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Culture clash at the turn

5/26/2004

Is it Pak or Park? Aree or Naree? Kim or, well, Kim?

Life is confusing on the LPGA Tour these days, especially at the top. But there's no truth to the rumor that it's quietly being referred to these days as the Ladies Professional Golf of Asia tour, though there's definitely a cultural swing in these fairways.

European dominance, Annika Sorenstam excluded, is so yesterday. And just wait until Michelle Wie, that 14-year-old icon, starts cashing checks.

In the six years since Se Ri Pak burst onto the scene, winning both the LPGA Championship and the U.S. Women's Open in a span of two months, parents all over South Korea have taken their daughters into the previously male-dominated world of private golf clubs and created a monster.

As they say in Seoul, que Se Ri Se Ri.

"Girls over in Korea saw Se Ri winning and others doing well, and they wanted to be over here too,'' said Aree Song, who got her card last fall, six months before her 18th birthday, and is now the tour's leading rookie.

Said Jonathan Kim, who coaches and caddies for Korean-born rookie, Jinnie Lee, "(Korean) parents may think they can make a better life for their daughter.''

Song, who went by her mother's maiden name (Wongluekiet) when she and sister Naree, now on the Futures Tour, were tearing up the amateur ranks, is the perfect example of this Asian migration. Her Thai mother and Korean father moved the twins and their older brother to Bradenton, Fla. when the girls were 11 so they could work with swing coach David Leadbetter.

By the time she was 13, Aree Song was finishing in the top 10 of a women's major.

"Aree Song was Michelle Wie before there was a Michelle Wie," LPGA Tour commissioner Ty Votaw said.

Park, now 25, was 13 when her parents shipped her off to relatives in Hawaii so she could have more opportunity to work on her game. She later moved to Arizona, wound up at Arizona State, stayed two years and turned pro shortly after winning the U.S. Women's Amateur.

With a victory at this year's first major, the Kraft Nabisco Championship, Park has her sights set on the unthinkable: supplanting Sorenstam as the tour's leading money winner. Park recently passed Sorenstam for the top spot, and given Sorenstam's Tiger-like schedule these days, could maintain it.

Park has plenty of company from others with Korean roots, with Pak fourth, Mi-Hyum Kim at No. 6 and Jung Yeon Lee ninth. Another player with Asian roots, Jennifer Rosales, the daughter of a Phillipine Army general, is seventh after winning last month's Chick-fil-A Charity Championship.

"I have said it all along, that's it's got to be hard work, there's no other explanation," said Park, whose well-coifed appearance belies her reputation as one of the tour's biggest range rats. "Whoever's at the top is there because they worked much harder than the rest of the field, the rest of the tour.''

Park and others said they believe that the collective work ethic of the Koreans, in particular, and the Asians in general is deeply rooted.

"You have parents following most of the players and they are very strict even though everybody is grown up,'' said Park. "They still guide them and they still support them and they make sure that golf is the only thing that they have to think about and to really focus on so they don't have to worry about anything else. So they practice and sometimes they push the players to work harder, but it pays off out here.''

Christina Kim might have become a Silicon Valley girl growing up in San Jose, what with her changing hair colors and, uh, interesting wardrobe. But her father, Man, is still very much guiding his daughter's career, as best he can as her caddie.

Actually, there's a lot of tough love emanating from both sides.

Asked at a recent tournament in Williamsburg, Va., to describe their relationship, Christina Kim said, "I think there are times when it can be a little stressful. But it is comforting knowing that I have my dad with me because I know he's rooting for me and only me.''

At any tour stop, it's easy to find the Korean players.

"They're always on the practice tee, I wonder if they ever go back to the hotel,'' said one veteran player, half-kidding.

This domination is only going to get stronger once Aree Song becomes as big a force on the LPGA Tour as she and her sister were as amateurs. Another Korean, Seol-An Jeon, is three spots behind Song (No. 14) and in the running for rookie of the year.

Of the tour's top 35 players, 13 are of Asian descent. In contrast, there are only two Americans in the Top 10, Christie Kerr at No. 4 and Stacy Prammanasudh at No. 8. There are 11 Americans in the top 35.

While Votaw isn't contemplating changing the spelling of his first name to Thai, the most proactive commissioner in sports this side of David Stern has taken notice of how his tour is running.

After remarks last fall by former LPGA star Jan Stephenson ripped the Koreans for "killing" the tour in terms of personality and relationships with sponsors -- in other words a lack of both -- Votaw reprimanded Stephenson privately but took measures to rectify a growing resentment of the tour's ruling class.

Votaw added a Korean to his player relation staff. He also set up a sensitivity training seminar for other staff members so that they could better understand the culture of players that make up 10 percent of the tour's membership.

"It was a wake-up call that we had a lot more work to do with respect to diversity issues,'' Votaw said of the interview with Stephenson in Golf Magazine.

Kyumin Shim, a recent graduate of Florida State who moved from South Korea to Orlando when he was in middle school, said the difference in cultures often bring about miscommunication on the tour.

"I think the hardest part is the language,'' said Shim, who works with Asians and non-Asians as part of his duties. "When you can't communicate, there's not a lot of conversation going on. Asian girls are not supposed to talk too much and approach somebody. Those things are hard when you're not used to doing it.''

To help bridge the gap, sponsors have scheduled parties specifically geared to include the Asian players, as Anheuser-Busch did in Williamsburg. International Sybase, which sponsors the Sybase Classic in New Rochelle, N.Y., signed Park to an endorsement contract earlier this year.

"If they (the Asian players) are aware of those things and work as hard on those aspects of their celebrity as they do on their game, they will become more marketable,'' Votaw said. "If they are more marketable, the LPGA will benefit. It doesn't happen overnight. It happens as the Asian players get more experience.''

By then, Sorenstam will likely be retired and this takeover will be complete.

Don Markus covers golf for the Baltimore Sun