A decade ago, she was an anomaly: a 20-year-old from Korea whose golf game articulated what her limited English could not.
Se Ri Pak did not know then that becoming the youngest to win the U.S. Women’s Open would inspire droves of Koreans and Korean Americans to dream of the LPGA.
Inbee Park was among them. Last year, when she clinched the U.S. Open title at age 19, she earned Pak’s previous title and humbly filled the shoes of her idol.
Park’s story echoes dozens on the tour. A 10-year-old when she lined up her first tee, she left the neon-lit streets of Seoul for pristine Florida fairways that stretched for miles. She struggled to communicate with new classmates, eventually learned their slang, grew attached to giant American cheeseburgers and fries, all while fiercely practicing the way one does when your family makes sacrifices to fuel your ambition.
Now she navigates practice and tournaments and news conferences -- sometimes with her coach, sometimes with a parent visiting from Korea, but mostly on her own.
It is an isolating lifestyle, but one more palatable when shared with others who understand. “A lot of Korean players know each other and hang out,” Park says. “We give advice to each other, we travel together, eat together. . . . We help each other out.”
However, the dominant presence of Koreans and Korean Americans in the LPGA has also brought controversy, such as Jan Stephenson’s comments that “they’ve taken it over” and the English-language requirement introduced last year but rescinded when met with criticism.
“The LPGA Tour means that it’s just the best players in the world,” Park says. “It shouldn’t matter what language you speak.”
Contrary to popular belief, she says, Korean players are eager to learn English. And as for those other misperceptions, Park says she can’t answer for everyone, but, no, she wasn’t pushed into golf; yes, she absolutely loves the game, and, yes, she interacts with the community, having donated $50,000 to the LPGA Foundation specifically to help fund girls’ golf programs.
At times it is difficult, though, to differentiate oneself from the pack. Born in America or overseas, “the Korean golfers” are often lumped together. So it helps to know the things that set them apart.
Christina Kim, 25
Born: San Jose.
Resides: Orlando, Fla.
Rookie year: 2003.
It’s easy to find Kim on the tour. Just follow the boisterous laugh. Or the Pucci scarf. Or the colorful Kangol cap. Animated and outgoing, Kim is known for her enthusiasm as much as her fashion sense.
Recognized as the spirited member of the victorious 2005 U.S. Solheim Cup team, Kim honed her game at a public golf course in Santa Clara, where for an annual fee of $45 she was allowed to play during the last two hours of sunlight. When she joined the Futures Tour, she and her father saved money by driving to tournaments in a van.
Pre-tournament ritual: “I always tie my left shoe first. I always go left sock, left shoe, right sock, right shoe.”
Always travels with: “My cream-colored ‘binkie’ -- it’s a super-soft blanket. I’ve taken it with me to almost 10 countries. I’m a little old for it, but whatever.”
Job she would have if she weren’t a golfer: “Probably something involving rescuing animals.”
Her biggest fear: “I’m not a big fan of clowns. I don’t like heights, and I have an unnatural fear of deer -- anything that quiet, there’s got to be something behind it.”
Why she loves the game: “The entire round will change in an instant at the moment of impact. I find that absolutely beautiful.”
Angela Park, 20
Born: Iguazu Falls, Brazil.
Resides: Buena Park.
Rookie year: 2007.
Park came to the U.S. when she was 9 with her father and three older brothers. Her mother stayed behind to run the family’s embroidery business and helped support them from afar for the next decade.
Park juggled her senior year at Torrance High with the Futures Tour and later earned her tour card at Q-school. She easily snagged rookie of the year in 2007, with help from a buttery smooth swing that PGA legend-turned-NBC-golf-analyst Johnny Miller says is the best he’s ever seen. When Park accepted the LPGA honor, she thanked the crowd in English, Korean and Portuguese.
Pre-tournament ritual: “Take a shower.”
Job she would have if she weren’t a golfer: “A nurse or an artist or a teacher.”
TV shows she can’t miss: “ ‘CSI,’ ‘Friends,’ ‘Family Guy’ and ‘House’ -- I don’t like reality shows. It’s just too dramatic for me.”
Favorite food: “Kimchi chigae (a spicy Korean stew) and anything at Cheesecake Factory.”
Why she loves the game: “At home you have to listen to other people, but on the course, you can do whatever you want. Golf is your own game.”
Jiyai Shin, 20
Born: Gwangju, South Korea.
Resides: Yongin, South Korea.
Rookie year: 2009.
Years ago, when Shin was an amateur, her mother was killed in a car accident and her two younger siblings were seriously injured. After the tragedy, she threw herself into practice, finding focus on the fairway. She’s won plenty -- nine out of the 15 Korean Ladies Professional Golf Assn. tournaments she played in 2007 -- and has donated 10% of each paycheck to charity as a way to acknowledge how her family was supported by the community.
Known as “Chalkie” -- her drives soar straight and long like a chalk line -- Shin won last year’s British Open and became the first non-LPGA member to win three events.
Pre-tournament ritual: “I call my father before every tournament. He worries because I travel alone.”
Always travels with: “An ivory teddy bear named Alfred.”
Question she hates being asked: “Reporters always ask about my mom. It’s a little bit difficult.”
Most difficult part of being on the tour: “Carrying all my luggage.”
Why she loves the game: “It amazes me. I’ve played golf for over 10 years, but I still think, ‘How did I hit that ball?’ ”
Seon Hwa Lee, 23
Born: Cheonan, South Korea.
Resides: Lake Mary, Fla.
Rookie year: 2006.
Lee has earned more than $1 million two consecutive years, and she packs just as much of a punch off the golf course. An avid kick boxer who wears hot-pink boxing gloves, she spends free time relieving stress and improving her upper body strength by pounding it out at the gym.
She made news when she turned pro in Korea at age 14, then backed up the hype with a win one year later, becoming the youngest to win on the KLPGA tour. Lee enjoyed similar success when she joined the LPGA in 2006 and was named rookie of the year.
Favorite city on the tour: “Geneva, near the Evian Masters Golf Club. It’s just so beautiful over there. Also, New York, because the shopping is great.”
Music she rocks to: “Ne-Yo, Timbaland, OneRepublic and U2.”
Where she likes to vacation: “Somewhere with a beach and an ocean. When I lived in San Diego initially, I used to go to the ocean regularly. I miss that.”
TV shows she can’t miss: “Everything from ‘American Idol’ to ‘Heroes’ and ‘Gossip Girl’ and ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ ”
What you don’t know about her: “Most people think I’m quiet, but I actually talk a lot.”
Jane Park, 22
Resides: Rancho Cucamonga.
Rookie year: 2007.
Park loves all things made in her birth city Chicago -- including Kanye West and deep-dish pizza -- but the former UCLA student is a diehard Lakers fan and says watching Kobe Bryant sink jump shots helps take her mind off golf. She’s also attached to her iPod, which she hooks up to speakers wherever she goes, including the shower.
She had four top-five finishes last year and donated a portion of her earnings to the Michael J. Fox Foundation to help fund Parkinson’s research.
Music she rocks to: “Oldies, hip-hop, classical, pop, R&B;, jazz and country.”
Job she would have if she weren’t a golfer: “An elementary school teacher.”
Last great book she read: “ ‘Les Miserables’ -- It just grabs you and I couldn’t help but cry, it was so sad.”
The moment she knew she was good at golf: “When I first broke 80. I was 13 and had only been playing golf seriously for about a year.”
What you don’t know about her: “I watch ‘SportsCenter’ every morning.”