Pioneer Pak blazed trail for Korean golfers to follow

Updated: June 29, 2007, 7:23 PM ET
By Bob Harig | Special to ESPN.com

SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. -- She must sometimes wonder what she started. If Se Ri Pak chose to study the scoreboard Friday at the U.S. Women's Open, she would have been awash with pride, seeing her country's flag beside so many names.

Then again, all of the South Koreans who have come over to the United States -- many because of Pak's success -- are making the task of winning tournaments all the more difficult, even for Pak, already eligible for the LPGA Hall of Fame at age 29.

The trend has been building for years, since Pak won two majors in 1998, including the U.S. Women's Open. And it is apparent again this week as players from South Korea dominate the leaderboard at Pine Needles Golf Club.

She [Se Ri Pak] is one of the reasons I began playing golf. More than Annika Sorenstam, more than Julie Inkster. She looks like me. She is a Korean woman and showed it was possible. That helped. It's like Michael Jordan out there. She is like a god almost."

-- Christina Kim

South Koreans occupy three of the top seven spots at the weather-delayed tournament and 10 of the top 38. The leader in the clubhouse, In-Bee Park, is from South Korea and while the tournament leader, Angela Park is from Brazil, she was born to Korean parents. Park, who shot 68 in the first round, never teed off Friday. Nor did Pak, who is tied for 39th at 3 over par.

"When she first came here and won, that's when the craze started," said LPGA Tour player Jeong Jang, 27, who is from Taejeon, South Korean but now lives in Orlando. "The game is getting more and more popular. There are many, many excellent players back home, both younger ones and ones who don't want to come play in America because it's so far from home and differently culturally."

Despite those differences, South Korean golfers continue to flock to the United States. Since Pak -- who has 23 LPGA titles, including five majors -- won the LPGA Championship and Women's Open within two months in 1998, parents all over South Korea have started their daughters in the game.

The explosion continues. There are 45 South Koreans eligible to compete on the LPGA Tour this year. (Ten years ago, the season before Pak arrived, there were just five.) Those players have accounted for 34 victories, not counting Pak. Five of the last nine rookies of the year have been from South Korea. Last year, there were seven among the top 20 money winners.

And the numbers should continue to rise, as Koreans have become known for their dedication to fitness and practice.

"We grew up that way," Pak said. "The culture says that's the way you play golf. Here you can practice all the time because of the courses available. It's not that way in Korea."

An excellent example is Inn-Bee Park, 18, who shot 73 Friday and is at 142, even par -- the lowest score of any player who has completed 36 holes. Park started playing golf eight years ago at age 10, just after Pak's rise to prominence.

"She definitely influenced me picking up the golf clubs," said Park, who is good friends and often travels with Angela Park [no relation], who was the first-round leader. "Right when she won the U.S. Women's Open in 1998, I started playing golf, because it got big in Korea, and my parents wanted me to try golf out. She is one of my heroes on the tour."

Park and her family moved to the United States when she was 12, first to Florida and later to Las Vegas, where she now lives. She found success on the junior circuit, winning the 2002 U.S. Girls' Junior Championship. In 2004, she defeated Michelle Wie (whose parents are Korean) in the second round of the 2004 U.S. Women's Amateur. Last year she played on the Futures Tour and is a rookie on the LPGA Tour this season, although she has made just six cuts and her best finish is a tie for 45th.

Grace Park did not need Pak to give her a nudge. Park, 28, has long been destined for stardom, although injuries have hampered her the past three seasons. A six-time winner, including the 2004 Kraft Nabisco, Park moved from Seoul at age 13 to Hawaii, where she lived with relatives so she could work on her golf. She later moved to Arizona and went to Arizona State, where she stayed for two years and won numerous titles, including the U.S. Women's Amateur. Park turned pro in 1999.

"This country offers so much more than anywhere else," she said. "That's why we come here. This is where the best courses are, the best teachers, the best competition. I think that will stay for a long time."

Mi Hyun Kim, 30, who has the most wins of a Korean player behind Pak with eight, pointed to Pak's success, saying the LPGA was rarely seen on TV in Korea before she started winning.

"Before, golf was just like a sport for rich people," said Kim, who is 3 over par through 17 holes. "Now they're watching the LPGA in Korea and cheering us on."

Many of the South Koreans are between the ages of 18 and 22 and list their fathers as having the biggest influence on their careers. That would explain why many travel with their families and defer to dad for all kinds of advice.

It was Pak who told the story that her father had her train by walking up stairs backwards and helped her to overcome fear by sleeping in a graveyard. And since many of the parents don't speak English -- or because players are chasing a dream to help support families both in American and at home -- there can be immense pressure.

"They practice hard, always practice hard," Kim said. "Normally people travel on Monday after a Sunday tournament, but when they get to the next tournament, Korean people are always on the driving range with their parents."

Nobody, however, has come close to duplicating Pak's success. Only three other South Koreans have won more than two tournaments: Mi Hyun Kim (eight), Grace Park (six) and Hee-Won Han (six). And of the last 20 tournaments won by Koreans, 16 have been by different players, with two victories apiece by Han, Kim, Jang and Meena Lee.

This surge of success by South Korean golfers has been good business for the LPGA Tour, which collects its largest television rights outside of the United States from Korea, as well as healthy merchandise sales. The tour also has an event in Korea -- the Korea Championship -- as well as tournaments in Thailand and Japan.

All of this has occurred despite obstacles. North Korea, a totalitarian state, has virtually no golf. South Korea has less than 200 courses -- or about 1/5th of the number in Florida -- with limited practice facilities.

And nearly all of the success is by women. K.J. Choi is the only South Korean man to win on the PGA Tour, and his is an amazing story itself. He hails from an island off the coast of South Korea called Wando, where there were no golf courses. He got started as a teenager by reading a Jack Nicklaus instruction book.

Meanwhile, 38 percent of the LPGA's foreign membership is made up of South Koreans, who occupy three of the top 10 spots on the money list and nine of the top 30. There are 13 South Koreans who are rookies.

And it all goes back to Pak, who proved it was possible.

"She is one of the reasons I began playing golf," said Christina Kim, an American whose parents are from South Korea. "More than Annika Sorenstam, more than Julie Inkster. She looks like me. She is a Korean woman and showed it was possible. That helped. It's like Michael Jordan out there. She is like a god almost."

Bob Harig is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com