2013 was a fantastic year on the JLPGA. Thanks to PhilK_NJ over at Seoul Sisters.com, non-Japanese speakers now can see how 2 youtube channels devoted to the JLPGA covered 2013. But since they're in Japanese, here are my top stories of the season!
Rikako Morita and Mamiko Higa Lead Japanese Youth Movement. The JLPGA is a tour that's been dominated by experienced players for most of the 21st century, from the legendary Yuri Fudoh and her main rival Akiko Fukushima to their top challengers who have now become veteran superstars in their own right, such as Sakura Yokomine, Mi-Jeong Jeon, Ji-Hee Lee, and Shiho Oyama. It's also seen global superstars from other tours like Sun-Ju Ahn, Ji-Yai Shin, Inbee Park, Bo-Mee Lee, and Shanshan Feng breeze in and dominate right off the bat. Meanwhile, top new Japanese talents like Ai Miyazato, Mika Miyazato, Momoko Ueda, Chie Arimura, and Ayako Uehara decided to focus on the LPGA at different stages in their careers.
So it's a huge deal that Rikako Morita (23) won the money title (beating out Yokomine by less than 2 million yen) and Mamiko Higa (20) won Rookie of the Year in 2013. Morita did it in style, too, winning her 4th title of the year the week after Yokomine won hers, leapfrogging her back into the top spot on the money list in the next-to-last event of the year. Overall, Morita played well in bunches, starting the season with a bang by winning the Daikin Orchid Ladies (in a playoff over--you guessed it--Yokomine!) and following it up with a silver and a pair of bronzes in an opening run of 5 top 10s, then getting 2 wins, a silver, and 2 bronzes in 6 starts midway through the season, and finishing the season strong with a pair of top 5s at and after the Japan Women's Open and by sandwiching her final victory between a T10 and a 12th-place finish.
But Morita and Higa were just the tip of the iceberg. Natsuka Hori (21) and Yuki Ichinose (25) won early in the season (Hori got another in June), while Misuzu Narita (21) joined them in the winner's circle mid-way through; they were joined in the top 25 on the money list by Erika Kikuchi (25), Kumiko Kaneda (24), and Mayu Hattori (25). Harukyo Nomura (21) made it 9 Japanese youngsters in the top 30 and there were 16 in the top 50. Compare that to the numbers of South Koreans a few paragraphs down and you'll see what a big deal this is!
Don't Call it a Comeback: Sakura Yokomine Takes Player of the Year; Shiho Oyama Wins for 1st Time Since 2011. As noted above, Sakura Yokomine came within about 2 million yen of taking the money title for the 2nd time in her illustrious career. How illustrious, you ask? Well, she's poised to become the 2nd golfer in JLPGA history to break the 1 billion yen barrier in career winnings! With her 4 wins this season, Yokomine has caught Mi-Jeong Jeon at 22 career JLPGA victories and pulled well ahead of Ji-Hee Lee (17). She capped off the season by winning Player of the Year. Oyama, meanwhile, knocked on the door all season and finally busted it down in the final tournament and final major of the year, garnering her 1st win since 2011, her 3rd major, and her 13th win on tour.
Mika Miyazato Wins Japan Women's Open for 2nd Time. Mika Miyazato had a tough year on the LPGA, as she struggled with her putting mightily early in the season and couldn't seem to sustain runs of good play, but you can't say you had a bad year when you win the Japan Women's Open for the 2nd time in the last 4 years! The fact that she made an amazing walkoff birdie putt to take the title made it all the sweeter.
Seoul Sisters Struggle. Sure, Sun-Ju Ahn came back to finish 4th on the season-ending money list and Bo-Mee Lee joined her in the top 10 at #7, but that's the smallest number of golfers from South Korea in the JLPGA top 10 since Mi-Jeong Jeon stood alone in 2007. Even more telling, Rikako Morita's winning the money title marked the 1st-non-Korean to accomplish that feat since Sakura Yokomine did it in 2009. It's not like the Seoul Sisters disappeared, though. Na-Ri Lee won twice and finished #11 on the money list, last year's money-list title-holder Mi-Jeong Jeon ended up at #12, and Da-Ye Na squeaked into the top 20 thanks to her 1st JLPGA victory. In all, there were 9 Seoul Sisters in the top 30 and 12 in the top 50, including Soo-Yun Kang and Young Kim, who also broke through for their 1st JLPGA victories this season.
Global Stars Fight for 2014 Membership. It came down to the wire for Momoko Ueda and Ji-Yai Shin, but they both squeaked into the top 50 on the 2013 money list, Ueda in the next-to-last event of the year and Shin in the last. Soon after securing membership for 2014, they each announced they were going to focus much more (Shin) or exclusively (Ueda) on the JLPGA.
Teresa Lu Breaks Through. It took her 4 years on the LPGA and 4 more on the JLPGA, but Teresa Lu finally found a way to win on both tours for the 1st time when she took the Mizuno Classic. Lu finished 2nd 4 times, in the top 5 9 times, and in the top 10 15 times in 2013, so it's no surprise she ended up #3 on the JLPGA money list with nearly 95 million yen in winnings and a 70.94 scoring average. It'll be interesting to see how she decides to split her time between the LPGA and JLPGA in 2014, given that Shin and Ueda have decided to focus on the JLPGA while Harukyo Nomura decided to join the rest of the Japanese LPGAers in prioritizing the Big Tour.
Yumiko Yoshida Has Career Year. The 26-year-old had a breakthrough year in 2013, winning 3 times and finishing 5th on the money list. Yoshida had gotten her 1st victory last season and finished in the top 20 on the money list for the 1st time in her 6th season on tour, but it was her 7th season that turned out to be the charm. In addition to her 3 victories, Yoshida got 2 silvers and a bronze, finishing in the top 5 10 times. Her scoring average of 71.26 was by far the lowest in her career. Let's see if she can top it in 2014.
Miki Saiki Establishes Herself Definitively Among JLPGA's Finest. With her back-to-back victories in 2013, Saiki extended her winning streak on the JLPGA to 4-straight seasons, a streak during which she finished on the top 10 in the money list every year, as well. In fact, in her 7 seasons on tour, she's never finished outside the top 20 on the money list and is now #25 on the career money list. Saiki started the season with a bang, as her 2 wins came in the midst of a 6-event top 10 streak and a 12-event run in which she finished no worse than T21. Although she cooled off a bit in the 2nd half of the season, her best chance for her 1st major title came during the Japan Women's Open, where she finished T2 behind Mika Miyazato. Next step for the 7-time winner on tour is to get that 1st major!
So here are the top Japanese golfers in the Rolex Rankings in the run-up to determining who'll play in the International Crown this year:
#21 Ai Miyazato
#22 Mika Miyazato
#35 Sakura Yokomine
#38 Rikako Morita
#44 Miki Saiki
#49 Shiho Oyama
#51 Mamiko Higa
#52 Yumiko Yoshida
#66 Chie Arimura
#82 Ritsuko Ryu
#83 Yuki Ichinose
#84 Ayako Uehara
#87 Yuri Fudoh
#96 Mayu Hattori
#100 Natsuka Hori
The top 4 will be determined on Monday, March 31, 2014, at the Kraft Nabisco Championship. The competition's going to be fierce! There'll be 4 JLPGA events before then, but I expect many of these players to get into at least some of the LET and LPGA events in late January and February in an effort to climb the rankings quickly.