Rise of a Nation
October 12, 2021
By Haewon Kang
The following content was first published in Golf Journal, a quarterly print and monthly digital publication exclusively for USGA Members. To be among the first to receive Golf Journal and to learn how you can help make golf more open for all, become a USGA Member today.
Here is a fact many might find surprising: When Se Ri Pak won the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open, she was not only a rookie on the LPGA Tour but also its only Korean player. So the answer to why the Republic of Korea produces so many good golfers, especially women golfers, starts with Pak. But it certainly doesn’t end with her.
“Winning the U.S. Women’s Open as a rookie was the most epic moment of my career, [but] I did not know it could make such an impact on the future of golf in Korea,” said Pak, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame and winner of 25 LPGA titles, including five majors. Many current LPGA players from Korea watched that 1998 win on television and have said it inspired them to pursue golf.
Pak’s success energized an entire generation of Koreans to take up the game, and the nation has since fostered many of the world’s top-ranked players.
There isn’t much difference in how kids start golf in Korea from the rest of the world. They go to a driving range with their parents and start hitting balls for fun. Some show special talent or potential, and an instructor or the parents decide to help them pursue the dream of becoming professional golfers. Still, there are certain things that differentiate Korea.
The Role Model Effect
Pak’s 1998 U.S. Women’s Open victory didn’t just make the nation proud – it totally changed the perception of golf.
Korean golf was still in its infancy, and the game was considered a boring sport for old people. With Pak’s victory, Korea entered a new era.
Her accomplishments lifted the entire Korean golf industry. The number of golf courses in Korea has more than doubled since 1998; the first Korean golf TV channel launched in 1999. Since Pak’s landmark win, native Koreans have won the U.S. Women’s Open 10 times.
Birdie Kim, in 2005, was the next Korean to win the U.S. Women’s Open after Pak, holing out from a bunker on the final hole. “Se Ri paved the road for the future of Korean golf and gave us the courage to give it a shot,” said Kim.
While the success of Korean players has been most notable in women’s golf, the men have also been making their mark. In 2000, K.J. Choi became the first Korean to earn a PGA Tour card and went on to collect eight victories in his career. There are currently eight Korean men on the PGA Tour, including two – Sungjae Im and Si Woo Kim – in the top 50 in the world rankings. They represent the greatest number of players from an Asian nation.
“There are so many junior golfers in Korea today because we had great role models like Se Ri and K.J.,” said Yunhee Han, former head coach for the Korean national team. “They encouraged kids to follow in their footsteps and gave confidence to the younger generation.”
Kids in Korea are taking up the game at increasingly younger ages. Pak began at 14; current LPGA star Hyo-Joo Kim was only 7 when she first picked up a club. Nowadays, it is not unusual to see even 4-year-olds on the range. Ambitious parents think of golf first and foremost as a sport for their children.
Korean junior golfers don’t just start younger today – they get serious more quickly, too, dedicating nearly every free hour to the sport. Combined with a very competitive mindset, this can bring quick results.
“Korean juniors are very purpose-driven. They have a highly competitive spirit and practice all hours except when they go to school. They pour out all of their time and effort into the game of golf,” said Han, who now runs a junior golf academy in the country.
Korean golfers’ success on the world level has come despite less-than-ideal practice environments. All golfers practice off mats, not on real grass, and opportunities to work on or around the green are almost nonexistent. Even pro golfers have a hard time finding a place where they can hit balls off grass. Such limitations lead junior golfers to aspire to bigger tours with world-class practice facilities.
“The influence of parents works as a huge factor for success,” said Birdie Kim. Many parents of top Korean golfers provide transportation, watch practices and competitions, gather information and cater to their child’s needs. Parents invest time and financial resources in order to support their child.
In turn, the children see how much their parents have sacrificed and realize they need to work hard, which creates a deep desire for success. “When I saw my dad beg for my needs, it became a big motivation,” said Pak.
A dual-edged sword, parental support works not only as motivation but also as a source of pressure. “Parental involvement can help a child to grow but can also ruin everything,” said Han, pointing to parents who place too much emphasis on winning and become too controlling.
In Korea, there is usually a significant difference in the parents’ role between male and female golfers. While parents typically remain involved in a daughter’s career even after she has turned pro, this is less likely with a son. As a result, male players are responsible for their own practice and have more freedom. Some have hypothesized that this could be why Korean women have been more successful than their male counterparts.
Korean National Golf Team
The top-tier Korean national golf team is composed of six men and six women; there are 25 players at the second level. The Korean national team holds camps throughout the year. Birdie Kim has worked with the team as a coach for four years, living with team members for several months annually. She helps improve their golf skills, mental game and conditioning. “I try to guide the national team to set clear goals and to build a strong mentality,” she said.
A typical day stretches from 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., with the Korean Golf Association (KGA) funding the entire program, including accommodations. The camp provides courses and good practice facilities, including short-game areas.
“To get onto the team, players have to earn enough points through several designated tournaments,” said Kim. “The juniors are eager to make it because being a member of the national team means they are the best players in Korea, representing the country. They get high-quality training programs at no charge and even get paid when they participate in a camp. They also get invited to international competitions and professional tournaments.”
Pak remembered that being on the team was a huge benefit to her growth, and that the competition was fierce. These experiences give players the means to win immediately when they turn pro. Han also emphasizes the impact and the importance of the national team’s training system.
“We select the players a year ahead and give them all the necessary training, including golf skills, sense of belonging and a strong mentality. They learn a lot from the experience,” he said. It is hard to find a successful professional from Korea who was not a national team member.
Women Lead the Way
It’s an open question why Korean females have generated more success than male golfers. Men and women are not trained differently. Whatever the reasons, the LPGA Tour of Korea (KLPGA) is more popular in the country than the men’s tour, with more events, more spectators, better television ratings and higher levels of sponsorship. These reduced opportunities for men are exacerbated by Korea’s mandatory two-year military service for men.
There is a golf audition show on Korean television called “Hero Tomorrow by Se Ri Pak.” Pak is the main judge on a panel that provides opportunities to talented players. The show underscores how popular golf is in Korea. “I achieved my dream, and my path became others’ dreams,” said Pak. “I’d like to help the dreams come true. I will raise a voice for juniors. I am happy to make a way for future generations. I think that’s my job.”
Han mentioned that, unlike basketball, volleyball or track and field, golfers do not have to be physically imposing to play the sport well. Skill and heart are all that matter. Korean players have a strong spirit and passion for golf that help them overcome environmental limitations with committed effort. That is the basis and key to every player’s success.