Matthew Syed, in Bounce, called it a “detonation of national euphoria”, Rasmus Ankersen identified it as the moment the nation’s sporting gold mine opened, and Inbee Park, in rather more prosaic but no less illuminating terms, said of Se Ri Pak’s double major championship triumph of 1998 – and in particular her US Women’s Open win: “I liked what she did for the people of Korea. It inspired me.”
The impact on South Korean women’s golf was nothing short of extraordinary. Seven years later Birdie Kim added to the US Women’s Open count and since 2008 the championship has been won by her compatriots nine times in 14 editions.
The phenomenon was identified, researched and then, with slightly depressing inevitability, reduced to convenient and overly-simplified sound bites. Multi-dimensional explanations were quickly boiled down to suggestions that South Koreans are somehow genetical predisposed to ruthlessness on the back nine on a Sunday.
Meanwhile, the influence on women’s golf of this new force was far from straightforward. Golf tours (all of them: male/female, regular/senior, first tier/second tier) are rife with jealousies and the LPGA was no different. American tours already had a long history of being ill-disposed towards foreigners and newcomers with little English fared no differently.
Suspicion and prejudice persisted. Around clubhouses folk muttered about the South Koreans being indistinguishable from one another and an official once used the phrase “good Korean” to me when describing a player. The inference was clear.
Wanting to understand better – or at least try – I ventured to South Korea in late 2018 to attend the LPGA International Crown and Hana Bank Championship. I also headed into Seoul and discovered that, contrary to the picture often painted, the nation is not especially in thrall to golf.
I had read, for example, that, “Young South Koreans frequent golf cafes like Americans go to Starbucks.” In truth, it shouldn’t have taken a 15-hour flight to reveal that for being bunkum. Which is not to say that indoor golf facilities are not popular, merely that the author was a bit giddy.
It was also quickly clear that the majority of folk knew little, and cared less, about golf. My questions about the sport were met with mystification, giggles, and sometimes outright laughter. Not one person outside a golf club knew anything about the sport. Admittedly, my random chit-chat is not university level research, but nor does it fit with the standard narrative.
Despite all this, the players were clearly under enormous national pressure. At the International Crown South Korea were favourites. Overwhelmingly so, you might say, because the strain on So Yeon Ryu, In Gee Chun, Sung Hyun Park and In-Kyung Kim was all too visible. That they lifted the trophy at the end of the week was testimony to their tenacity (and maybe also the baffling nature of the event’s final-day format).
Why the burden? Well, perhaps my adventures beyond the course, in the country’s bars, were fortuitously instructive. Because they revealed the nation’s enthusiasm for going all-in. We have theme bars, but these were theme bars on a different scale. Not just a 1960s music bar, but a Peter, Paul and Mary bar. Not just a Beatles bar, but a White Album bar. My favourite was a small and beautiful venue with one craft beer tap, a record player and a wall of LPs you could choose to be played. Every single one of them began with the letter T. It was enigmatic, single-minded, wilfully restrictive, wonderfully bananas, and also rather familiar.
Because by this stage I had got wind of the fan club culture within golf and discovered a guarantee of anonymity was required before a club member would discuss it. “I don’t want the online discussion boards to know I’ve talked to you,” my source told me. “They can be toxic.”
At this point I had merely been tickled by my early experience of the clubs, which had involved near-demented scenes of excitement at the International Crown, occasionally genuinely reminiscent of old footage of Beatlemania. Polite gallery applause for a wedge to 25-feet this was not.
“The clubs focus on what is deemed to be a player’s over-riding quality, something like athleticism, politeness or elegance,” I was told. “They are qualities the fans associate with. It is mostly very positive and a lot of fun, but it can get dark when the players are assumed to have changed behaviour. Other times clubs fight and being a member of two clubs is not cool.”
In the second week of my visit Chun completed an emotional victory before revealing that she’d been on the wrong end of online trolling associated with the clubs. “The comments were quite vicious,” she said. “I tried to not care, but they lingered. I was not in an emotionally or mentally healthy place.”
Who knew?! Some will have done, but many of us, blinded by limited imagination and untold back stories, had assumed South Korean golfers have more or less no interior voice; fooled by well-meant explanations of their triumphs we’d fallen for the idea they were hard-wired to win without fear, confusion and real life issues to overcome.
The notion that Koreans have excellence built into their DNA makes you wonder who stacks their supermarket shelves. Less flippantly, this prejudice does the individual golfers a disservice.
Na Yeon Choi’s Canadian manager Greg Morrison, makes the point that “it’s easy to pin the players as coming out from a factory but in reality they come from very different socio-economic backgrounds”.
For example, Jeongeun Lee6’s truck-driving father was paralysed in an accident, Chun’s father’s convenience store folded, and, in marked contrast, Grace Park’s parents run one of the nation’s most famous restaurants.
Author Rasmus Ankerson makes an intriguing point, highlighting that the 21st-century surge is a case of Korean girls and also their parents being fuelled by the Se Ri Pak story. The author Amy Chua is dismissive of westerners who pander their offspring. “My goal as a parent is to prepare my children for the future,” she wrote. “Not to make them like me the whole time.”
Pak’s father would appreciate that sentiment. When his daughter was little and revealed a fear of cemeteries he took her camping in one, telling her scary ghost stories all night. When she said “I feel warm here” he knew she was battle-hardened. Good luck boasting about that one on the school WhatsApp group.
If early life is the first hothouse, the KLPGA is the second. When the LET held a co-sanctioned event in the country there was understandable grumbling about some comical – but no doubt infuriating – differences in treatment. For example, there was an irregular and slow LET bus from hotel to course, but a non-stop sequence of KLPGA courtesy cars.
The best on the LET will have used this niggle to perform with the bit between their teeth, others will have wilted or sulked. Dig deeper and such inequalities are a given on KLPGA. One year a match play tournament had a fresh draw for every round which utilised the novel idea of granting the best player in the field the weakest opponent every single time. It was effectively fixed. Youngsters who win on that circuit are defeating quality opposition and also built-in adversity.
A neat conclusion is required now, which will unfortunately make some of the sound bite mistakes. But if you wonder why so many South Koreans win major championships with so little experience of the LPGA consider that Se Ri Pak lit the flame, then parents, family duty, individual drive, difficulty, discipline, resilience, the KLPGA, and a society that relishes a deep-dive fanned them.
It is a potent combination that has thrust many toward triumph. But remember also that many others fell by the wayside. What of the kids who, along with their parents, went all-in and never made it? Those supermarket workers mentioned earlier? Some of them are the friends of South Korean golf’s current elite. Their nationality was not enough, just as it is not the only reason the stars thrive.
US Women’s Open
June 2-5, 2022
Pine Needles Golf Club, North Carolina
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