South Korea strengthens presence on LPGA Tour
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By Bill Kwon
Special to The Advertiser
By Bill Kwon
The LPGA has it right: These Girls Rock.
But, by the manner in which the South Koreans dominated the tour's season-opening events — the SBS Open at Turtle Bay and the Fields Open in Hawai'i — maybe the LPGA should fine-tune its slogan:
These Girls ROK.
You know, as in Republic of Korea.
Joo Mi Kim and Meena Lee, the first two winners of the 2006 season, beat their South Korean peers Soo Young Moon and Seon Hwa Lee, respectively, in sudden-death playoffs in consecutive weeks.
South Koreans came away with nearly one-third of the combined $2.1 million purse for the two events.
Twenty-one of the 25 South Korean natives made the cut in the SBS Open to earn $321,560, with Kim getting the $150,000 top prize.
The inaugural Fields Open at the Ko Olina Golf Club saw 21 South Koreans entered with 15 making the weekend to collect $334,803, with $165,000 going to Meena Lee.
Translated into Korean currency, that's a ton of won.
The Koreans' successful showing on the LPGA Tour is nothing new since Se Ri Pak, who wasn't here, first carried her country's flag on the American women's tour in 1998. Pak won four times, including two majors, and was a clear-cut choice for rookie of the year.
Mi Hyun Kim came along to win 1999 rookie-of-the-year honors after posting two victories. After a successful collegiate and amateur career, Grace Park, who played junior golf here, joined the LPGA Tour full time in 2000 and she, along with Pak and Kim, have since become role models to young girls in South Korea.
Now, there are 24 exempt South Koreans on the tour, with seven on the nonexempt, standby list.
It doesn't stop there. The Futures Tour roster lists 20 players from South Korea, including two Kims who hope to make it nine with that family surname on the LPGA membership list.
And the country keeps cranking them out like Hyundais. Who knows how many more have taken up the game of golf because of the success of the South Korean players on the LPGA Tour?
Players such as Sung Ah Yim, who had shared the SBS Open lead with Kim and Becky Iverson going into the final round.
"Se Ri gives us a lot of hope and confidence to saying, we can do it in the United States. She made us aware that there is a tour, LPGA," Yim said through an interpreter.
Moon remembers wanting to be like Se Ri, perhaps with the urging of her father, Sun Chul, as she took up golf at the relatively late age of 13, nine years ago.
"I practiced hard to become like Se Ri Pak," said Moon, who's conversant in English.
Seon Hwa Lee calls Grace Park her golf hero of the pace-setting Korean threesome.
Why the success of the South Korean women in golf?
"We practice very hard. And (our) parents push us hard," Moon said.
Perhaps it's telling that in the LPGA media guide, almost every South Korean player credits her parents, especially the father, for being the most influential reason for taking up the game.
"Obviously, hard work is what gets them here. And the popularity of golf in Korea. There are a lot of them out here," said Park, who said she feels like a veteran (she'll be 27 on Monday) with all the younger Koreans on the tour.
Seven of the 37 rookies on the tour this year are Koreans, including 20-year-old Kyeong Bae, who made the cut in the two events here.
Seon Hwa Lee turned 20 two weeks ago, while Meena Lee, whose Fields Open victory was her second on the tour, is 24.
Kim and Moon, who outlasted Lorena Ochoa in the SBS Open playoff, are only 21, as is Yim.
So count on seeing a lot of South Koreans on the LPGA leaderboard in the years to come with more of them surely on the way.