AS 2015 DRAWS to its close six of the world’s top 10 women golfers are South Korean and the world’s number one is a naturalised New Zealander who was born in, no prizes for guessing, South Korea.
So just how does a small, crowded country, hardly over endowed with golf courses, produce women golfers of such outstanding ability? Particularly against the backdrop of a Northern neighbour with a bombastic, hostile ‘Supreme Leader’ and missile installations facing dauntingly towards it.
There are a number of theories to explain why a country of 50m can produce 30 women in the top 100 world rankings against USA’s 21 from a population of over 321m. Firstly the South Koreans have an intense work ethic when it comes to studies and this extends to their sporting interests; they practise incredibly hard. Many learn golf at a driving range rather than at a club, which are almost exclusively for the wealthy, and will hit balls for hours before they go home.
South Korean women are also fortunate in that they do not have to undertake two year’s military service. Two-time PGA men’s winner Bae Sang-moon lost his appeal to avoid swapping professional golf for square-bashing and will not be hitting a golf ball again until 2019.
Middle class South Korean fathers, who often cannot afford the high price of golf club membership, have developed the same reputation as Hollywood stage mothers in mercilessly driving their daughters to achieve fame and wealth in golf. Se Ri Pak, who won five majors plus 25 LPGA tour events and is seen as the catalyst for attracting South Korean women into the sport, had an extremely tough time with her father receiving treatment that would seem worthy of reporting to the authorities in many western countries.
Joon Chul Pak made the young Se Ri get up at 5.30 every morning and run up and down 15 flights of stairs in their apartment block to build up her strength. He made her practise in the cold until icicles formed in her hair, and to overcome her nerves, he made her sleep all night in a tent in a cemetery. ‘Don’t worry,’ he told the trembling girl, ‘I will not let the ghosts get you.’
The ghosts did not get her but exhaustion did. She was taken to hospital suffering from it during her US ‘rookie’ year although, to this day, says, ‘If I leave the range before others. I feel lazy. Our country is so small. We work so hard. I feel pressure to work hard, to be good.’
Pak’s success, by winning the US Open in 1998, turned her into a national heroine and produced a flood of girls from South Korea wanting to emulate her. Before 1998 there were few girls who played the game yet within a decade they were dominating the game.
One of those girls was Inbee Park (pictured above) who, as a nine-year old, could not understand all the fuss her parents were making in their apartment whilst watching Pak win the sudden death play-off at Blackwolf Run, Wisconsin on television. Park had not played golf before but within two days of Pak tearfully lifting the US Open trophy she was on the driving range with a golf club in her hand. In 2013 she was LPGA player of the year.
The current world number one, Lydia Ko, whose parents moved to New Zealand from Seoul when she was six was born the year Pak won her first major. She started playing golf aged five and turned professional when she was 14, winning her first tournament two months later. She is the youngest professional golfer to ever win a tournament as well as the youngest woman ever to win a ‘major’ when she won the Evian Championship in France by six shots aged 18 years and four months.
It is also worth noting that a certain American golfer, Michelle Wie, although born in Hawaii has parents who both emigrated from South Korea. Just as Korean culture stresses constant repetition in pursuit of perfection be it in calligraphy or taekwondo so it is with their golf.
Only time will tell how long the Solheim Cup between the USA and Europe retains its status as the premier women’s international match play tournament between nations with so much talent emerging from the East. Certainly, at the 2016 Brazil Olympics next year, when it comes to women’s golf, the toughest question to answer is, ‘Who will finish as runner-up to the South Korean girls?’