What makes the Koreans so good?
Last week at 13th Beach three Koreans ended up at the top of the Vic Open and it took four extra holes for the comebacker Hee Young Park to beat the new star Hye-Jin Choi and the best US Women’s Open player of the past decade, So Yeon Ryu.
A week later at the Women’s Open in Adelaide Inbee Park walked off with the trophy. This was predictable, given how well she had played the opening 54 holes. Her young playing partner, Ayean Choi never really threatened the Queen of Korean golf as she finished off with a brilliant iron into the final green only to salvage a 77.
The just over two-decade phenomenon that is Korean women’s golf has been something to behold and dated back to Se-Ri Pak won the 1998 U.S Women’s Open. That win ignited a passion in her country for golf and whilst South Koreans perhaps don’t dominate the game, it’s not far from it.
Of the top 30 players in the world, 14 are South Koreans (one wonders how many champions the north might produce of they too only had the opportunity) and next strongest country is the United States with six. It makes the Korean women’s Olympic team one of the hardest to make and the fight for the four spots from here to Tokyo has been joined by the champion this week.
That the defending gold medallist isn’t an automatic starter is something those who make these decisions ought to fix.
For a country where golf was a nascent sport in the 1980s it’s remarkable and a testament to the work ethic of Koreans and a program of competitive tournaments which inevitably drove the best to the top of a high-achieving pile.
“For sure they planned to make us the best players in the world” said So Yeon Ryu of the national program. “Definitely” she adds, “we should say thank you to Se Ri. She was the one who opened the door for us. And, I think for sure Koreans have the best-looking swings in the world.”
The exception, perhaps proving the rule is Inbee with the unorthodox shaft plane on the backswing and the head turned to the target at impact move. But it’s a swing she owns. Park barely made a mistake around Royal Adelaide this week and it doesn’t hurt to have a putter as Gary Player once said of his blade, “that has crippled more men than polio.”
Christina Kim, ninth last week at 13th Beach and 10th here at Royal Adelaide, was born of Korean parents but grew up in California, giving her a foot in both camps. “Hard work is a cultural thing. It’s part of the Korean identity,'' she says.
Ryu agrees: “Everybody in Korea works hard. I became national team member when I was 15 and we had the national camp in January with 70 players. We would wake up at 6am and go running for 10 kilometres, have breakfast, then either practice at a driving range or play golf and then have lunch. If we played in the morning it was practice in the afternoon.
"Then we would have another run before the dinner and then we studied about the golf rules. Sometimes though it is a problem that we don’t have a great balance. I was lucky my teacher made me go to university and study also.”
Remarkably, Ryu was a university student when she won the 2011 US Open. “Sometimes I’d be sleeping two hours a night because I was playing most of the day and then doing papers at night to send back to the university," she said.
Says Kim: “Koreans just hit every shot straight. And it’s interesting in a nation where golfers are basically raised on a five-tier driving ranges - often only 150m long and surrounded by nets. It would make sense they wouldn’t be able to do a whole lot with the ball other than the fact they are crazy about golf.”
Kim said the family structure in Korea, where the parents are obeyed and discipline is paramount, was also important. “It’s a very family orientated society and everything that is done is done with the entire family. There is a much tighter bond with the sense of family unity - and honestly, some of it has to do with fear – parents are very strict and very demanding.”
“Inbee,” Kim continues, “is the model Korean player. You are taught as a child not to let anything out, to let your clubs do the talking. You watch Inbee – it doesn’t matter what tournament it is, her heart’s pumping on the inside and she’s nervous but she doesn’t look it. You would put her in any situation she would look the same but deep inside it’s still coursing through her veins.”
So Yeon Ryu again: “You have to learn to control your mind. You cannot swear in front of the people and you cannot hit the ground with your club in front of the people. We naturally learn to control our mind because our parents don’t let us carry on. Golf is a mind game where you have to control yourself.
“Maybe if you start screaming – maybe after that you could feel better – but we know how to make ourselves feel better without doing that. Maybe it’s another thing why Koreans can play golf really well.”
We haven’t seen enough to Park in Australia over the years, but the remarkable demeanour is the most noticeable thing about her presence and her play. We can assume she will be back at Kooyonga next year to defend and on a course equally suited to her skills.
“What you see on the course, isn’t the Inbee I know off the course” said Ryu. "She’s a much different person and so great to be around.”
Park put on clinic this week, one keen observers have been privileged to watch and it was made even better by the golf course asking all the questions a championship course should.