Yong Su Rhee sprints up the side of a mountain, toward a Buddhist temple. Reaching a stone monument alongside the trail, he stops. “This is Korea,” he says, pointing to the monument. “This is the start of democracy in Korea. This is what made it possible for golf and everything else.”
The monument celebrates the student revolution of April 1960 that forced the resignation of autocratic president Syngman Rhee. It paved the way for a new government of the people. Yong Su Rhee (no relation to the former president) was one of the leaders of the revolution. Now he points proudly to his name engraved on the stone.
Today, 44 years later, it might be possible to stand on a golf course and say, “This is Korea.” What has occurred in this country in recent years is nothing short of a golf revolution, particularly among women.
The facts speak for themselves: Other than the United States, no country has more women on the LPGA Tour than South Korea. You might have thought Sweden? It’s not even close; South Korea outnumbers the Swedes, 21-11.
Of the top four LPGA earnings leaders in 2003, three were Korean. If you check the passport of No. 1 Annika Sorenstam, it says Sweden. Behind her were Se Ri Pak, Grace Park and Hee-Won Han.
Through the first six tournaments of 2004, the Koreans were at it again – they occupied four of the top seven spots on the money list (Park being No. 1, joined by Mi-Hyun Kim, Jung Yeon Lee and Aree Song). Sorenstam, Cristie Kerr (an American) and Jennifer Rosales (a Filipino) were the other three.
Of the past six LPGA Rookie of the Year winners, three were Korean (Pak, Kim and Han).
In the first major of 2004, the Kraft Nabisco Championship, both the winner (Park) and runner-up (Song) were Korean. Fourth-place finisher Michelle Wie, a 14-year-old amateur, is the child of two Korean parents. Because Wie was born in Hawaii, she is a U.S. citizen. (Song, formerly Aree Wongluekiet, is half Thai, although she markets herself as Korean.)
More revealing than their statistical success is their journey to the pinnacle of women’s golf, a story all the more remarkable because there is no golf history to speak of in Korea. The bloody Korean War ended in 1953, and the massive student revolution occurred seven years later. As Yong Su Rhee reminds all who will listen, it was only 50 years ago when most people in Korea didn’t have enough food to eat, let alone golf courses on which to play.
But a confluence of factors – Se Ri Pak’s influence as a role model, a cultural belief that women are tougher than men and tireless family support for junior golfers – explains the rapid emergence of Korea’s world-class female players.
And their impact certainly won’t be limited to the professional arena. These pioneers are popularizing golf as a recreational sport for all South Koreans, helping create affordable courses and developing a vibrant equipment marketplace.
Korea is a peninsula at the far eastern edge of Asia. North Korea, a totalitarian state in which virtually no golf is played, reportedly has only two golf courses. More than 70 percent of democratic South Korea is mountainous, and flat land is so precious for agriculture and housing that courses can’t be built there.
Of the 170 courses in South Korea, 13 are located on Jeju Island, with another 27 in development on the resort paradise located off the southeastern tip of the mainland. Practice facilities are so scarce in Korea that many golfers hit virtually all of their golf balls at crowded, multi-decked practice ranges.
Golf in Korea is expensive with a capital “E.”
A full set of new clubs has a price tag of about $4,000. Most Korean courses are private, with some memberships openly trading in the $400,000 range and almost all of them selling for at least $100,000. For golfers who cannot afford memberships, green fees are costly, averaging about $200.
Moreover, the country has four distinct seasons, and winters can be bitterly cold. Many Koreans play in the snow with pink golf balls. They are aided by savvy courses, which use plows to push the snow to the sides of fairways.
None of these obstacles, however, has been able to stop the onslaught of Korean golfers.
As early as 1979, golf began percolating here in the form of a junior program begun by the Korea Golf Association. Aimed at cultivating the country’s best young golfers, the program helps the KGA create a list each year of the top 26 girls and 26 boys. These golfers compete for positions in an elite winter golf camp, as well as coveted spots on the national team (six girls and six boys).
Although it is widely assumed that many young Korean players attend golf schools or academies in the United States, this is not necessarily true. Pak, Kim and Han, the three LPGA Rookies of the Year from Korea, came out of the Korean junior program and played on the national team.
But it was Pak who, as an LPGA rookie, stunned the golf world by winning the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open. It set the stage for golf to become Korea’s leading sport and elevated women athletes to a higher pedestal. The country has never excelled in any athletic endeavor as it has in golf. Koreans aren’t blind to this reality, and they are following the sport with unrestrained passion.
“I was watching Grace Park jump into the water (after winning the Kraft Nabisco),” says Sue M. Kim of Field Consultant, the oldest of Korea’s golf course design firms. “They repeated it five or six times. Then they showed other (past) winners and how they jumped. They could have had a whole show about jumping in the water.”
Golf is so new to the country that the Koreans have got it backward (just ask any American): Most Koreans would rather watch a women’s tournament than a men’s tournament.
Perhaps the Koreans know something that Americans don’t. They are fostering a thoroughly modern attitude toward female athletes. This is sports equality the way it was envisioned.
Says Dong-Ok Lee, vice president of the Korean College Golf Association and director of student affairs at Konkuk University boys don’t concentrate as much. When the girls first started playing golf, their parents weren’t that rich. The poorer you are, the more you concentrate.”
Lee points out that Korean girls “train just like the boys. We don’t treat women the way Americans do. We expect them to be tough. We’ve seen Annika Sorenstam cry (in the Solheim Cup) and Karrie Webb throw clubs, but Korean girls are trained not to do that. They keep it to themselves. They are warriors.”
Others provide more cultural insights:
Young-Sun Lim, vice president of the Korea Golf Association: “In Korea, the family is more important (than in America). The parents give everything for their children. They are always there to support their kids. They follow them everywhere.
“Parents have taught their children that the mind is the big difference. The Asian people are smaller in stature, but we can stand with the Western people in golf. We are very strong mentally.”
Says Myung-Gil Kim, Korea’s most prolific golf course architect: “For Korean women, endurance and patience is in their blood. For centuries and centuries, they were asked to obey men, to be an ideal wife or mother. Hard work and hard training is easier for them. Women are very good at training their minds, but men have been spoiled for a long time.”
Which begins to address the obvious question: Why haven’t Korean men been as successful in the sport?
The suggested mental frailty aside, societal pressures and national duties are interfering with men’s golf.
For starters, every young man in South Korea must serve in the army, a commitment of at least 21⁄2 years.
T.K. Jeong played on the Golden Bear Tour last year in Florida. Now he has returned to Asia to play in 2004.
“I was in the army,” he says. “It comes at the time when you’re playing your best golf. It just disrupts everything. Your game is just put on hold.”
Professor H.J. Won, who teaches sports marketing and theories of leisure at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, refers to them as “golf soldiers,” adding, “That name is commonly used, and everybody knows how this army service hurts the golfers. It comes at a time when they need to be developing their games.”
K.J. Choi, a former weightlifter and third-place finisher in this year’s Masters, overcame this hurdle. Tour rookie Kevin Na, born in Seoul, simply sidestepped it by moving to the United States with his family when he was 8.
Korean men also have far more career options than women, making singular focus on golf difficult.
“There is much pressure on men to study hard for entrance to college and then to have a profession,” says Chun Kyu Yu, chairman of the International Contractors Association of Korea. “First you get a good job, then you can play golf. Girls may decide to become professional golfers, but boys in this culture have other considerations.”
For women, however, the appeal of a professional golf career continues to grow.
“Korean society is influenced by old Confucianism, which emphasized that your status is determined by your social standing,” says professor Won. “Korean girls learn this very early. If they play golf, the American market becomes the big ocean. Their status will come up if they get their tour card. When they come back to Korea, it will make a very good impact for their life and their income in general.”
With so much at stake, it’s no wonder Korean women demonstrate such focus and determination. It’s only a half-joke if you hear an LPGA player talking about two ways to develop a better mental game: Go see a sports psychologist, or go watch the Koreans.
Most appear unflappable. They are demonstrably dedicated to their task. Such traits are even evident in Wie, who’s only 14: Off the course she is a giggly teen-ager, but on it, she’s thoroughly mature and methodical.
Anyone who doubts Korean women’s commitment to the game wasn’t listening to Grace Park at the Kraft Nabisco.
“We’re just good. What can I say?” Park said. “But we’re all very hardworking players, and we have that craving that everybody wants to succeed. And it’s obviously showing.”
This Korean golf explosion hasn’t surprised Hyunjee Chun, the highly successful coach of the Korean girls’ national team.
In three years, averaging five international matches per year, Korea has never lost a match.
What lies ahead for Korean golf? More public golf, for one thing. Lim of the Korea Golf Association says his goal is to reduce green fees from $200 to $100.
Yong Su Rhee, the former revolutionary, owns a factory in China, manufacturing golf bags, headcovers and other golf items under the name Jason Industries. Here in Seoul, he is campaigning for additional public golf courses.
“Very, very important,” he says. “Many people have prospered in this economy, and now they need recreation. They need golf.”
The country needs more courses, period. However, the process is slow, with government approval often taking three to four years.
According to figures from the KGA, the average golf course in Korea plays host to about 80,000 rounds per year – twice the average in the United States.
Memberships at private clubs are bought and sold through independent brokers, making it something like a stock exchange for golf. Some Koreans look at these memberships as investments. With luck, the value will increase over the years.
Golf memberships generally are for individuals, not families. Women have benefited from a new class of membership allowing golf on weekdays but not weekends. These memberships are much less expensive.
Even practice range memberships are costly, with the average being $150 to $170 per month.
Because virtually all mainland courses in Korea are built in the mountains, the expense can be enormous. At Vision Hills Golf Club outside Seoul, designers Tiger Song and Perry Dye literally moved a mountain by moving more than 5 million cubic yards of dirt.
A comparable figure for an average American course is about 500,000 cubic yards.
Song, pointing to his creation, says the entire project, including land cost, golf course and clubhouse construction, had a staggering price tag of $80 million. This helps explain the $400,000 membership price.
Although golf clubs and balls cost roughly twice as much as they do in the United States, help is on the way. The South Korean government has announced that in 2005 the tax on golf equipment will be reduced from 26 percent to 6 percent.
This is good news for American manufacturers such as Callaway Golf.
“The Korean market is an important territory for market opportunities,” says Callaway CEO Ron Drapeau, “as golf has been fortunate to be the sport of choice for a number of world-class Korean athletes who now play on professional tours around the world. The market has had a number of interesting twists and turns as various governments over the last 10 years have had both supportive and nonsupportive positions on the game as a lifestyle.
“Through these differing views and through boom and bust economic cycles, golf has developed an active participant following. I believe it will be a strong market for years to come.”
And Korea may be the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to golf in this part of the world.
Chun, the girls’ national team coach, sees the Thais and Chinese as potential golf powerhouses.
“At our last tournament,” Chun says, “coaches from Thailand and China had cameras out on the range, taping our players.
“They want to be better, and I don’t think there’s any question that they will be.”