesses and designed a programme which Nizielski, a former short-track speed skating world champion and Kung Fu instructor says will ultimately prolong her career at the highest level.
"Anyone who has the qualities to be the world's best will at some point be the world's best, but the question is for how long and will it be with or without injuries? We're getting a good athletic base under Ji-Yai so that in the future she doesn't shorten her career through injury or through not being able to develop technically," says Nizielski.
"It's a long process but in the short-term she'll make good gains. Ji-Yai has amazing determination and mental fortitude and the ability to quickly process and understand what she needs to be doing. A lot of the stuff is new to Ji-Yai and we've noticed it with other Korean golfers we've worked with because until now it's all been about hitting the ball on the range. This is why there hasn't been a Korean player who has hung around at the very top for very long because their mental fortitude can only carry them for so long."
Shin's aim is to shed as much as 10 kilos by the time the LPGA season starts and she's been working on applying some of the new-found strength, coupled with a technical change in her swing to get her weight fully across onto her front foot in her follow through, to address the one glaring weakness in her arsenal--a lack of distance.
"My average drive was 247 yards and I was 98th in the stats," she says with a laugh.
"Hopefully I can get up to 270 yards and inside the top 50 for driving. That's my hope."
McRae has also continued the work he started last year in developing Ji-Yai's conservative approach to bunker play, adding an array of different shots for her to apply in the sand traps.
"Before, I was really good in the bunkers, but I've got better since I got more skills. I just had one type of bunker shot, now I have four or five," Ji-Yai says of the new arrows in her quiver.
All of which begs the question just how good will the Ji-Yai Shin who arrives in Singapore to defend her HSBC Women's Champions title be? Given that she nearly swept the board of LPGA honours despite her fatigue and physical problems, which only added to the relative lack of distance in her game and robbed her of her typical weekend surges, the possibilities must be frightening for some of her rivals such as current world number one Lorena Ochoa and the resurgent Michelle Wie.
McRae, without a hint of being bombastic, thinks her achievements already suggest she is capable of eclipsing those of legends like Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb.
"I actually think she's probably a better player than those two. That's a big thing. Mentally she’s amazing, absolutely amazing. If we get her where she needs to be physically, I think she could be something very, very special. I know Annika was a great player and she won many events and that there are a lot of good players out there now and the competition's tough, but if Ji-Yai commits herself to what she needs to do I think she could create her own greatness. I don't like to try and compare too much to past players, but she may be something special for her era. Don't take it the wrong way, I think Karrie is probably the best golfer, male or female, ever to come out of the Australia, but Ji-Yai really is something special."
Ji-Yai, when asked about her goals, shows the modesty and warmth of personality that has made her a darling of the Korean golf fans.
"My dream is number one in the world. But it feels that my golf has come really fast. Just a few years ago I was just dreaming of playing on the LPGA Tour and then last year I came so close to being Player of the Year. It’s all come so fast," she says, adding that while she may be aiming to end Ochoa's reign as the undisputed queen of women's golf she will never allow it to turn into a personal rivalry with Lorena.
"I really respect her. I'll try to be number one, but I think just inside the golf course is enough. Outside we're friends. I don't like inside the golf course being rivals and outside still rivals. Every season my goal is to be better than the season before. Last season was great because I made my goal, but this year must be better. I want to be more consistent and my main goal is to win Major tournaments. Last year my best was third at the McDonalds, but I really want to win a Major. That's my big, big goal."
As for McRae, he's convinced that the course his player has set out on will lead to a Tigeresque domination of the women’s game.
"Oh yes. For sure! It comes back to a few things that she needs to attend to and she's doing that. She sees where she needs to be. She wants to be the best player she can be over another 10 or 15 years. She's identified where she needs to be better and she's committed to it. She's got the drive and the Tigerish mentality. I can't say she will do it, but I think she will because she's that kind of person. From the time I've spent with her, the things she's done have been amazing. She doesn’t sit back and wait for things to happen. She makes it happen!" he exclaims.
"I think the western world just doesn't realise how good she is," he adds.
Here's a capsule overview of Shin's golfing career from Tim:
Educated: Hampyeong Golf High School, near Gwangju in Chonnam; Yonsei University, Seoul
Major victories: 1 (2008 Ricoh Women's British Open)
LPGA victories: 6
Total victories worldwide: 29
Masters GC Ladies Open (JLPGA)
P&G Beauty NW Arkansas Championship (LPGA)
HSBC Women's Champions (LPGA)
ADT Championship (LPGA)
Mizuno Classic (LPGA/JLPGA)
KB Star Tour in Incheon (KLPGA MAJOR)
Hite Cup Ladies Championship (KLPGA)
Shinsegye Cup KLPGA Championship (KLPGA MAJOR)
Ricoh Women's British Open (LPGA/LET MAJOR)
BC Card Classic (KLPGA)
Taeyoung Cup Korea Women's Open (KLPGA MAJOR)
Woori Investment & Securities Ladies Pro Golf Tournament (KLPGA)
Studio Alice Ladies Open (JLPGA)
Yokohama Tire Golf Tournament PRGR Cup (JLPGA)
China Ladies Open (KLPGA)
Notes: Internationally, Shin made headlines winning her first Major at Sunningdale in Surrey, England, and also by claiming the US$1 million prize at the ADT Championship. At home she earned a 10-year exemption by winning two KLPGA Majors in the same season and became the first woman to do the Grand Slam of Korea's Majors.
ADT CAPS Championship (KLPGA)
Inter-burgo Masters (KLPGA)
Samsung Finance Ladies Championship (KLPGA)
SK Energy Invitational Women's Golf (KLPGA)
KB Star Tour in Chungcheong (KLPGA)
KB Star Tour in Pohang (KLPGA)
MBC Tour BC Card Classic (KLPGA)
Hillstate Seokyung Ladies Open (KLPGA)
MBC Tour MC Square Cup Crown CC Ladies Open (KLPGA)
Notes: Her nine wins in one year wiped one of Se-Ri Pak's long-standing KLPGA benchmarks off the record books. In doing so she took her season earnings past half a million US dollars, another all-time high for the tour. Her career winnings of Korean Won 1,048,596,000 (around US$1,128,296) passed the mark of another LPGA player Il-Mi Chung, but while Chung needed 99 tournaments to accumulate Korean Won 886,835,546 (around US$975,300) Shin bettered her figure playing in just 30 events.
Orient China Ladies Open (KLPGA)
PAVV Invitational (KLPGA)
Taeyoung Cup Korea Women's Open (KLPGA MAJOR)
Notes: Along with the three wins in her KLPGA season, Shin had five second places and finished outside the top 10 only once in 15 tournaments. At the end-of-season awards ceremony she won every title (Player of the Year, Prize Money, Scoring Average, Rookie of the Year and the "Da Seng Wang" award for most wins) except for "best-dressed player."
SK EnClean Invitational (A) (KLPGA)
[Update 1 (1/19/10, 3:31 pm): A version of Tim's story has made it onto LPGA.com!]