In LPGA, Asian players get firm grip on success

Golf: Led by South Koreans, Asians are beginning to dominate the women's tour, but not everyone associated with the sport is happy about it.

Golf

May 16, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

When Grace Park of South Korea was about to play Jenny Chuasiriporn in the final of the 1998 U.S. Women's Amateur in Ann Arbor, Mich., an official from the U.S. Golf Association was asked by a young fan whom she was rooting for.

"Well, Jenny, of course; she's American," the official said, referring to the Baltimore amateur who had lost to another South Korean, Se Ri Pak, earlier that summer in a playoff of the U.S. Women's Open.

Park gave notice that day of her future promise, winning easily over Chuasiriporn, then an All-American at Duke.

Pak had already won the LPGA Championship by the time she had survived a 20-hole struggle against Chuasiriporn for the Women's Open title. She finished her rookie season with four victories and was second on the money list.

That summer was the beginning of what has become dominance by South Koreans in women's golf - and perhaps some resentment from Americans who had always been the LPGA Tour's biggest force and from other foreign players who had started to carve their niche.

Pak's victory in last week's Michelob Ultra Open in Williamsburg, Va., made the 26-year-old eligible for the LPGA Hall of Fame once she completes 10 years on tour. Park, 25, who won the season's first major at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, is considered one of the tour's breakthrough stars.

Park and Pak rank second and third, respectively, on this year's money list behind Annika Sorenstam. But they aren't the only South Koreans making a name for themselves, not to mention a nice living, on the LPGA Tour.

At the time of Pak's U.S. Open victory, there were only two other South Koreans on the tour. Now there are 21, along with 10 other players of Asian descent. Of this year's top 30 money-winners, nine are South Korean. Another Asian player, Jennifer Rosales of the Phillipines, is ranked seventh.

Culture of success

How did a country where most of the golf is played at private, male-dominated clubs turn out so many good female players? Much of the boom in South Korea is traced to Pak's victory six years ago, but the current success on the tour is also deeply rooted in the Asian culture.

"I've said it all along, that it's got to be hard work," Park, 25, said last week in Williamsburg. "There is no other explanation."

Jonathan Kim, a South Korean who coaches and caddies for LPGA rookie Jinnie Lee, said "parents may think they can make a better life for their daughter."

Aree Song was 11 when her South Korean father and Thai mother moved from Thailand to Florida so that she and her twin sister, Naree, could start taking lessons from famed teacher David Leadbetter. Aree Song, who recently turned 18, is 11th on this year's money list as a rookie; Naree plays on the Futures Tour.

"Girls over in Korea saw Se Ri winning and others doing well, and they wanted to be out there, too," said Aree Song, who has adopted her father's South Korean heritage to represent on tour.

While American pros include swing coaches and sports psychologists in their entourages, Asian players typically travel with one or both of their parents, who do everything from cook to caddie to control all aspects of their child's career.

"They are very strict even though everybody is grown up," said Park, whose parents sent her to live in Hawaii at the age of 13 to give her more opportunities to play. "They guide them and they support them and they make sure that golf is the only thing they have to think about."

Influx good or bad?

But this difference in cultures also has caused a difference of opinion about whether the influx of Asians is good for the LPGA. Some have gone as far as to suggest that the LPGA should change its name to the Ladies Professional Golf of Asia.

The ill will that had been simmering for a couple of years bubbled over last fall, when former LPGA star Jan Stephenson said in an interview with Golf Magazine that "the Asians are killing the tour ... absolutely killing it ... they're taking it over."

The interview criticized the Asian players for their "lack of emotion" and unwillingness to learn or speak English, particularly during pro-ams.

Stephenson, who is Australian, had a suggestion for LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw.

"Our tour is predominantly international and the majority of them are Asian," Stephenson said. "If I were commissioner, I would have a quota on international players and that would include a quota on Asian players. As it is, they're taking American money, and American sponsors are picking up the bill."

Another veteran player said last week that Stephenson wasn't off-base in her comments about the lack of etiquette from the South Korean players.

"Sometimes it's nice to say, `Good shot,' and recognize the other players," said the veteran, who asked not to be identified. "We hear they're not allowed to say, `Good shot.' Since they are such a big part of our tour, it's important that they learn what is needed from them, not just the golf part."

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