It’s been a decade, just long enough to forget how good she was. From August of 2008 until exactly 10 years ago, February 17, 2013, Jiyai Shin won 11 times on the LPGA Tour, including two major championships. She won three times in four months as a 20-year-old before becoming an LPGA Member, victories that included the AIG Women’s Open and the ADT Championship, which, at the time, offered the largest first-place prize in women’s golf with $1 million to the winner. No player in history had ever done that.
For 25 weeks in 2010 and 2011 she was the No.1 player in the Rolex Rankings Women’s World Golf Rankings, the first Korean ever to reach the top spot. In the process, she beat future No.1 Yani Tseng head-to-head three times; she beat LPGA Hall-of-Famer Karrie Webb by a shot for that $1 million check at the ADT; she beat Morgan Pressel and Lexi Thompson by a shot to win at Evian before that event became a major; she thumped Inbee Park by a whopping 9 shots in brutal conditions to win the AIG Women’s Open; and she outlasted Paula Creamer in a 9-hole sudden death playoff at Kingsmill that extended well into Monday, the longest overtime in LPGA Tour history.
Then, just like that, Jiyai Shin was gone. She resigned her LPGA Membership before the start of the 2014 season and headed back to Asia to be close to her father. There she played mostly in Japan where she won a total of 28 times, the most recent coming in 2021. Combine all of that with her 21 KLPGA wins – 20 of which occurred before her 21st birthday and before she accepted LPGA Tour Membership – and Shin might be the best player in history that most modern golf fans don’t know.
That’s what made her victory on Sunday, February 12 in Australia so gratifying. When Shin, now age 34, ground out a final-round 71 in gusty conditions at 13th Beach Golf Links in Victoria to win the women’s division of the Vic Open by five shots, it introduced one of the game’s great champions to a new generation while reminding those who saw her in her prime what a gritty star we once knew.
“Finally, I won in Victoria. I’m so happy for this,” Shin said after her 62nd worldwide win. “Finally, I did it. I have a good reason to come back.”
We also have a good reason to celebrate. Many golf fans missed Shin’s brilliance when she was a bespectacled girl in her early twenties, hoisting trophies around the world with a huge smile that hid a pain most cannot imagine. Now is a time to remember.
Kids who lose a parent young eventually hit a crossroads. Some turn left and rebel, loosening their anger on everyone around them until they settle into an average life full of arms-length relationships and regret. Others turn right and attempt to beat down the pain through overachievement, always striving for the next victory in the hopes that it will fill the void.
When she was just 16 years old, Jiyai lost her mother in a car accident. Her brother and sister were seriously injured and spent the better part of a year in the hospital.
In that instant, Jiyai turned right. With funding from her mother’s life insurance policy, she drove herself to excel on the golf course. The golf gods didn’t bless her with the physical gifts of a player like Se Ri Pak, who looked more like a track-and-field Olympian than a golfer, but at 5’2” and of average build, Shin made up for her physical shortcomings with a grit that comes from having nowhere else to go.
In 2005, with her brother and sister still recovering, Shin won her first KLPGA event while still in high school. She was the KLPGA Rookie of the Year and “Best Amateur” for that season. The next year, she won three times and captured the money title.
Those seasons looked average compared to what Shin did in 2007. At age 19, barely two years after acing high school algebra, Jiyai played in 19 KLPGA events. She won 10 of them, beating players like Cristie Kerr, Na Yeon Choi, Eun-Hee Ji and Tseng among a wealth of others. It was the most dominant performance on any tour in the world. Throw in the fact that she finished sixth at the U.S. Women’s Open and third at Evian and, just like that, Shin vaulted to No. 8 in the Rolex Rankings, the highest non-LPGA member and the only Korean in the top 10.
At age 20, when she won her first AIG Women’s Open, she became the first non-member to capture that major in 21 years since Laura Davies in 1987. That same season, Shin captured the KLPGA Player of the Year and money title for the second year in a row. She also won twice on the Japan LPGA before accepting LPGA Membership.
In 2009, Shin won three times on the LPGA Tour and once more in Japan, capturing the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year award in a runaway.
Within a year, she would be the No.1 player in the world.
But something seemed off. The victories brought happiness, but not joy. The travel was educational and exciting, and the applause and accolades sent shots of dopamine and serotonin through her system, but no trophy could replace a mother’s touch; no praise from a fan could match the “I love yous” she would never hear again.
Shin had always been a Christian, but like most, her faith went through peaks and valleys. As her father remarried and her siblings regained their health, Shin realized that the mom-sized hole in her heart could only be filled by God. She attended fellowship services on tour, and even cut a Christian album called “Blessed be the Lord God Almighty.” It’s in Korean, but her singing voice would make her a finalist on most talent shows these days.
Many Westerners don’t realize that Christianity is the dominant religion in South Korea. One of Asia’s oldest Catholic churches, Myeongdong Cathedral, is just a few blocks from Gyeongbokgung Palace – Lydia Ko was married there in December 2022 – and the largest Protestant megachurch in the world, Full Gospel Church with 800,000 congregants, is on Yeouido Island in Seoul. In Christian circles on the LPGA Tour, Jiyai was a bridge between East and West. She prayed with players hailing from Busan and Baton Rouge, from Jeju Island and Jackson, Mississippi. Race, nationality and language were irrelevant. In her eyes all were sisters and brothers in Christ.
That faith led her to another decision, one that left many scratching their heads. After vaulting to the top of the world, blazing a trail for a cadre of Korean players to follow, Shin walked away from the LPGA. Since 2013, she has played primarily in the Japan where she has won 22 times since 2014.
“The U.S. LPGA flies all over the world,” Shin said shortly after making the move. “That’s a good thing, but it’s a tough thing. In Japan, there’s much less travel. It was so exciting (getting to No.1 in the world), and I was so happy. But I think that time came to me a little bit early. It felt like I lost my passion, because I already made all my goals, and I didn’t set another target or goal. I was enjoying it, but I lost the hunger.”
What she gained was perspective. Jiyai Shin gave up fame for family. She forwent fortune for friendships that have nothing to do with numbers on a leaderboard. The Christ she worships said, “Wherever you store your treasure, there your heart shall be also.” No matter your beliefs, that proverb rings true. And with another victory under her belt at the Vic Open, no one doubts that Jiyai Shin’s heart remains in the right place.