Ye Golf Gods, I apologize for my lack of faith. Until it was official on Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship, I remained steadfast that something, somehow would happen to derail the dream of Ariya Jutanugarn winning the 2016 LPGA Player of the Year title. But as the holes dwindled down and it became clear that 19-year old world #1 Lydia Ko was not going to win the tournament, which was the only way Jutanugarn could be denied, I began to reflect on what a breakthrough season it has been for the 20-year old from Thailand. May (her nickname) began her run of good play in the month of May, sweeping all three LPGA events that month. In doing so, she became the first player to make her first three LPGA career wins in consecutive events. She would go on to add two more wins in 2016, including her first Major at the Ricoh Women’s British Open, to finish the year with 5 victories. I don’t want to get too much into May’s year because I will be doing my annual player countdown. I will save something for that. However, I do want to congratulate Ariya Jutanugarn for winning her first Player of the Year award, along with the Race to the CME Globe title (and the bonus money that comes with that award) and the overall money list title. Wow. I always believed in her talent, but I’d be lying if I said I thought this is how 2016 would end. I am so happy to be wrong.
Once upon a time, Hee-Kyung Seo gave a Rookie of the Year speech where she told then-world #1 Yani Tseng that “objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” That was 2011. Now, Hee-Kyung Seo is back in Korea raising her family and Yani has precipitously dropped off in results. While Hee-Kyung’s words did not prove to be prophetic, I would caution world #1 Lydia Ko and world #2 Ariya Jutanugarn to take a look in their rear-view mirror. That object quickly gaining on them is 22-year old In-Gee Chun. Chun, who won her 2nd LPGA Major at the 2016 Evian Championship, outdueled Lydia Ko to the very last hole of the season to edge out the Korean Kiwi for the 2016 Vare Trophy, awarded for lowest scoring average. Chun finished at 69.583 to Ko’s 69.596 (Jutanugarn was 3rd at 69.870). In-Gee, nicknamed Dumbo, adds that to her 2016 Rookie of the Year award. As long as In-Gee can avoid any wayward, runaway luggage, she should be a serious threat to Lydia, May, Brooke Henderson and anybody else vying for top honors in 2017.
Let me not forget on this day to congratulate the winner of the 2016 CME Group Tour Championship, 20-year old Charley Hull. I like Charley’s free-spirited personality, but I have to admit that I was a bit deflated when So-Yeon Ryu, one of my favorites, found the bunker on 17 and was forced to go sideways to get out, ultimately bogeying and effectively surrendering the title to Hull, who birdied for a two shot swing (they were tied at 18-under going into 17). Hull would finish at 19-under to Ryu’s 17-under. Ko is 19. Hull is 20. Jutanugarn will be 21 in a few days on November 23rd. Chun is 22. The average age of LPGA winners in 2016 was 23 years old. This is a very good sign for the tour with a number of potential rivalries that could shape the next 5 to 10 years. However, despite what they might say publicly, I have to believe the powers that be at the LPGA are somewhat uneasy that only Lexi Thompson and Brittany Lang were American winners this year, both taking one title. The American golf media seems to treat Canadian Brooke Henderson like an American star, so perhaps that’s their consolation. As an American of half-Thai heritage, I would certainly like to see more homegrown winners, but it’s not entirely necessary as my favorites are global. But I understand that Americans playing well helps the tour.
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CHARLEY HULL, 2016 CME Group Tour Championship winner
IN-GEE CHUN, 2016 Vare Trophy winner and Rookie of the Year
ARIYA JUTANUGARN, 2016 Player of the Year, Race to CME Globe winner, Money List winner and Heather Farr Perseverance Award winner