A seminal win at the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open has triggered nearly two decades of South Korean dominance on the LPGA Tour
This article first appeared in the Summer 2015 edition of NCGA Golf
By Alan Shipnuck
Se Ri Pak’s victory at the 1998 U.S.Women’s Open turned her into the Arnold Palmer of her native South Korea: a popularizing figure of profound importance. Pak, then a 20-year-old rookie, spurred a generation of young girls to take up the game, and their impact is still being felt.The LPGA’s current queen bee, Inbee Park, 27, can still recall the shrieks of joy from her parents as they huddled around the television watching Pak’s triumph.Two days later little In bee found herself at the driving range for the first time. Dozens of other LPGA players have similar stories.
Koreans have changed the face of the modern LPGA Tour, but what makes their collective success so hard to replicate is the intensely personal nature of their development. There is not a strong national team analogous to the regimented, state funded machine in Sweden, nor are there big, broad non-governmental organization programs like The First Tee or Youth on Course, which have birthed so many good players here in the United States. No, the Korean model is basically a dedicated little girl and her even more dedicated parents– a cloistered unit that is built upon the values of a traditional society in which deference to one’s elders is paramount.
The hard-driving, oft-overbearing Korean dad has long been an LPGA cliche, right up there with the doting, deferential Korean mom. Michelle Wie’s parents remain the archetype. Her father B.J. walks every practice round with binoculars around his neck, walking off yardages and furiously scribbling notes in a yardage guide, even though his daughter employs a professional caddie, who has to try hard not to roll his eyes. Meanwhile, mom Bo stands impassively on the rope line, often carrying Michelle’s lapdog Lola. The Wies stand sentry over their daughter’s practice sessions, and they all live together in a swank townhouse that Michelle, 25, bought at The Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Fla. From the outside looking in, the Wies’ omnipresence in their daughter’s life is suffocating and baffling, but it’s treated as completely normal on the LPGA tour.
“I don’t think Michelle could play at such at a high level without them,” says her close friend Christina Kim. “They look after every detail for her and make her life so easy. What people who criticize her parents don’t understand is that Michelle likes having them around.”
Like Wie, Kim is a first-generation American, and growing up in San Jose, she experienced similar family dynamics. Not long after Pak’s Open triumph, Kim’s father Man came home and announced that Christina and her older brother and sister would be taking up golf. Every day for a month they were required to make 300 swings in their small backyard. Then, and only then, were they allowed to hit an actual golf ball for the first time. Christina says both of her siblings were more naturally talented, but only she embraced her father’s strenuous teachings.
“The father has an important place in every culture,” says Christina. It goes way beyond that in Korean society. They’re almost god-like. They’re omnipotent. It never occurred to me I didn’t have to do exactly what he told me to do.”
Not at first, anyway. It’s a rite of passage for young Koreans and Korean-Americans to exert their independence after reaching the LPGA.
For Kim, that meant embracing a rock n’ roll fashion sense, and having a couple of longterm boyfriends her parents didn’t approve of. Between tournaments Wie now spends much less time on the driving range, where her parents will birddog her, and now plays more casual games with friends, to which her parents are not invited. She has recently begun talking publicly about kicking them out of her nest and sending them back to Hawaii. Na Yeon Choi, the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open champ, was for years considered a talented underachiever. She didn’t start winning until she instructed her parents to stop traveling to her tournaments. Here, Se Ri Pak is also influential, but as a cautionary tale. Her father Joon Chul famously made a teenaged Se Ri spend a night alone in a grave yard because he thought it would make her more mentally tough. (That Pak is 6-0 lifetime in LPGA playoffs may or may not be proof that it worked.) Joon Chul remained just as over-the-top throughout Se Ri’s early career, and on his relentless pushing of his daughter is a big reason why she burnt out and largely faded away by age 26.
Not for nothing has Lydia Ko (pictured below), 18, already said she plans to retire by the time she’s 30. Ko’s parents were raised in Korea but immigrated to New Zealand, where Lydia grew up. Her phenomenal success- already seven LPGA victories and counting!-has been ascribed to this blending of cultures.
Says Morgan Pressel,”She has that really strong work ethic which is also that kind of laid-back, relaxed Kiwi approach to life. It’s the perfect mentality for a Tour player.”
What exactly is behind the famous Korean work ethic? If you wander onto a driving range at an LPGA event late in the day it’s not uncommon for most, if not all, of the stragglers to be of Korean descent. Ditto if it’s early morning on a Monday.
“Some of it’s peer pressure,” says Christina Kim. “You see all the other girls who look like you out there so you think you’re supposed to be there, too.” Tiffany Job, another first-generation Korean American, chalks it up to what she calls the “immigrant mentality.” Says Joh, “It goes beyond golf. You see these little Korean grocery stores where the grandparents, the parents and the kids all work around the clock, seven days a week. Next thing you know they’ve bought the whole block.”
Nearly two decades after Pak’s breakthrough the revolution shows no sign of slowing- earlier this year Koreans won eight straight tournaments across both the LPGA and Ladies European tour. Pak is now 37 and treated on two continents like a grand dame, but a whole new generation is coming up inspired by Wie and Inbee Park and Na Yeon Choi and Christina Kim and Tiffany Joh and many others. Their success has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“The young Korean golfers show up on Tour expecting to succeed, because so many have before them,” says Kim. “And because they have that attitude and that confidence, they wind up succeeding. It’s like a circle that just goes on and on forever.”