Fifteen-year-old Lydia Ko’s improbable and historic win at the CN Canadian Women’s Open in Vancouver this past weekend once again has people asking: What is it about Korean-born female golfers that makes them so ridiculously good?
By now the world has heard about the young amateur phenom’s celebrated achievement – besting a field that included 48 of the top 50 ranked professional golfers in the world. And she didn’t merely squeak out a win, she cruised to victory with three shots to spare.
That’s not supposed to happen. The last amateur to win on the LPGA tour was back in 1969; but JoAnne Carner was almost 30 at the time.
Although born in Seoul, Ko moved with her family to New Zealand at the age of 6. But her path to success doesn’t sound much different from that of dozens of other young female golfers from her native country who have been arriving in the United States in recent years to take over the Ladies Professional Golf Association.
Today, 20 of the top 50 golfers in the world are from Korea.
Of the 15 Canadians in the field at the Canadian Women’s Open, only one played well enough to make it through to the weekend. Meantime, our top female professional remains 47-year-old Lorie Kane.
So what gives? Does South Korea have a golf-friendlier climate? More courses? Better training? It’s doubtful any of those are crucial factors in Korea’s ascendancy in the women’s game. Canada has world-class training facilities throughout the country, and also has instructors who are as good as any. In fact, it was a Vancouver pro, Scott Rodgers, who gave Ko a swing tip just before the start of the CN tournament that became an integral part of her preshot routine.
Sure, many young female golfers in Canada have to spend the winter months honing their game indoors, but so do their Korean counterparts. In fact, many believe it’s the Koreans’ emphasis on practice and repetition that largely accounts for their success in golf.
The more contentious part of the answer lies in Korean culture. Many parents there (and in Greater Asia, for that matter) push and drive their children in a way that would be broadly viewed as unacceptable in the West. (Although there are many in the West guilty of it, too). The father of Korean golfer Se Ri Pak became a symbol of the kind of demanding – many would say cruel and oppressive – approach to training a young golfer that isn’t as frowned upon in Asia as it might be here.
Pak was the first of a wave of female golfers from South Korea to burst on the scene in the United States in recent years. When she won the U.S. Women’s Open in 1998 at the age of 20, and then a slew of tournaments and other majors after that, her unusual path to success became the stuff of legend. Her father, Joon Chul, used to make his daughter sleep in a cemetery overnight to teach her courage. He wouldn’t let her use the elevator in their apartment building; they lived on the 15th floor. If she played a bad round, she’d be forced to practice for hours immediately afterward.
Pak was followed on the LPGA tour by another young Korean golfer named Mi Hyun Kim, whose father vowed not to let her marry until she won one of golf’s four majors. He eventually relented after his daughter won eight times on the tour.
Maybe these are extreme examples. But there seems little question that the Korean model tacks toward a gruelling work ethic and single-mindedness that comes at the expense of almost everything else; a regime that most young girls in the West would certainly rebel against. In fact, I think most parents in Canada would say: ‘if that’s what it takes to make it as a golfer, the Koreans can have it. I want my daughter to have a well-rounded and balanced upbringing.’ Kris Jonasson, executive director of the B.C. Golf Association, also believes culture is at the heart of the growing success golfers from Asia are enjoying.
“We in North America live in a society where young people are taught that they have certain entitlements and can kind of coast along,” said Mr. Jonasson. “In some of the Asian countries, kids come from a background where it’s literally survival of the fittest and there isn’t the type of safety net that exists here.
“The kids are brought up believing that you reap rewards based on the hard work you put in.”
If you asked Lydia Ko, she’d probably say the same thing. And like many Korean-born female golfers, she’s reaping those rewards now.