Ice-cool Korean teenager ready to shake up the world order
As she started the opening event of the LPGA's 2008 season, Korean Shin Ji-yai issued an ominous warning to the world's top golfers. The 19-year-old, already the most dominant player seen on the ultra-competitive Korean circuit, issued a simple statement that could signal the start of a stellar international career.
'I think I am ready to win on the LPGA,' said the teenager who has smashed almost every KLPGA record in just two seasons, having won 10 of the 19 events she entered in 2007.
What should make her words even more chilling to the world of women's golf is that her statement is no arrogant, trash-talking boast. It's based on some simple facts. 'I was sixth at the US Open last year and third at the Evian Masters. I only need to improve a little to win,' she said. 'Last year playing abroad was unfamiliar. I was still nervous being in international tournaments. I've played enough tournaments now and I'm ready to win.'
Shin will only have limited opportunities to make her prophecy come true. After the SBS Open at Turtle Bay, Hawaii, she plans a three-day holiday - 'beaches and shopping' - before heading directly to Singapore to begin preparing early for the HSBC Women's Champions. While she's playing under a sponsor invite in Hawaii, she earned her place in the Champions field through her runaway win on the KLPGA Order of Merit. But she says she'll only play another five or six international events this year, with her focus being what she intends as her final year on the KLPGA.
All of this depends on her earning her card for the LPGA, but that would seem to be a formality. Opening her season in Australia at the beginning of the month she showed that her greatest asset - the dominant last-day performances that have earned her the nickname 'Final Round Queen' - translates well outside her homeland.
She birdied four of the last six holes for a six under par fourth round score at the Australian Open in Melbourne before losing in a play-off to Karrie Webb, and at the ANZ Ladies Masters in Queensland she scored four under on the final day to secure a sixth place finish.
'I like the feeling of the nerves, leading on the last hole with everyone watching me. I won nine times [10 including the co-sanctioned China Ladies Open] last year, but, of those, six times I came from behind in the final round. I am more confident and comfortable in the final round. It's good to know I can do it internationally too.'
'Competitively, she is so mature for her age and under pressure she's as cool as a cucumber. Like most great players on Sunday she finds that extra gear to click into and can go ahead to try and win without any panic,' said veteran caddie Deane Herden, who carried Shin's bag during her fortnight in Australia.
Shin's steely resolve will be tested at the Champions in Tanah Merah, Singapore starting on February 28, when she comes up against one of her role models, Julie Inkster, the veteran American who has won seven major championships.
'I've played with Julie twice. She's my favourite international golfer. She's a golfer and a mother. She is everything and does it very well. When I started golf, Julie won the first tournament I watched on TV.'
Despite her growing stature and attractiveness to sponsors, Shin still operates in relative anonymity - for now at least. 'By the end of the year it will be different,' she says. 'Eventually the LPGA will be my main tour. I've won many times in Korea. Now I want to win bigger tournaments. I've got to try the LPGA and I've got to win.'
Rising star Shin Ji-yai won this many out of 19 events on the Korean tour last year: 10