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Sunday, 29 June 2014

Koihime Musou Girls and Famous Koreans, Part IX: Zhang Xun and Jang Jeong

Jang Jeong (Hangul/Hanja/Nickname: 장정/張晶/JJ) is a South Korean professional golfer who plays on the U.S.-based LPGA Tour. She is also a member of the LPGA of Korea Tour. She was born in Daejeon Metropole on June 11th 1980. She is a member of Indong Jang Clan (인동 장씨/仁同張氏), a clan which is originated from the administrative precinct of Indong-dong, Gumi City, Northern Gyeongsang Province.

Jang Jeong started playing golf late, at the age of 13. Like her fellow Daejeon native Pak Se-ri (whom she knew quite well when they were both junior players), she quickly became one of the top amateur players in the country. Among her big early successes was a victory at the 1997 Korean Open and membership on the 1998 World Amateur Championship team, representing Korea; she also finished fourth individually in that event.

In 1999, she came over to America to try her luck on the LPGA. Only 19, she qualified for the tour on her first try. Her rookie year of 2000 was a fairly successful one. She managed 5 top tens, including a second place at the Safeway Championship. In this tournament, JJ was vaulted into the lead when Kim Mi-hyun had a triple bogey on the second to last hole. But Mi-hyun managed a clutch birdie on 18, and then beat her good friend Jang in a playoff after several more holes. Jang also had a 65, her career best score, in 2000.

The next couple of years, she struggled to match the form she showed in 2000. In 2001 she had some injuries from practicing too much (sounds like the kind of injury a Korean player would get!). She only managed a single top ten. 2002 was a bit of a comeback year for her. The highlight of the year was no doubt her great fourth place finish at the British Open, which included a fantastic 66 on the third day. This contributed to her career best money total, and a finish of 34th on the money list.

2003 proved an even better year for JJ. She managed top 21 finishes in all four Majors, and was in position to contend at the US Women's Open on Sunday when a disastrous 8 on a par 3 hole scuttled her chances. She still wound up 6th, however. That and 5 other top tens contributed to her career bests in scoring average and position on the money list (25th).

As good as 2003 was, 2004 was a real breakout year for Jeong. She managed an impressive 9 top tens during the year, and once again notched top 25 finishes in all four Majors. She had by far her best finish on the money list, 12th, which was only one spot behind Pak Se-ri in 2004. She also had her second career 2nd place finish, broke her best professional round by three shots when she shot a 62 at the Longs Drugs Challenge, and had her first sub-71 scoring average for a season. Indeed, you could argue that she established herself as an elite player on tour with her performance in 2004.

But as great as her 2004 season was, her 2005 season was far, far better. Although her scoring average was not quite as good, she improved in almost every other category. She credited her improvement to a new, intense workout regimen that saw her driving distance increase noticeably. Thanks in part to that, in 2005 she notched an incredible 15 top tens, 8 of which were top fives. She put herself in contention often. She broke a million dollars in earnings for the season and finished fifth on the money list for the year, making her the top Korean on tour in 2005. Most notably of all, she won her first event, and it was a doozy: the 2005 Women's Weetabix British Open, the final Major of the year. Thus she joined Pak Se-ri, Grace Park Ji-eun and Birdie Kim Joo-yeon as the only Koreans to ever win Majors. She also led Korea to a second place finish in the Women's World Match play event, and contributed to Korea's tie with Japan in the Pinx Cup at the end of the year.

In 2006, JJ picked up where she left off, playing perhaps a little worse on average, but still putting together a fair number of good finishes. But for a long while, she seemed unable to get that second win. At the ShopRite she played well, but nobody was going to beat Lee Seon-hwa that week. She had a three shot lead at Corning going into the final round, but had a terrible Sunday and finished out of the Han Hee-Won/Meena Lee playoff. Her luck finally turned around at the Wegman's LPGA. She hung back the first two rounds, but on day three she surged to the lead, then battled tenacious rookie Brittany Lang on Sunday, coming out eventually with her second win.

Later in 2006, JJ achieved another milestone. Invited to play in the Japan Women's Open, a major on the JLPGA tour, she won in wire to wire fashion. She was one of the few in the field who handled the terrible conditions the players faced, conditions similar to the ones she had dealt with at the 2005 British Open. She ended up collecting 14 top tens on the LPGA tour in 2006, the most of any Korean player. JJ continued to be one of the very best Korean golfers in the world for a second straight year.

JJ started 2007 off more slowly than she had in years past. Her putting, normally one of her strengths, was the main culprit. But as the summer progressed, she started to return to form: she garnered a top five in defense of her title at Wegman's, made a top ten at the US Women's Open, and nearly won the Evian Masters, losing in a playoff. Once again, she was among the top Koreans on tour.

JJ started slowly again in 2007; she did not make her second top ten until she defended her title in Rochester in late June. She did not do that well at the Majors, other than the US Women's Open, where she finished tied for eighth. But she did much better in the second half of the year. The highlight was when she got into a playoff for the title at the Evian Masters, losing to Natalie Gulbis on the first playoff hole. She would not win during the season for the first time since 2004, but still made over a million bucks and finished 7th on the money list.

She also played on the Kyoraku and Lexus Cup teams. At the Kyoraku, the two teams were tied at the end of the week, requiring a playoff. On the third playoff hole, JJ needed to make a short par save to keep the match going, but missed, allowing Japan to capture the cup for the first time in years.

In 2008, JJ struggled with a persistent wrist problem that greatly hampered her all season. Doctors were worried about operating on it, for fear of making things worse. Despite these problems, she had another strong season. She nearly won the second event of the year, finishing second, and had three more straight top three finishes in May, narrowly missing collecting her third and possibly fourth victories during that stretch. In the end, she did not win in 2008, but still made over a million dollars for the year and finished 12th on the money list, the best finish for a veteran Korean in 2008.

In 2009, JJ finally took time off to get that much needed wrist operation. As a result, she missed much of the season. She was back in action in time for the Wegman's in Rochester in June. She only played a few events the rest of the season, her best finish being a 12th place in Portland. She was back on tour full time in 2010, but the wrist still periodically caused her trouble. Still, she made enough money to finish 41st on the money list, easily recapturing full status on tour. Her best result came at the Evian Masters, where she finished 8th.

JJ missed the entire 2011 season, but it was far from an uneventful year for her. In April, she married Lee Jun-sik, a former Korean PGA member who had retired from the game to become a golf instructor. A few months later, they announced that they were expecting, and the happy couple had a daughter, Seul Samantha Lee, in late October.

JJ played a few times in 2012 when she was not suffering from a wrist problem or taking care of her newborn son. She achieved three top 15s as her best finishes and made about $100,000 all year, finishing 78th on the money list. She maintained her full status for 2013. In 2013, JJ made only five cuts all year, although one of those was a top five at the ShopRite Classic. She finished 91st on the money list, good only for partial status for 2014.