Queens of the greens - how South Korea rules women's golf

Queens of the greens - how South Korea rules women's golf

Park In-Bee of South Korea tees off at the third hole during the first round of the LPGA KEB Hana Bank Championship golf event at the Sky72 Golf Club in Incheon, west of Seoul, on Oct 15, 2015. (AFP photo)
Park In-Bee of South Korea tees off at the third hole during the first round of the LPGA KEB Hana Bank Championship golf event at the Sky72 Golf Club in Incheon, west of Seoul, on Oct 15, 2015. (AFP photo)

SEOUL - Other golfers beware. With an ultra-competitive domestic tour and a seemingly limitless supply of young, talented players willing to sacrifice everything for success, South Korea's dominance of world women's golf is not going away -- and if anything, it could get even stronger.

For years now, rivals have watched in wonder as a succession of South Korean players with immaculate techniques and nerves of steel have lifted trophy after trophy, including five of the last 10 major championships.

Among the world's current top 10, six are South Korean, including world number two Park In-Bee. Number one is New Zealand's Lydia Ko, who was born in South Korea.

Nine of the top 20 are also South Korean and out of the 30 LPGA events contested so far this year, Korean golfers have won 14 -- two of them playing in their rookie season.

Theories abound as to why South Korean women are so dominant and include vague mumblings about "sensitive fingers" -- a real or imagined physical trait also cited when discussing their success in archery.

More considered opinions cite a combination of cultural forces: a strong work ethic, driven parental support and a grinding education system that encourages the sort of repetitive, focused effort that suits the quest for golfing perfection.

But Korean LPGA executive vice chairman Kang Choon-Ja believes the real answer lies in a top-quality domestic tour, which allows players to begin their international careers almost fully formed.

The prominence of South Korean women on the world stage is down to "the continued emergence of star players... through an extremely competitive domestic tour structure that gives them experience of top-class tournament play," Kang told AFP.

Pak mentality

South Korea's rise as a golfing power dates from the 1998 US Open victory of Pak Se-Ri -- then 20 years old and in her rookie LPGA season.

She was the first Korean -- indeed, the first Asian -- to win the oldest women's major, and became the poster-girl for a South Korean golfing boom that has gone from strength to strength.

Pak won Rookie of the Year in 1998, and seven other South Korean women have emulated her since then. The same number have won US Open titles, including this year's victor Chun In-Gee.

"Their work ethic, fundamentals, techniques are amazing," US women's golf legend Juli Inkster told reporters when she was in South Korea for the recent LPGA KEB Hana Bank Championship.

"What I love about Korea is the way the people, the players, they have so much respect for women's golf," Inkster said.

From just a few hundred in the 1990s, the number of full professionals, semi-pros and teaching pros has exploded to more than 2,000, and the KLPGA has developed a three-tier tour system to try to meet the demand.

The Jump Tour has 16 events for fledgling players, while the Dream Tour for more advanced players boasts 20 tournaments. Finally there are the 29 first-class events on the full-fledged KLPGA tour.

Eight hours a day

Total prize money for the latter currently stands at 18.5 billion won ($16.3 million), up from 2.0 billion won in 1996 and nearly twice the 10 billion won available on the domestic men's tour.

"The lower-tier tours are a great opportunity for players to improve their skill sets and get the early, practical experience of tournament play that will set them up for the future," Kang said.

The players coming through the system certainly don't lack for confidence.

"Top KLPGA players are good enough to lift an LGPA trophy any time," said Park Sung-Hyun, a star in the making who has won three domestic tour titles so far this year.

Like many players of her generation, Park started early, picking up her first club at the age of eight and embarking on a strenuous training programme backed by her parents.

"It was my mom who got me into it. At that time Pak Se-Ri was on TV a lot. So I really started out as one of the 'Se-Ri kids'," the 22-year-old said.

"I practised from dawn to dusk for up to eight hours almost every day," she added.

'Absolutely cut-throat'

Further back down the line are the likes of 13-year-old Sophia Lee, who only started playing in January but is already enrolled in a top after-school golf academy which puts her through a strenuous daily programme from 3:00pm to 9:30pm.

"After golf practice I work out a lot in the gym, especially on strengthening my core. It’s a tough workout," the teenager said.

Such academies don't come cheap, but South Korean parents are used to the idea of dedicating a whopping chunk of their income to extra tuition, whether it be evening cram schools or specialist training.

And the return on investment can be huge if your daughter breaks through into the big time.

"Women's golf is one of the most popular sports here in terms of fandom and corporate sponsorships," said veteran golf columnist Kim Maeng-Ryung.

Players are starting earlier than ever and, with the right financial support, the training and facilities they can access is second to none.

"But then the competition to become just a regular KLPGA player is absolutely cut-throat," Kim said.

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