When South Korea’s domestic women’s golf tour held its premier event last week — without spectators because of the COVID-19 pandemic — no fewer than three of the world’s top 10 players took part.
The country of 52 million people has a disproportionate share of the women’s world golf rankings, providing eight of the current top 20.
In a demonstration of their prominence, South Korean women have won at least one major every season since 2010, with coronavirus cancellations perhaps the biggest threat to their run this year.
The phenomenon, players and commentators have said, results from driven parents, intense training, a highly competitive society, sponsorship money and the shining example of 25-time LPGA winner Pak Se-ri.
South Korea ranks eighth globally for number of golf courses, with 798 across 440 facilities, Royal and Ancient’s Golf in the World report last year said.
Funding allows players to concentrate on training, said Chosun Ilbo golf journalist Min Hak-soo, while “sponsors invest hoping that their players will raise national pride, just like Pak.”
Kim, 27, is just one of the South Korean women to follow in the footsteps of Pak, who won the 1998 US Open at the age of 20 in her rookie season, becoming the first Asian to win the oldest LPGA major.
Pak became the poster-girl for a South Korean golfing boom, paving a “glittering golden path for an entire generation of young [South] Korean golfers,” Asian Golf Industry Federation chief representative Spencer Robinson said.
Her victory — including a barefoot shot from the water that contrasted her pale feet against her suntanned legs, a testament to endless hours of practice — made her a national hero as the country reeled from the Asian financial crisis.
In a culture where success in international sporting competition is celebrated as symbolizing national power, Pak was awarded the Order of Merit title that year and went on to win four more LPGA majors.
“If it wasn’t for her, we would not have even recognized there was a career path in the US LPGA,” Kim said. “She is a trailblazer.”
When she was young, Pak’s father reportedly took her to cemeteries in the dead of night to practice her swing next to the graves, to toughen her up.
Pak later denied it ever happened, but that did not stop others from being inspired by what was seen as the secret to her success, including former world No. 1 Inbee Park.
Regardless of the truth of the story, Pak’s father’s “grueling training regimens instilled in her a deep sense of discipline alien to Westerners,” Robinson said. “Those methods proved a winning template that has been unashamedly mimicked by [South] Korean parents. The many dozens of [South] Korean [women] who have become golfing multi-millionaires ... owe a huge debt of gratitude to Pak.”
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