INCHEON, South Korea – It was oddly quiet on the eve of the UL International Crown. With the course closed to spectators for the event’s pro-am, a common practice in South Korea, only a handful of fans approached South Korean superstar Sung Hyun Park as she walked off the 18th at Jack Nicklaus Golf Club.
But just wait. In less than 24 hours, the atmosphere at the third staging of this world-class team event will be downright electric with around 30,000 fans expected. The total numbers for the week could easily rival what the Presidents Cup drew here in 2015, if the weather cooperates.
All four players on South Korea’s team boast major championships. They’re sports heroes in Korea, with dedicated fan clubs who travel the globe to watch them compete. Eight countries qualified for the International Crown, but the vast majority of the crowd will be focused on the last two tee times, where South Korea takes on Chinese Taipei.
Candie Kung vowed to bring an air horn on Thursday to help control the crowds.
“You’re going to hear cell phones clicking, ringing, people walking, talking, anything you can think of it’s going to happen tomorrow,” said Kung. “We’re all expecting that to happen. … There is going to be a point where I’m probably not going to be able to walk from the green to the tee box. It’s happened to some players at Hana Bank before. I’m sure it’s going to happen here tomorrow.”
Kung and Phoebe Yao will take on World No. 1 Park and In-Kyung Kim in Friday foursomes. In Gee Chun and So Yeon Ryu will square off against Teresa Lu and Wei-Ling Hsu.
Park’s caddie, David Jones, said the craziest day he has experienced working in Asia came last year at the LPGA KEB Hana Bank Championship when Jin Young Ko and Minjee Lee were paired with his boss in the final group on Sunday. Jones said there were over 20,000 fans following the group.
“It was just absolute carnage,” he said. “You can’t police it. It’s too much. In fact, the more you try to police the more noise you create.”
So Yeon Ryu said South Korean fans tend to be more aggressive than an American crowd. She had message for fans before the start of the event.
“If there was one favor I could ask to the gallery or the crowds that will be showing up,” said Ryu, “I think that if they could refrain from very, very sharp criticism that would help as well. With the game of golf, you never know who is going to win until you take off the gloves.
“Of course we need to take advice, but really painful, sharp criticism can actually erode our confidence. I think that if we were given a lot of support during the event then we would definitely be able to win this time.”
Team USA won’t actually square off against the South Koreans in four-ball competition as the top two seeds are in separate pools. While there’s an unmistakable home-field advantage, Cristie Kerr sees the other side of it too.
“I think that all of the pressure is on them this week,” said Kerr. “They’re playing in front of their home crowd, and the Korean people can put a lot of expectations on the Korean golfers. The pressure is on them. We’re going out swinging, firing, and we’re going to keep it loose. We’re not going to feel all the pressure that they feel this week. I can assure you that.”
The favorites every year on paper, South Korea has yet to actually win this event. Spain triumphed at the inaugural competition in 2014 and the U.S. followed in ’16. South Korea finished one point behind the U.S. at the Merit Club. Ryu is the only returner from that team.
“I think the lack of experience of the match play was a factor in how we attack the course,” said Ryu. “You need some information and experience and know-how on how to do the pairings and the strategy.”
The rest of the world can only hope South Korea has more to learn.