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Pak Mentality

In a relatively short time, South Korean golfers have become a force on the LPGA Tour

June 10, 2004|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

When Se Ri Pak arrived in the United States in 1998 to play professional golf, she hardly appeared the revolutionary. Only 20 years old, she traveled with her parents and spoke little English, learning the language by watching cartoons and movies.

At the time, there was not a single South Korean-born player on the LPGA Tour, home of the best female golfers in the world. But Pak was an instant success, winning four tournaments in her rookie season, including two major championships.

With her early outstanding play and sustained excellence, Pak is credited with almost single-handedly changing the face of women's golf. Not only is it evident in tournaments -- seven Korean players are among the tour's top 20 money-winners -- but also in the marketplace, where equipment and apparel makers vie for a share of a golf-crazy Asian market and the LPGA looks to broaden its horizons as well as its bottom line.

"Every question that relates to why Koreans are playing the LPGA has to begin and end with Se Ri Pak," said Ty Votaw, the LPGA commissioner. "Her rookie year, it gave the entire country of Korea the motivation and inspiration for fathers and their daughters to say, 'Hey, if she can do it, we can do it.' "

The McDonald's LPGA Championship, which begins today at DuPont Country Club in Wilmington, Del., will serve to showcase the sport's sudden diversity. There are 21 Korean-born players on the tour, making up 22% of the 96 active LPGA players from countries other than the United States. With Pak leading the way, Korean-born players have won 37 times since 1998, including twice this year.

She opened the door for, among others, Grace Park, 25, who won this year's first major championship, the Kraft Nabisco.

Pak is well aware of her place in socialization and sports history.

"Yes, I'm the one who started the big boom," she said. "I'm the first one who started to play well."

The emergence of the Korean-born players has brought into focus their home country's obsession with golf, how parents of many young Asian golfers push their children to excel and how golf has entered a largely uncharted territory -- a mix of global marketing, cultural diversity and sports.

South Korea is a country with an estimated 2.5 million golfers, but with only 50 public courses. The other 120 or so courses are private clubs with six-figure initiation fees.

"Most of Asia is inordinately golf-hungry," said James Chung, a Korean American who runs Reach Advisors, a Boston marketing strategy and research firm specializing in sports. "It's the status sport. It's what you play if you've reached a level of affluence. That appeals to Koreans."

Only last month, Nike's golf-ball guru, Stan Grissinger, was set to deliver a presentation in South Korea and was stunned when more than 200 women showed up, all between the ages of 18 and 22.

Callaway Golf counts 50% of its revenue from sales outside the U.S., 18% in Korea and Japan. Plus, Callaway recently opened subsidiaries in Seoul and Tokyo.

Pak has won nearly $8 million on the tour and has come close to matching that sum through endorsements for Adidas; CJ, a Korean food conglomerate; Maxfli; TaylorMade Golf; and Upper Deck. At 26, she has already qualified for entry into the LPGA Hall of Fame.

Pak is also busily preparing for the launch of her own clothing company that she expects to be ready by the end of the year.

Although she has never led the LPGA money list, Pak has been second four times and third once. So far this year, she ranks fifth, joined in the top 11 by three other players of Korean descent -- Park, Mi-Hyun Kim and Jung Leon Lee.

Last year, players of Korean heritage won seven of the 31 official LPGA events -- 23% of the tournaments -- even though they represent only 11.3% of the 185 active LPGA tour members.

According to Votaw, it's all part of the nature of what a global tour should be.

"The face of the LPGA has changed," he said. "The days when all of our members looked the same and talked the same and all come from colleges in towns from across the United States or come from similar experiences in American junior golf, those days are over and we're not going to go back."

However, the emergence of the Korean-born players and those of Korean descent on the LPGA Tour hasn't been without its awkward moments.

One such instance came in November when 16-time winner Jan Stephenson said Korean players were "absolutely killing" the LPGA Tour because of a lack of emotion and for not speaking English when they could. She quickly apologized after Pak, among others, took exception.

Votaw also repudiated Stephenson's comments and laid out plans for the LPGA Tour members to develop greater sensitivity to cultural diversity.

In August, Golf World magazine alleged instances of cheating, including an accusation that a South Korean golfer's parent moved a ball from behind a tree at the Canadian Women's Open.

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