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The Honolulu Advertiser

Updated at 11:35 a.m., Thursday, June 28, 2007

Golf: Se Ri Pak sparked South Korean wave in LPGA

By David Scott
McClatchy Newspapers

Lee was a student at South Korea's Kyung-Hee University in 1998, a physical education major with modest aspirations for her golf game. Then came the news from the United States: Se Ri Pak, a South Korean rookie on the LPGA Tour, had done it again.

For the second time in a month, Pak had won a major tournament. This time, it was the U.S. Open, a victory in a 20-hole playoff that came less than a month after the first triumph of her career, the LPGA Championship.

Lee took notice.

"That made my dreams very real for me," said Lee, 28. "I decided to come to the United States and give it a chance."

Mi Hyun Kim was competing on South Korea's LPGA Tour. She, too, perked up when she saw what Pak had done.

"I changed my mind about my career," said Kim, 30. "I thought, `Maybe I can do that, too."'

Lee and Kim, as it turned out, weren't alone.

Pak's immediate LPGA success — and what has now become a Hall of Fame career — kick-started a women's golf revolution in her country that has spilled over to the United States, where 45 South Koreans play on the LPGA Tour and 34 are in the field for U.S. Women's Open that began today.

They're not just filling space. As a group, they're dominating the LPGA.

Three Korean players — Lee, Kim and Jee Young Lee — are in the top 10 on this season's LPGA money list.

Five of the past nine rookies of the year have been from South Korea and three Koreans — Angela Park, In-Kyung Kim and Na On Min — lead the rookie standings this year.

In-Kyung Kim tied for first place with Hye Jung Choi in last season's LPGA qualifying school.

Koreans Grace Park (2004), Birdie Kim (2005) and Jeong Jang (2005) have recently won major championships.

Only three players have more top-10s this season than Sarah Lee, who withdrew from last week's Wegmans LPGA with a sore back.

"They're doing really, really, a great job," Pak, 30, told reporters recently. "I'm very proud of them. They are my baby sisters."

Big adjustments

The success of the Koreans is that much more remarkable because of the cultural differences they face in the United States compared with their country, which is about the size of Indiana.

"I knew the culture was very different so it was a very difficult decision for me to come here," said Sarah Lee. "The biggest difference is the travel. Korea's not a big country, so any golf course isn't more than an hour away. Here, you often have to fly five hours to get to the golf course."

The cultural differences go deeper. When a Korean golfer takes her game to the United States, it often means her entire family is uprooted.

"When they come here, the second most difficult thing is for the parents," said J.S. Kang, vice-president of Sterling Sports Management, which has 18 LPGA players as clients, including four Koreans. "In Korean society, until a girl is married, she lives under the guidance of her parents and stays under their roof. Even after she's married, that's part of the hierarchy."

Lee's mother accompanied her on tour when Lee was a rookie, in 2002.

"I was very lonely at first," Lee said. "But it was better with my mother there."

The Korean players can't always rely on each other or their parents. They might not know where or whether a Korean restaurant or grocery store exists in a strange city. They often haven't known where to turn to ask.

Survival tips

The LPGA has stepped in to help the Koreans and other foreign players handle life in the United States. The program, according to LPGA vice president of professional development Betsy Clark, helps players with conversation, "golf speak" and survival. Yes, survival.

"That's what it can come down to for these girls sometimes," Clark said. "If you're in a strange community and you have an emergency, how do you get from A to B? But also, where do you go grocery shopping? Sometimes that's a challenge.

"Playing on the tour is much more than just playing on the tour."

Clark said many tournaments have come up with their own ways of making the South Koreans comfortable. At the LPGA Corning Classic, for instance, tournament volunteers are given cards that translate everyday sayings in three languages.

"They can say `Hi' and much more in Korean, Japanese and Spanish," Clark said.

Kang, who was born in South Korea and moved to the United States as a child, said Pak's victories in 1998 helped bolster South Korea's delicate psyche after it had been shaken by an international financial crisis that gripped Asia.

"South Korea was going through a really tough time," he said. "It had grown so fast in the 1950s and was emerging as a developing third-world country. Then it was hit with the (International Monetary Fund) crisis and it really put us collectively in a bad spot. It was from that economic environment that Se Ri emerged.

"It was a pick-me-up. Like the `80 (Olympic) hockey team was for the United States."

Hurt or help the tour?

The emergence of the South Korean players hasn't come without controversy. Some have worried they're hurting the tour's image with the average U.S. sports fan.

Former pro Jan Stephenson, for instance, said in 2003 that the South Koreans were hurting the tour because they didn't speak enough English or show enough emotion.

Kang doesn't see it that way.

"It's the top (women's) tour on earth," Kang said. "Wouldn't you want it to be filled with the top players on earth? In a world where every indication is things are going global, that's something we should be looking for. It's good for America."

Mi Hyun Kim might be getting closer to the hearts of U.S. sports fans. After she won the SemGroup Championship in Oklahoma in May, she donated $100,000 of her winnings to the victims of a tornado that had recently devastated Greensburg, Kan.

"I have given money before back in South Korea," she said. "This, I wanted to do for the United States."

International Flavor

There are 117 active international players on the LPGA Tour, representing 26 countries. The most represented:

South Korea: 45

Sweden: 15

Australia: 9

Canada: 7

England: 4

Scotland: 4

Taiwan: 4

Brazil: 3

France: 3

Italy: 3

Source: LPGA