Kim leads growing Korean presence on PGA Tour
LA QUINTA, Calif. – Bio Kim, the PGA Tour’s youngest member, is bouncing a ball on his wedge during another wait at the Bob Hope Classic. With the group ahead still on the tee, Kim has plenty of time for some tricks before playing the second hole at PGA West’s Palmer Private Course. He bounces the ball behind his back, then with the wedge between his legs. For the grand finale, Kim impresses his gallery of about 15 by sending the ball skyward, crouching, then catching it on the back of his neck.
This routine may look familiar. Kim, 21, learned it from those popular 1999 Nike commercials with Tiger Woods. Kim’s presence on the PGA Tour, especially at this early age, is a direct result of such Western influence, and could represent the start of a trend.
This week is not the time for fun and games, though. Kim and his countryman, Sunghoon Kang, are fighting for their PGA Tour cards at the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic, the final event of the PGA Tour season.
Kim finished Friday’s second round tied for the lead with Justin Leonard and Henrik Stenson at 12 under par. Kim needs a second-place finish or better this week to keep his PGA Tour card. He started the week at No. 168 on the PGA Tour money list. Kang started the week at No. 141 on the money list, also needing a high finish to avoid another trip to Q-School.
No matter what happens this week, Kim and Kang represent the beginning of a trend.
Y.E. Yang’s 2009 PGA Championship victory was expected to herald a larger Korean contingent on Tour. Yang, the first Asian man to win a major, would pave the way for his countrymen to come stateside, just as Se Ri Pak’s two major victories in 1998 started the Korean women’s dominance of the LPGA.
Kim is one of six Koreans with full PGA Tour status, 11-plus years after K.J. Choi became the first Korean to earn a Tour card. Kim and Kang both graduated from last December’s Q-School. Six other Koreans have full Nationwide Tour status, up from two in 2006.
Kim, a lean 6 feet and 178 pounds, grew up in an era of globalization, with Woods perhaps the world’s most recognizable celebrity.
“Since I was a little kid, my goal has been to play the PGA Tour,” said Kim, a Seoul native. "That's where Tiger and Phil play."
The PGA Tour hasn’t been easy for Kim and Kang, though. Kim has missed 15 of 24 cuts this year. A tie for 11th at the Puerto Rico Open is his best finish. Kang, 24, held the 18-hole lead at the Farmers Insurance Open and lost a playoff at a Nationwide Tour event, but his seventh-place finish at the Viking Classic is his only top-10.
The biggest significance of Kim and Kang’s Q-School graduation? It shows an increasing desire by Korean men to play the PGA Tour at a younger age instead of developing their games closer to home. By comparison, Choi was 29 when he earned his first card. Yang was 35.
Years ago, Koreans were reluctant to leave Asia because of cultural and language barriers, said Ted Oh, 34, a Nationwide Tour player who was born in Seoul and played college golf from UNLV. Through globalization, Western culture has become more common in Korea. Seoul’s hosting of the 1988 Summer Olympics further opened the country to the world. Kim and Kang speak fluent English.
Choi didn’t decide to compete in the U.S. until playing the 1997 World Cup at Kiawah Island, S.C., four years after he turned pro.
“Prior to that, I’d never really seen how a golf tournament was played over here,” said Choi, winner of this year's Players Championship. “I was blown away by how professionally the tournaments were operated, the course conditions, the greens. That was the changing point in my life.”
The PGA Tour has increased its visibility in South Korea in recent years. PGA Tour golf, via a U.S. feed and with Korean announcers, was televised 1,200 live hours in 2010, equal to the airtime in the United States and more than double the amount in 2000. The biggest moment that Koreans witnessed came when Yang powerlifted his TaylorMade staff bag over his head after defeating Woods to win the ’09 PGA Championship at Hazeltine.
“He was the same player as a lot of other players in Korea, and then he beat Tiger Woods,” Kim said. “We thought it was almost impossible to beat Tiger Woods in the final round of a major.”
One PGA Tour player manager estimated there will be 20 players of Korean descent on the PGA Tour in five years. A large increase, but still well short of the 43 Korean women on the LPGA this year.
Results of recent elite amateur competition point toward Korean growth on Tour. Four of the 11 amateurs who earned exemptions into the 2010 and ’11 Masters were Korean-born (another 2011 Masters qualifier, U.S. Amateur runner-up David Chung, is Korean-American). Those players include Byeong-Hun An, the 2009 U.S. Amateur champion, and 2010 British Amateur winner Jin Jeong.
Korean men must overcome two obstacles unique to their gender: increased competitive depth and South Korea’s two-year military requirement.
In their attempts to replicate the successes of Yang and Choi, many promising Koreans move to the U.S., Australia or New Zealand. They want better courses and climate, and to avoid their homeland’s military requirement. This also means that, unlike the LPGA, language is not a barrier for many of the Koreans who come to the PGA and Nationwide tours.
Kang, a semifinalist at both the U.S. Junior and U.S. Amateur Public Links in his amateur days, started coming to Texas at age 15 to compete in tournaments and work with instructor Hank Haney. Kang also learned English during his trips. Kim learned English while living in California as a teenager.
“Older players, they didn’t have a lot of money to play golf,” said Kang, of Jeju, an island off the southern tip of the peninsula. “Now, parents are really supporting golf for their kids. They can come here more often than the older players and have more experience in the States.”
Increased riches on the PGA Tour undoubtedly have influenced families’ decisions to invest in their sons’ golf careers.
“My dad asked me when I was young, ‘Do you want to play golf?’ ” Kim said. “He said, ‘As soon as you play, you’re not going to quit.’ ”
Kim’s family moved to Irvine, Calif., when he was 12 and stayed about four years before returning to Korea. They moved after the 100-yard-long driving range and six-hole 1-2-3 Golf course in Seoul weren’t sufficient to aid his development.
Land is at a premium in South Korea. It is the world’s 108th-largest country - about the size of Indiana - but with a population (48.6 million) ranking 26th. Many Korean courses, especially near the capital of Seoul, are short and tight, which led many players to develop games that emphasize accuracy over distance, Kang said. His generation grew up watching the bomb-and-gouge mentality take hold of the PGA Tour, though.
Korean men and women share one key trait: a tireless work ethic. Kim called it “one of our traditions.” Erik Horve, director of golf instruction at Tustin Ranch Golf Club, Kim’s home course in Tustin, Calif., remembers Kim hitting balls on an empty driving range during rainstorms.
“He didn’t care what the weather was like; he’d be out there,” Horve said. “We just kind of knew that he was going to be the one to make it. If you gave him something to work on, he’d work on it tirelessly.”
In spite of increased playing opportunities in Asia, including the OneAsia Tour and co-sanctioned European Tour events, more Korean men are eager to play in the U.S. Kim estimated that 25 Koreans attempted Q-School in 2010.
The Korean men also benefit from a strong player-development system. The national team practices up to 200 days per year in advance of the quadrennial Asian Games.
South Korea has won the team and individual competitions at the past two Asian Games. Kang played on the 2006 gold-medal-winning team with Kyung-tae Kim, the individual medalist. Kyung-tae Kim, at No. 21, is the highest-ranked Korean in the Official World Golf Ranking.
“They are getting great coaching,” said Brad Schadewitz, an American expatriate who coaches Hong Kong’s national team. “The support they get from the community and golf association is second to none. They work hard and are pushed harder than any other country I have seen.”
And they’re bringing their talents to the United States in increasing numbers.