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Korean players share common links on LPGA Tour

Several players from Korea or of Korean descent now dominate the Tour, which has caused some controversy. While they rely on each other, they are also trying to set themselves apart.

March 31, 2009|Corina Knoll

A decade ago, she was an anomaly: a 20-year-old from Korea whose golf game articulated what her limited English could not.

Se Ri Pak did not know then that becoming the youngest to win the U.S. Women's Open would inspire droves of Koreans and Korean Americans to dream of the LPGA.

Inbee Park was among them. Last year, when she clinched the U.S. Open title at age 19, she earned Pak's previous title and humbly filled the shoes of her idol.

Park's story echoes dozens on the tour. A 10-year-old when she lined up her first tee, she left the neon-lit streets of Seoul for pristine Florida fairways that stretched for miles. She struggled to communicate with new classmates, eventually learned their slang, grew attached to giant American cheeseburgers and fries, all while fiercely practicing the way one does when your family makes sacrifices to fuel your ambition.

Now she navigates practice and tournaments and news conferences -- sometimes with her coach, sometimes with a parent visiting from Korea, but mostly on her own.

It is an isolating lifestyle, but one more palatable when shared with others who understand. "A lot of Korean players know each other and hang out," Park says. "We give advice to each other, we travel together, eat together. . . . We help each other out."

However, the dominant presence of Koreans and Korean Americans in the LPGA has also brought controversy, such as Jan Stephenson's comments that "they've taken it over" and the English-language requirement introduced last year but rescinded when met with criticism.

"The LPGA Tour means that it's just the best players in the world," Park says. "It shouldn't matter what language you speak."

Contrary to popular belief, she says, Korean players are eager to learn English. And as for those other misperceptions, Park says she can't answer for everyone, but, no, she wasn't pushed into golf; yes, she absolutely loves the game, and, yes, she interacts with the community, having donated $50,000 to the LPGA Foundation specifically to help fund girls' golf programs.

At times it is difficult, though, to differentiate oneself from the pack. Born in America or overseas, "the Korean golfers" are often lumped together. So it helps to know the things that set them apart.

--

Christina Kim, 25

Born: San Jose.

Resides: Orlando, Fla.

Rookie year: 2003.

It's easy to find Kim on the tour. Just follow the boisterous laugh. Or the Pucci scarf. Or the colorful Kangol cap. Animated and outgoing, Kim is known for her enthusiasm as much as her fashion sense.

Recognized as the spirited member of the victorious 2005 U.S. Solheim Cup team, Kim honed her game at a public golf course in Santa Clara, where for an annual fee of $45 she was allowed to play during the last two hours of sunlight. When she joined the Futures Tour, she and her father saved money by driving to tournaments in a van.

Pre-tournament ritual: "I always tie my left shoe first. I always go left sock, left shoe, right sock, right shoe."

Always travels with: "My cream-colored 'binkie' -- it's a super-soft blanket. I've taken it with me to almost 10 countries. I'm a little old for it, but whatever."

Job she would have if she weren't a golfer: "Probably something involving rescuing animals."

Her biggest fear: "I'm not a big fan of clowns. I don't like heights, and I have an unnatural fear of deer -- anything that quiet, there's got to be something behind it."

Why she loves the game: "The entire round will change in an instant at the moment of impact. I find that absolutely beautiful."

--

Angela Park, 20

Born: Iguazu Falls, Brazil.

Resides: Buena Park.

Rookie year: 2007.

Park came to the U.S. when she was 9 with her father and three older brothers. Her mother stayed behind to run the family's embroidery business and helped support them from afar for the next decade.

Park juggled her senior year at Torrance High with the Futures Tour and later earned her tour card at Q-school. She easily snagged rookie of the year in 2007, with help from a buttery smooth swing that PGA legend-turned-NBC-golf-analyst Johnny Miller says is the best he's ever seen. When Park accepted the LPGA honor, she thanked the crowd in English, Korean and Portuguese.

Pre-tournament ritual: "Take a shower."

Job she would have if she weren't a golfer: "A nurse or an artist or a teacher."

TV shows she can't miss: " 'CSI,' 'Friends,' 'Family Guy' and 'House' -- I don't like reality shows. It's just too dramatic for me."

Favorite food: "Kimchi chigae (a spicy Korean stew) and anything at Cheesecake Factory."

Why she loves the game: "At home you have to listen to other people, but on the course, you can do whatever you want. Golf is your own game."

--

Jiyai Shin, 20

Born: Gwangju, South Korea.

Resides: Yongin, South Korea.

Rookie year: 2009.

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