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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, February 18, 2010

Hawaii linking up with Korean pros

 •  Holes in One
 •  Pro tour players from Hawaii
 •  FedExCup leaders
 •  Mason goes after fourth Hilo title

By Bill Kwon

The Koreans are coming, the Koreans are coming.

Actually, a bunch of them have been here since late December training, practicing and playing golf nearly every day. They've already made an impact, with two members of the Paradise Golf Academy finishing in the top 10 at the Hawai'i Pearl Open.

The most heralded among the 27 South Koreans in the group is Hee Kyung Seo, the Korean LPGA Tour's 2009 player of the year, and regarded as her country's next breakout star. Seo posted six victories in 2009, including the Korean Women's Open, and played in four LPGA events, making the cut in three of them the SBS Open at Turtle Bay, the U.S. Women's Open and the Evian Masters.

The 23-year-old Seo (pronounced Suh) is 5 feet 7, has the stylish looks to earn the nickname "Super Model of the Fairways" and command of English good enough to get by without an interpreter. "Hawai'i is nice," she said, but added that all that training and practice for the past two months "was a long time and boring."

She went to the Pearl Country Club for Saturday's second round to watch two players from her traveling group, Sung Yeol Kwon and Dong Sub Maeng, but spent Sunday going shopping instead.

Sunday's the only day off for the visiting Koreans, who go through a rigorous session daily: up for breakfast at 6:30 a.m., practice for four hours, get a bite at lunch and play 18 holes in the afternoon. That's for four days a week. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, it's practice only.

They also do serious workouts after dinner with Mike Sapp, a local personal trainer, who's impressed by their regimen and work ethic. (They brought their own chef, by the way).

Also in the South Korean group, which ends their lengthy stay next Wednesday, is Ran Hong, who ranked fifth on the KLPGA money list last year.

The women players are more famous back in South Korea than the men in the group that came here, said Eric Lee, the tour coordinator, but the guys are pretty good, too. Of the nine golfers from the group who tried to qualify for the Pearl Open, five made it. By finishing in the top-10, Kwon and Maeng earned decent paychecks and exemptions for next year.

Lee said Douglas Koh, a South Korean native who is a PGA teaching pro in Florida and runs the Paradise Golf Academy, is happy how its first year in Hawai'i turned out. Last year, the group went to Singapore. It's more expensive here the golfers' parents foot the bill but Hawai'i was an ideal place to get away from the harsh winter months in South Korea.

The only "turnoff," Lee said, was the facilities, adequate for every day golfers but not professionals.

Even though the Koreans are staying at rentals in Ko Olina and look out at the golf course, they didn't play or practice there. "They keep asking me, 'How come we're not playing here?' " said Lee. "We couldn't come up with a deal."

"I'm disappointed in him (Lee) putting it out there like that," said Greg Nichols, Ko Olina's director of golf. "We wanted to meet them more than halfway. Gave them better than kama'āina rates. We're excited about having a group like this out here."

"We'd like to come back," Lee said. "This trip was relatively low key, being the first year. We wanted to see how it works out."

Lee talks about the possibility of other golf academies (there are around 50 in South Korea) coming here with an eye to a long-range plan of acquiring land for a practice facility, or improving an already established site. With the interest in golf in Korea and Hawai'i, it would be a win-win situation for both in terms of tourism, according to Lee.

It also would boost the popularity of an already popular Pearl Open. Besides the nearly 100 Japanese pros and amateurs and their families coming here for it, Pearl Country Club's director of golf David Ishii envisions a lot more Koreans doing the same. "I think we're going to see a lot more Koreans from now on."

Bill Kwon can be reached at billkwonrhs@aol.com.