Koreans' challenge on LPGA: Turn success into recognition

Inbee Park celebrates after making the final putt to win the Kraft Nabisco Championship.

PITTSFORD, N.Y. – The chances of an Asian-born player winning the Wegmans LPGA Championship are about as good as Thursday’s forecast for rain. Well, maybe not 90 percent strong, but showing up without an umbrella would be downright foolish. Same for betting against the Asians.

Asian-born players have won the past eight LPGA majors. The tour brought in three of its top-ranked Korean players – World No. 1 Inbee Park, No. 3 Na Yeon Choi and No. 9 Jiyai Shin – for a pre-tournament press conference at Locust Hill Country Club. They have combined for $20 million in earnings and 24 victories, including five majors.

Why the collective success?

“I don’t know,” said Park, smiling. “It’s in our blood. I think maybe we have dominant blood.”

Seven of the top-10 players in the world are Asian. Four of those seven are South Korean. Their straight, consistent games and even-tempered demeanors are ideal for major conditions. American Stacy Lewis’ victory at the 2011 Kraft Nabisco Championship was the last time a non-Asian player won a major.

Naturally, Se Ri Pak was mentioned. Hardly a press conference goes by for Korean players that Pak’s trailblazing efforts aren’t mentioned.

An interesting question was posed to this generation of Korean stars: If these three players walked together in downtown Seoul, without their golf clothes on, what would happen?

“I think all the old guys who watch golf will recognize us,” Park said. “If we were to go to a golf course, it’s definite. But just walking down Seoul with a bunch of young people, we have a slim chance.”

In Korea, Choi said, residents say it’s difficult to recognize her without the hat. In America, she won the 2010 Vare Trophy and felt anonymous even with the hat. That’s when Choi decided that if she wanted American fans to know her name, she’d have to learn English.

For Park, it was an easier transition, having moved to the U.S. at age 12. Even then she had a tough time early on in junior tournaments when she didn’t have a caddie.

“I didn’t know how to ask ‘tend the pins,’ ” Park said, “so I just putted without knowing where the hole was.”

Shin stands out with her colorful hair, mixing it up with bold colors every other week. An aspiring singer, Shin has two albums out in Korea, but that kind of trivia is lost on the average American fan.

The LPGA’s task of helping U.S. fans differentiate between a host of players who have similar games and, oftentimes, similar names, remains a difficult one. Players such as Choi and Shin have come a long way in their ability to tell their stories. That being said, even they acknowledge that, despite their overwhelming success on the LPGA, they’re not exactly rock stars in any time zone.

“It’s tougher for us,” Park said of her Korean compatriots. “It’s tougher for us than other people to get recognized.”

Still, they keep winning.

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