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|Se Ri Pak is responsible for the boom in Korean women golfers on the LPGA Tour. Sunday at the U.S. Women's Open, she finished ahead of them all. (Courtesy: USGA)|
SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. - Cristie Kerr, an American, won the 2007 U.S. Women's Open. This was a major storyline for this year's Open, remarkable because only two Americans appeared in the top-ten spots of the leaderboard going into the last round.
The last names on the leaderboard read like a Pusan phonebook: Bae, Jang, Kim, Lee, Pak, Park, Park, Shin.
Why is it that the leaderboard at women's golf events tends to be so very, very dominated by Asians - and Korean golfers in particular?
This year's Open included 34 Koreans (and that doesn't count Korean-Americans, like Christina Kim or Michelle Wie). To put that in perspective, the next-highest international group represented in this tournament is Swedenâ€”with eight players. With a population of only 45 million, Koreans were somewhat overrepresented at this tournament, and on the LPGA Tour in general.
"Why are Korean women so good?" asked Rhonda Glenn of the USGA to In-Bee Park after her second round. Grimacing, In-Bee, who was born in Seoul but is now a U.S. citizen, responded, "I'm really getting tired of that question. Everyone always asks me that."
Ok, In-Bee, fair enough. But the question is a legitimate one, and it deserves an answer. Having been born and raised in Korea myself, I can probably help you answer it.
It begins and ends with parenting: Korean parents raise their kids a little differently than American parents do. Okay, a lot differently. What Americans consider "pushing" their kids, Koreans consider right and proper. The more freestyle approach used by American parentsâ€”let kids have time to be kidsâ€” Koreans consider borderline irresponsible.
Leaving children to make their own decisions would be disastrous. Every moment of time is accounted for: children are in school, in an after-school tutoring program, or in a sports activity until it's time to go to bed and start all over again the next day. Yes, it's hard, but it's a competitive world out there and the role of the parent is to teach the child to be successful in it.
Westerners in general would view the pressures placed on Korean children to be inappropriate. We like our children to be "well-rounded." Korean parents, meanwhile, don't fret over lost childhoods. Children are expected to do their share to help their familyâ€”and their countryâ€”succeed.
Once Se Ri Pak helped put Korea on the map by winning the 1998 U.S. Women's Open, golf became a national pastime there. The floodgates opened. Korean women had a new path to success, so the obsession became not just golf, but training daughters to become professional golfers.
And when Koreans set a goal, they put everything they have into reaching it. Nothing is done halfway.
If a child shows a talent for golf in Korea, golf becomes pursued with a single-minded purpose unseen in American families, to the exclusion of all other activities, sometimes even to the exclusion of education.
"I think there's less emphasis on academics (in golfers) over there," says Tom Creavy, Se Ri Pak's swing instructor, as he discusses the issue with Gary Gilchrist. As the former Director of Golf at the International Junior Golf Academy in South Carolina, Gilchrist has coached his fair share of Korean students.
"Yeah, absolutely," agrees Gilchrist. "A lot of the kids over there don't even go to school. You'll probably find a lot of the girls on the LPGA that are doing well never finished high school. Those who go to school do well at school, and those who choose golf do well at golf."
"There's such an interest in golf now in Korea that they decide at a really young age that that's what they want to do," says Creavy. "And they get the instruction and the mental health and the fundingâ€”the parents find money whether it's their own or a sponsorship and they just go for it. They're driven and so motivated to practice. They're intense."
Sponsorships are easier to come by in Korea, this is true. In the U.S., only big names win contracts. Meg Mallon, the sponsor-free winner of the 2004 US Women's Open, famously had to purchase her hat in the merchandise pavilion. In Korea, girls that show talent early on have no problem finding someone to help them foot their bills.
Won-Seok Choi is a manager for Hi-Mart, Korea's version of Best Buy, a sponsor for several Korean women on the LPGA Tour and dozens more in Korea. "We started sponsoring four years ago," he says. "We like to support many Korean women golfers because they have a chance to become a big player, like Se Ri Pak."
His explanation for the Koreans' success on tour? "Their families are very supportive," he explains. "They support everything for the players. Asian people have very strong families, and support is the most important thing." Americans see pushiness, Koreans see support.
The only downside for Choi is the tendency to leave school early. "Some of the players don't finish high school. Personally, that's the one thing I don't like about it, because there's a time to study and a time to play."
"Their motto is, the younger the better," says Gilchrist. "It's not like they're patient and waitingâ€”as soon as their kid shows an interest, they're 100 percent committed to it. And I think in the States it's considered a negative thing to push your kidsâ€”they use that word, â€˜push.' But the Korean attitude is, if you do anything, you have to be successful in it."
Pushy parentsâ€”it's one of the reasons why teen phenom Michelle Wie is such a lightning rod of controversy. To the American media, it's apparent that her parents have pushed her too hard and fast.
When she was playing well, with close to a million dollars in earnings her rookie year and three top-five finishes in the majors, the question wasn't, how is she doing this? It was: are her parents pushing her too hard? Now that she's playing poorly, the jury is in: her parents have finally succeeded in killing the golden goose. But remember that BJ and Bo, her parents, are Korean. Their parenting style is the only one they know.
Ji-Yai Shin is as Korean a player you could find. Number-one on the KLPGA Tour, the tiny, endearing 19-year-old has been invited to all of this year's majors plus several other tournaments. In Korea, she's touted as "the next Se Ri Pak."
She begs to differ about pushy parenting. "Korean parents might push when the children are little, but not when they're older," she says through an interpreter. "My father used to push me to play, but not anymore, now I want to play."
What does she think of the story about her counterpart Mi-Hyun Kim, whose father told her she couldn't get married until she wins a major?
"I think they're just kidding, that's just a joke," she laughs.
Through our American eyes it appears overbearing. To Koreans it's simply good parenting. But it's no joke how hard the Korean players push themselves.
At the U.S. Women's Open this weekend, darkness had fallen and most everyone had cleared out for the day. But five stalwarts remained on the putting green, practicing long after everyone else left. All five bags bear Korean flags.
July 2, 2007
Jennifer Mario is a regular contributor to the TravelGolf Network and the author of "Michelle Wie: The Making of a Champion" (St. Martin's Griffin, 2006). A graduate of Duke University, she lives in the Triangle area of North Carolina with her family.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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