They Can Play Golf
If you follow the LPGA tour, or even if you just accidentally click on an LPGA tournament, one thing becomes very clear. There is a noticeable presence of women pro golfers from South Korea. They are often leading or are at least in the top 5 of the tournament. There are nearly as many women pro golfers from South Korea in the LPGA Top 100 money list as there are from the United States, and together they make up more than half of the Top 100. So yes, Korean LPGA Golfers can play golf.
Their presence has been growing on the LPGA tour for the last 15 years. The first Korean women golfer to win an LPGA tournament was Woo-Soon Ko in 1994. She won the Toray Japan Queen's Cup tournament in 1994 and 1995, winning it the first time at the age of 30. Then along came Se Ri Pak in 1998 when she won 4 tournaments, including the 1998 LPGA US Open at the age of 20 becoming the youngest ever winner of this major LPGA tournament.
Planting the Seed of Inspiration
Se Ri Pak planted the seed of inspiration in 1998 for young daughters of South Koreans. In addition to winning the US Open that year she won the LPGA Rookie of the Year award. But it was her dramatic win in the 1998 US Open that captured the hearts and minds of young Korean girls from this small country about one third the size of the state of California, USA.
This was big news in South Korea. Se Ri became an instant national heroine in South Korea. Her riveting performance in the 1998 LPGA US Open was watched by thousands of young Korean girls and their families. Inspirational impact was immediate instigating the wave of Korean women pro golfers coming to the LPGA that continues today.
Se Ri set the standard in her country and the LPGA US Open became the biggest golf tournament in the world for South Koreans. South Korean golfers tend to focus on this tournament explaining the great success they have in winning this particular LPGA tournament. Since Se Ri’s stunning victory in 1998, Korean LPGA golfers have won 7 of the 17 US Open tournaments played through 2015. Michelle Wie, an American born South Korean, won in 2014.
Se Ri Pak Put South Korea on the Golfing World Map
Se Ri has been enormously successful, winning 25 LPGA tournaments and an additional 14 Korean LPGA tournaments to date. She has been in the LPGA Top 10 Money List numerous times, but admittedly sort of hit a wall for a year or so during her prime. She was a great athlete, having excelled in track and field as well as golf when she was a teenager. A strong player, she was considered a long hitter, but some how lost her swing in 2005. She struggled with her game for most of the 2005 tournament season.
Claiming burn out, Se Ri stepped away from golf for a while. A broken finger forced her to take some time off. She took up mountain climbing, kick boxing, and taekwando. After several months of being away from the game she started intensely working on her golf swing again, spending many days at the driving range from dusk to dawn. In 2006 she started to get her game back. Hard work payed off once again.
Se Ri beat Karrie Webb of Australia in the 2006 McDonald’s LPGA Championship on a playoff hole where she put her second shot within inches of the hole and tapped in for a bird to win the
match. This was arguably won of the best comebacks in sports history. She hasn’t won a tournament since 2010, but has been in the top 4 at several major tournaments.
Now considered an LPGA elder, Se Ri has been voted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. She admits to being much more relaxed and at piece with herself now. Things are much more laid back, but she still enjoys being known as the mother of Korean LPGA golf. She gets a tremendous amount of satisfaction when she sees these talented young women playing for her beloved country South Korea.
The Korean LPGA Wave
Prior to 1994 no Korean LPGA golfer had ever won an LPGA tournament. The Unitied States pretty much dominated tournament play. The first Korean golfer to win on the LPGA tour was Woo-Soon Ko who won the very last tournament in 1994. Another four years went by before Se Ri Pak came along in 1998. She was joined by Mi Hyun Kim in 1999 who won 2 LPGA tournaments while Se Ri won 4 tournaments. The wave of talented Korean LPGA golfers has been growing ever since.
Each year after 1999 has seen new names from South Korea winning LPGA torunaments and awards. Starting in 1998 through the 2014 South Korean LPGA golfers have:
- Won the Rookie of the Year award 8 times
- Had at least one golfer in the Top 5 Scoring Leaders 9 times
- Had at least one golfer in the Top 10 Money List 15 times
Since 1998, South Korean LPGA golfers have won at least 2 tournaments every season through 2014, and have won as many as 11 tournaments a season two times. Through 23 of 32 scheduled tournaments of the 2015 season, South Koreans have already won 12 of the tournaments. Inbee Park has won 5 times so far in 2015 and is on her way to being the Top LPGA Money Winner in 2015.
These are incredible numbers, so yes these Korean women pro golfers can play golf. And there seems to be a steady stream of them joining the LPGA every year. Some of them are already seasoned veterans from the Korean LPGA tournament circuit.
So What Makes Them So Good?
It’s not their diet, the air they breath, or the water they drink for a number of reasons. First, most of the South Korean LPGA Golfers take up residence in the United States soon after they are accepted into the LPGA. The majority of the LPGA tournaments are here in North America so this is just a practical travel planning step. Second, if it had something to do with the way of life in South Korea you would expect their male counterparts to do as well on the PGA tour. This has not happened.
So it’s something else. We’ve already discussed the Se Ri Pak effect and it's significant. Young Korean daughters started showing up at the driving range a few days after Se Ri won the US Open back in 1998. They were dropping dance and music lessons in favor of going to the driving range. South Korea is a small, crowded country so there really are not many golf courses. But there are lot's of driving ranges, and these inspired young Korean golfers are willing to spend hours there perfecting their golf swing.
These young girls receive a tremendous amount of family support, even at the expense of other family needs. This includes funding the many hours spent at the driving range plus the cost of private coaching. Hovering parents usually includes a demanding father constantly pushing their daughter’s to develop their physical, mental and emotional skills. Like Korean Taekwando Masters who believe repetition leads to perfection, these Korean fathers make sure their aspiring daughters put in long hours at the driving range repeating their golf swing.
This was certainly Se Ri Pak’s story. As a teenager she was excelling in Track and Field, but her father lured her away from that and got her to focus on golf. He had her running up and down fifteen flights of stairs at their apartment complex every morning to build physical strength. She would be at the driving range all day rain or shine. It was a relentless regimen … all under the watchful eye of her father. He made her stay in a cemetery by herself all night, after she admitted being fearful of it, just to develop her mental and emotional toughness. The rest of her story as they say … is history.
So not only did Se Ri provide the inspiration for Korean girls to take up golf, but her father very likely provided the model for other fathers of aspiring young golfers. Interestingly this model even applies to a growing list of American born Korean LPGA golfers. Michelle Wie and Christina Kim are both American born Korean LPGA golfers whose family involvement, including hovering fathers, is well documented.
Christina has stated that Korean fathers have almost an omnipotent place in Korean families. It never occurred to her that she didn’t have to do exactly as he said.
Here’s What I Think
Other Asian countries have similar cultures, but are not experiencing South Korea's success on the LPGA tour. What Korea is accomplishing in women’s golf is uniquely Korean. Se Ri Pak instigated the Korean national movement in women’s golf, but it had no effect on men’s golf which explains why Korean PGA golfers have not experienced the same success.
It’s been 17 years since Se Ri won the LPGA US Open, and while she will always be the mother of the Korean LPGA golf movement, the wave of new Korean LPGA golfers are now sort of a product of the system. They have the same willingness to work hard on grooving their swing. But now they have high expectations of being successful just by following the foot print of success preceding them.
Here's What Makes Korean LPGA Golfers So Good
- The Se Ri Pak effect
- An unabated willingness to practice long hours
- Practice … Practice … Practice
- A hovering family, often including a demanding father
- Korean families are extremely committed to their daughters’ success
- They are well coached
- They expect to win … they are now a product of the system