The Huskies have won three consecutive events and solidified their status as the nation’s No. 1 team, and Yang has led the team in scoring in all three events, including her first career win last week in the Bay Area Invite.
For 3½ years, senior Jennifer Yang was overshadowed on the Washington women’s golf team.
That is what happens when you are soft-spoken and your longtime friend and teammate is SooBin Kim, who had one of the better careers in the program’s history and started this season as the top-ranked college player in the country.
But this winter, Kim and super freshman Jing Yan left the Huskies at midseason to join the LPGA Tour, leaving the top-ranked Huskies with just five players.
Jennifer Yang file
Hometown: Busan, South Korea
High school: Gleneagle Secondary School (Coquitlam, B.C.)
UW highlights: 15 top-10 finishes is sixth-most in school history. Second-team All-Pac 12 as a junior. Has finished in the top five in five of seven events this year.
Did you know: Ranked No. 22 in the GolfWeek rankings. Ranked No. 100 in the World Amateur rankings.
UW coach Mary Lou Mulflur was at a national meeting of coaches when her top two players turned pro. Opposing coaches came to her and offered condolences, assuming the Huskies were in for a big fall.
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They were wrong.
Led by Yang, who Mulflur said “is as consistent as any player I have ever coached,” the Huskies have thrived. With Yang leading the way, they have won three consecutive events and solidified their status as the nation’s No. 1 team.
Yang has led the team in scoring in all three events, including her first career win last week in the Bay Area Invite.
“It didn’t really hit me at that moment,” Yang said of her first win in the 15th top-10 performance of her career. “But when I got congratulatory messages from family and friends, it was like, ‘Yeah, I won.’ It felt really great.”
It’s pretty heady stuff for Yang, who moved with her family from South Korea to a Vancouver, B.C., suburb when she was 9 and began golfing only to hang out with her older brother. She was 11 and went with him to the driving range.
“I was just following him along to hit balls on the range,” she said. “I had no idea I was any good, but my first coach told my parents, ‘You should have her play in competitive tournaments.’ I just enjoyed hitting balls and seeing the ball fly.”
At 13, she played in her first tournament, keeping score for the first time. She shot a 96.
“I didn’t know if that was good or bad, I just hit the ball. But my coach was surprised I didn’t shoot over 100,” she said.
A star was in the making, and she didn’t have to look far to find a friend who also had great potential. She and Kim started playing golf at about the same time, so they knew each other before attending Gleneagle Secondary School together in Coquitlam, B.C.
Yang said there was no pact between the two that they would go to the same college. It just worked out that way.
When Kim left the team in December after earning full status on the LPGA Tour, Yang had mixed emotions.
“As a team it was hard, because we were losing two great players,” she said of Kim and Yan. “But as a friend, and as a golfer, I was really happy for (Kim). It was a great opportunity for her. I would have done the same thing. I was more happy for her than sad that she was leaving.”
Yang said she was not worried that the team would suffer a lot, because good players would be replacing Kim and Yan in the lineup. And players no longer are competing against each other to be among the five who travel.
The group also has great experience: Cyd Okino is a senior, Charlotte Thomas and Ying Luo are juniors, and Eimi Koga is a sophomore. Remarkably, the five players are nearly equal in scoring average, with Yang leading the way at 72.2, followed by Luo at 72.4, Koga at 72.6 and Thomas and Okino at 72.9.
“It wasn’t like we were going to have weak fourth and fifth players,” Yang said. “We are all solid players, so we really weren’t worried. Other teams and the media said, ‘They lost two great players, so they are in trouble,’ but we thought we were fine.
“We were bonding more. It was, ‘Let’s show them what we can do.’ We didn’t expect this (three consecutive victories), but we are really happy with the results.”
That Yang is in position to lead the team stems from her willingness to make a big change. Despite two solid seasons to begin her career at UW, Yang wasn’t satisfied.
“My biggest problem was distance,” she said. “I was hitting it short. And I realized if I stayed here (with her game), I wouldn’t really improve much.”
So, she went to a new coach “and made a big change over the summer break.” She changed to a more solid grip, changed her swing plane and began working out to get stronger.
“When I first made the change, I couldn’t hit the ball straight, it was hooking everywhere,” she said. “But I knew I needed this change. So I just trusted it and kept working on it.”
That work paid off, and she added about 20 yards of distance with her driver. Already a good putter who was accurate with her irons, the improvement was dramatic.
In her junior year, she lowered her scoring average from 74.91 to 72.51, which was the third-lowest in school history, and she has been even better this season.
She plans to turn professional after the season, something she said she never could have envisioned when she was 11, and went to the driving range to follow her brother.
But before taking the next step in her career, she has one more thing to do at UW.
“Winning the national title is the goal for us,” she said.