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Koreans pour to LPGA Tour

The Baltimore Sun

The migration, a trickle at first, became a steady flow that eventually transformed the LPGA Tour. Nearly a decade after South Korea's Se Ri Pak won the 1998 McDonald's LPGA Championship, the country that spawned this soon-to-be Hall of Famer has become the single biggest force in women's golf.

When the 53rd LPGA Championship begins today at Bulle Rock in Havre de Grace, Pak will tee off as its defending champion, and 37 others of Korean descent, including Michelle Wie, will be among the 150 players in the field.

Along with their success, which includes five of the past nine Rookies of the Year, as well as other recent major champions in Grace Park, Birdie Kim and Jeong Jang, comes criticism that the predominance of the Koreans is reducing interest in the tour.

Christina Kim, a first-generation Korean-American player who grew up in California, said she is tired of what she believes is a xenophobic attitude among older players, the media and perhaps even sponsors who have shied away from advertising on LPGA telecasts.

"I think it's a lot of ignorance," Kim said earlier this week. "They don't look at the Korean players as individual golfers. They look at them as a group of people. It's very disrespectful that they are bunched together and people say, 'They are this, they are that, they practice so much.' There are a bunch of players with blond hair and blue eyes that practice from sunrise to sunset."

The bashing began in 2003, when former LPGA star Jan Stephenson told Golf Magazine: "This is probably going to get me in trouble, but the Asians are killing our tour. Their lack of emotion, their refusal to speak English when they can speak English. They've taken it over."

A column earlier this year in USA Today - where second-year LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens previously was employed as an executive - inflamed the issue by attributing the tour's lack of collective charisma to the Koreans. The article stated that the commonality of names such as Kim and Park made it difficult to distinguish between LPGA players.

Bivens is culture-blind when it comes to what is by far the biggest contingent of players from one country other than the United States.

"I think the media is far more focused on it than other people are," Bivens said in a recent interview. "I think it's a terrible shame. I am not worried one bit how many from any country are qualified to play for the LPGA. I frankly think the more international we become - we've got 117 women from 46 different countries - is what makes the tour so competitive."

Increasing identity

The LPGA has taken measures toward integrating the Korean players more than just seeing their names on the leader board. Bivens hired Shirley Shen, a Korean-born teaching pro who has lived in Los Angeles since 1971, to work with Korean players on everything from their English skills to showing more personality on the course.

"I am trying to have them increase their identity like a Natalie Gulbis or a Paula Creamer," Shen said yesterday after finishing three days of work at Bulle Rock, one of about a dozen tournaments she attends. "They look alike. ... I want the fans to recognize them."

Pak remains the most visible, more for her accomplishments and powerful build than for her emerging personality. It was Pak's victory in the 1998 McDonald's LPGA Championship, and weeks later in the U.S. Women's Open (where she beat amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn of Timonium in a playoff) that was the genesis of the migration.

"Everyone in Korea wanted to be like Se Ri," said Jang, then a 17-year-old amateur. "She was a hero."

Suddenly, South Korean fathers who had taken their daughters to the country's countless multi-decked driving ranges for marathon practice sessions were prodding them to become even more serious about the game. Some, such as Park, were shipped off to the U.S. to play high-quality courses and work with renowned swing coaches.

Christina Kim, who joined the tour out of high school in 2003, isn't surprised by their success.

"We're taught from a young age, 'Do it hard, do it long and do it right,'" Kim said. "I can't compare it to players from other countries, but compared to American players, we've got more distractions available to us [in the U.S.]. In Korea, they have many of the same amenities, but they choose not to take advantage of them all."

'More focused'

Shen said the Korean players are more successful at a younger age in part because they often live with their parents until their late 20s, unlike their American and European counterparts who are often on their own the moment they turn 18.

"They are more focused than the kids who grew up here," Shen said. "They work very hard."

At a time when the Japanese LPGA is trying to entice Asian players back with the promise of equal prize money and more opportunity for endorsements, those who remain in the U.S. appear to be becoming more integrated with the culture and the tour.

J.S. Kang, a Korean-born attorney who lives in Atlanta and represents several Korean players, has encouraged his clients to get tutored in English and has helped them become affiliated with U.S.-based charities. Jeong Jang now represents Operation Smile because, as her agent said, "when she came in all she had was her smile."

When Mi Hyun Kim won this year's SemGroup Championship in Broken Arrow, Okla., in May, she donated about half of her first-place check of $210,000 to the victims of the tornado that wiped out much of Greensburg, Kan.

Kang compares what is happening in the LPGA to what happened for years in society.

"It's not unlike the entire immigrant experience," Kang said. "As you go somewhere and do your own thing, at some point something kicks in and you say, 'I want to have more access. I want to enjoy more of what this country has to offer. I think it's more of what's happening in society as people emigrate anywhere."

Tournament at a glance

Schedule (At Bulle Rock)

Today-tomorrow: 7:15 a.m. (TV: 12:30 p.m.-3:30 p.m. Golf Channel).

Saturday-Sunday: approximately 8:30 a.m. (TV: 4 p.m.-7 p.m. Golf Channel).


Daily pass: Today and tomorrow, $22; Saturday and Sunday, $25. Seniors (over 50) free today. Weeklong badge: $65.

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