When Se Ri Pak arrived in the United States in 1998 to play professional golf, she hardly appeared the revolutionary. Only 20 years old, she traveled with her parents and spoke little English, learning the language by watching cartoons and movies.
At the time, there was not a single South Korean-born player on the LPGA Tour, home of the best female golfers in the world. But Pak was an instant success, winning four tournaments in her rookie season, including two major championships.
With her early outstanding play and sustained excellence, Pak is credited with almost single-handedly changing the face of women’s golf. Not only is it evident in tournaments -- seven Korean players are among the tour’s top 20 money-winners -- but also in the marketplace, where equipment and apparel makers vie for a share of a golf-crazy Asian market and the LPGA looks to broaden its horizons as well as its bottom line.
“Every question that relates to why Koreans are playing the LPGA has to begin and end with Se Ri Pak,” said Ty Votaw, the LPGA commissioner. “Her rookie year, it gave the entire country of Korea the motivation and inspiration for fathers and their daughters to say, ‘Hey, if she can do it, we can do it.’ ”
The McDonald’s LPGA Championship, which begins today at DuPont Country Club in Wilmington, Del., will serve to showcase the sport’s sudden diversity. There are 21 Korean-born players on the tour, making up 22% of the 96 active LPGA players from countries other than the United States. With Pak leading the way, Korean-born players have won 37 times since 1998, including twice this year.
She opened the door for, among others, Grace Park, 25, who won this year’s first major championship, the Kraft Nabisco.
Pak is well aware of her place in socialization and sports history.
“Yes, I’m the one who started the big boom,” she said. “I’m the first one who started to play well.”
The emergence of the Korean-born players has brought into focus their home country’s obsession with golf, how parents of many young Asian golfers push their children to excel and how golf has entered a largely uncharted territory -- a mix of global marketing, cultural diversity and sports.
South Korea is a country with an estimated 2.5 million golfers, but with only 50 public courses. The other 120 or so courses are private clubs with six-figure initiation fees.
“Most of Asia is inordinately golf-hungry,” said James Chung, a Korean American who runs Reach Advisors, a Boston marketing strategy and research firm specializing in sports. “It’s the status sport. It’s what you play if you’ve reached a level of affluence. That appeals to Koreans.”
Only last month, Nike’s golf-ball guru, Stan Grissinger, was set to deliver a presentation in South Korea and was stunned when more than 200 women showed up, all between the ages of 18 and 22.
Callaway Golf counts 50% of its revenue from sales outside the U.S., 18% in Korea and Japan. Plus, Callaway recently opened subsidiaries in Seoul and Tokyo.
Pak has won nearly $8 million on the tour and has come close to matching that sum through endorsements for Adidas; CJ, a Korean food conglomerate; Maxfli; TaylorMade Golf; and Upper Deck. At 26, she has already qualified for entry into the LPGA Hall of Fame.
Pak is also busily preparing for the launch of her own clothing company that she expects to be ready by the end of the year.
Although she has never led the LPGA money list, Pak has been second four times and third once. So far this year, she ranks fifth, joined in the top 11 by three other players of Korean descent -- Park, Mi-Hyun Kim and Jung Leon Lee.
Last year, players of Korean heritage won seven of the 31 official LPGA events -- 23% of the tournaments -- even though they represent only 11.3% of the 185 active LPGA tour members.
According to Votaw, it’s all part of the nature of what a global tour should be.
“The face of the LPGA has changed,” he said. “The days when all of our members looked the same and talked the same and all come from colleges in towns from across the United States or come from similar experiences in American junior golf, those days are over and we’re not going to go back.”
However, the emergence of the Korean-born players and those of Korean descent on the LPGA Tour hasn’t been without its awkward moments.
One such instance came in November when 16-time winner Jan Stephenson said Korean players were “absolutely killing” the LPGA Tour because of a lack of emotion and for not speaking English when they could. She quickly apologized after Pak, among others, took exception.
Votaw also repudiated Stephenson’s comments and laid out plans for the LPGA Tour members to develop greater sensitivity to cultural diversity.
In August, Golf World magazine alleged instances of cheating, including an accusation that a South Korean golfer’s parent moved a ball from behind a tree at the Canadian Women’s Open.
Barbara Trammel, the LPGA’s vice president of tournament operations and the tour’s chief rules official, said she found no evidence of such a rules infraction and dropped the matter. However, soon after, Votaw met with 13 South Korean players at a tournament in Dublin, Ohio, and discussed rules.
“That issue was overblown by the media,” Votaw said.
Still, many players of Korean heritage felt they were unfairly being singled out and stressed the difficulty of trying to adjust to a vastly different culture on the fly while playing professional golf.
“First of all, the language, the culture, the food, it’s all different,” Park said. “The only thing that’s the same is driving on the right side and golf. Part of what was said was true, but it’s not just the Koreans. The Koreans were upset because they were put in a corner as a whole. There are plenty of Americans and non-Koreans who don’t always know the rules, either.”
At last July’s U.S. Women’s Open at Pumpkin Ridge, outside Portland, Ore., Michelle Wie and her father became involved in a controversy with Danielle Ammaccapane and her father.
Ammaccapane loudly criticized Wie after a round, accusing her and her father, B.J. Wie, who served as his daughter’s caddie, of not knowing the rules. Later, Ralph Ammaccapane and the elder Wie narrowly avoided a run-in. Wie, 14, was born in Honolulu, but her parents are from South Korea.
This year, Votaw embarked on a series of changes designed to ease South Koreans and Asians into the flow of the tour.
Votaw added Kyumin Shim, a Korean American who graduated from Florida State, to the LPGA’s player relations staff. He also orchestrated a cultural awareness and diversity session with 13 of his staffers at the LPGA tournament at Tarzana in April. And Votaw appointed Park as an international spokeswoman on the LPGA board of directors, at the urging of Meg Mallon, Beth Daniel, Juli Inkster and Wendy Ward.
Park -- who was born in Seoul, moved to Hawaii when she was 12 and then to Phoenix two years later -- became a dominant junior player and a standout at Arizona State.
So far, Park said no one has asked her for advice.
“I’m still learning. I haven’t really had any input as a board member, but if any Korean needs help in anything, I’m willing to help,” she said. “I want to give something back to the tour.”
As for Pak, she said that she was proud Park won her first major, but that she was really proud of all the South Koreans and players of South Korean descent on the LPGA Tour.
“Hopefully people will understand and we’ll have a good relationship with all the players,” Pak said. “It looks like they’re having a little trouble out there because it’s a different culture, but I think the LPGA is changing a lot.”
Pak, who said she learned a great deal of her English by watching hours of cartoons, but also through movies, television shows and repeated media interviews, understands how difficult breaking in can be for an international player, especially when the cultures are so vastly different.
Pak’s parents traveled with her for weeks at a time early in her career, and that is the norm for most Korean-born players. Young-A Yang, who was a rookie last year, was born in Seoul but moved to the U.S. when she was 13. Her mother, Guinan Kin, traveled with her most of last year, but her sisters, Young-Mi Yang and Young-Eui Yang, are sharing that responsibility this year.
“They’re finding out how hard it is,” Yang said, adding that the trait shared by most Korean golfers is determination, helped along by the influence of their parents.
“Many Korean players share a lot of parental support and that’s what makes us better, or maybe just more successful,” she said. “A lot of Korean players practice what you could say too much, eight, nine, 10 hours a day, sometimes even longer.”
Park said the work ethic of Korean parents affects their children.
“They think golf 24-7. From a very young age, parents are heavily involved in each child’s game. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes that’s bad,” she said. “But that parenting keeps them on the right track.”
Chung said the experience of Korean parents serving intently in the golf education of their girls is not unusual.
“In the Korean culture, there is a trend of parental sacrifice, to lead to a better life than the one they had,” he said. “You see it manifested in golf now.”
Many times, such sacrifice was made for the sake of education. Now, it has changed, Chung said. “I think what you’re going to see is that they’re focused on golf with a vengeance.”
It’s possible that the influence of Korean players and those of Korean descent will not be as prominent in the future, that it is part of a cycle and another country will take its place. Votaw said he has thought about that often.
He also said the U.S. has some potential rising stars on its hands, such as Paula Creamer, 17, of Pleasanton, Calif.; May Wood, 20, a sophomore at Vanderbilt; Morgan Pressel, 16, of Boca Raton, Fla.; and the 14-year-old Wie, who lost to Pressel in the U.S. Girls Junior in July and barely missed the cut at the PGA Tour’s Sony Open in January.
“Where’s the next beachhead?” Votaw said. “Thailand? Mexico? The Philippines? I really believe the Asians and Koreans will be prominent for the foreseeable future. But will 21 [players on the LPGA Tour] become 41 or 51? Time will tell.”
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THE KOREAN EFFECT
The performance of South Korean players on the LPGA tour since Se Ri Pak’s rookie season:
* LPGA tournaments since 1998: 216
* Percentage of those tournaments won by Koreans: 17.1% (37)
* Korean players who have won titles: Se Ri Pak (22), Grace Park (5), Mi-Hyun Kim (5), Hee-Won Han (2), Gloria Park (2), Shi Hyun Ahn (1)
* Majors won by Korean players: Pak (4), Park (1)