Who will be the next Se Ri Pak?
The Koreans have been impressive in the numbers game on the LPGA, flooding the tour with 45 players this year, triple the number of Sweden, which has the second-most non-American members. The question now is who among Koreans is capable of emerging as a dominant player. Except for a brief flirtation with greatness by Grace Park, the only Korean to challenge as the No. 1 player in women's golf was Se Ri Pak nearly a decade ago when she dueled with Annika Sorenstam of Sweden, Karrie Webb of Australia and Juli Inkster of the United States for the mantle as best on the world. In one sizzling stretch, those four won 14 of the 17 major championships played.
Pak, who will officially qualify for the LPGA Hall of Fame when she plays her 10th tournament of the year -- probably at the McDonald's LPGA Championship in three weeks -- is far and away the most successful Korean with 23 LPGA victories and five majors. Second in wins is Mi Hyun Kim with eight, followed by Park and Hee-Won Han with six. Park, Jeong Jang and Birdie Kim have one major title each, joining Pak as the Koreans to cop one of the four Grand Slam events.
Sarah Lee, who closed with a 73 Sunday at the Sybase Classic after stumbling home with a 74 in the final round a week earlier at the Michelob Ultra Open -- both times playing in the final group -- keeps putting herself in a position to win, but has yet to figure out how to close the deal and enter the winner's circle. If there is a strong candidate to emerge as a top player it could be Jee Young Lee, who lost the Michelob on the third hole of a playoff with Suzann Pettersen. Lee, only 21 years old, is the longest hitter among any Korean ever on tour and has the same silky tempo that is a hallmark of the Korean game. She won an LPGA event when she was only 18 and not yet a tour member.
There is every reason to think Korea will produce a great player. It has had two of the last three winners of the Louise Suggs Rookie of the Year Award in Shi Hyun Ahn in 2004 and Seon Hwa Lee last year, and a Korean has been either first or second in the rookie points race in eight of the last nine years, beginning with Pak in 1998. Song-Hee Kim, an 18-year-old who won five times on the Duramed Futures Tour in 2006, is a rookie this year and currently ranked No. 12 in rookie points. Five of the top six on the rookie points list are Koreans.
Gary Gilchrist, director of golf at the International Junior Golf Academy in Hilton Head and swing coach for Song-Hee Kim, as well as Suzann Pettersen, recently returned from Korea and he says the pipeline in women's golf is just bursting with talent. The 45 Koreans on the LPGA will almost certainly be joined by more next year. More success will breed more confidence and eventually a star will emerge.
Ever since Ok-Hee Ku became the first Korean to win an LPGA event when she took the Standard Register Turquoise Classic at Moon Valley in Phoenix in 1988, besting Dottie Pepper (then Mochrie) and Ayako Okamoto by one stroke, the Koreans have been knocking down barriers. In 1995, Woo-Soon Ko became the first Korean to win twice on tour, and Pak grabbed the first major for her homeland at the 1998 McDonald's. Koreans have won each of the current four majors at least once.
Since Pak's breakthrough year in 1998, Koreans have averaged 5.8 victories a year on the LPGA Tour. While Mi Hyun Kim and Young Kim are the only Koreans to win this year, 14 different Koreans won LPGA tournaments in 2005 and 2006 combined. Korea has established a vast presence on the LPGA. Now it looks for a star to emerge from its multitude and challenge Lorena Ochoa and Annika Sorenstam as the No. 1 player in the world.
The next level for the Korean women is not so much a matter of national pride -- though it certainly will bring a lot of that -- but more a matter of individual accomplishment. Se Ri Pak was the motivation for the dozens of Koreans currently on tour. Now she needs to be the model for someone to replicate. Someone needs to rise from the pack and become another Pak. That's what is next for the Koreans.
Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.
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