Korean men still lag behind female golfers
July 11, 2007
The revolution began, best anyone can remember, late on a summer night some eight years ago. It was actually early morning by then, local Korean time, when a 20-year-old Korean named Se Ri Pak won the 1998 U.S. Women's Open in Kohler, Wis.
From half the world away, in Pak's homeland, little girls sat in front of televisions, ignoring the need for sleep in the wee hours and dreamt of what it might be like to be Pak. And Korean fathers, too, looked upon their daughters and wondered if they might possess an untapped golf gene."
I picked up a golf club because of her," said In-Bee Park, a Korean who was 10 years old when she stayed up all hours that summer night in '98. "The year she won [the Women's Open], that's when I started playing golf."Park, a rookie on the LPGA Tour, finished tied for fourth a couple of weeks ago in the most recent Women's Open. Years ago, she was one of countless Korean girls whom Pak inspired to play golf, and Park is now one of 45 Korean-born women on the LPGA Tour.
It's no secret, of course, that Pak's influence on the LPGA Tour has been monumental. There are 42 more Korean-born players on the women's tour than there were during her rookie season in '98. Pak, only 29, qualified earlier this season for the LPGA Tour Hall of Fame, and her accomplishments have made the ever-growing Korean presence on the women's tour easy to explain.
What's far more difficult to explain, though, is the absence of a similar Korean presence on the PGA Tour. K.J. Choi, the first Korean-born golfer to compete on the men's tour, walked off No. 18 on Sunday at Congressional Country Club in Maryland, and for the second time in six weeks, he was a champion. He won the Memorial Tournament in early June.
After another victory ended on Sunday, someone asked him whether he was "bigger" in his homeland than Pak. And to that, Choi said, "I think we're both, Se Ri and I, walking a similar path right now. You can't really compare the two of us -- who is better, who is more popular. You can't really say that."
I think what she has done on the LPGA Tour is tremendous. . . . She was a pioneer on the LPGA Tour."She was, indeed. But why has Pak's deep and wide mark on golf failed to leave an imprint on the men's game? Why are there so many Koreans on the LPGA Tour and so few on the PGA Tour?
Among the 45 Koreans on the LPGA Tour this season are 14 rookies. The total number of Koreans has risen steadily since Pak's American breakthrough almost a decade ago.Yet Korean representation on the PGA Tour has remained stagnant since Choi's rookie season in 2000, and he has but only three fellow countrymen on tour now.
Michael Yim, Choi's agent, tried to explain on Tuesday why the numbers are the way they are."There are many differences," he said, speaking of the men's and women's game. "You can't really pinpoint the one specific reason."
Then Yim, who is Korean himself, listed his theories -- how Korean women face an easier road to qualify for the LPGA Tour than men do when trying to reach the PGA Tour. How Korean men must serve in the military, which Choi did after he graduated high school. Yim said Korean families -- though fast becoming more westernized -- still are old-fashioned and rely on men to be primary providers, and that women are able to take more chances with their futures."
When [men] try to make the move from Korea to the U.S., it's not only them that they have to worry about," Yim said. "They have to worry about bringing the whole family over -- and what if you don't make it?"Just the fact that you have to worry about the whole family acts as a deterrent."
And there's another reason, too, maybe most obvious, for the wide gap in gender representation: physique."When you look at it from a physical point of view -- the western guys are a lot more physically developed, and they have a physical advantage over Asian guys," Yim said. "Whereas with the women, the physical side doesn't really [matter] as much."
It's not to say, of course, that Koreans on the LPGA Tour aren't without unique challenges, perhaps none more daunting than adapting to American culture.
"You have to quit all the Korean stuff," Park said. "Korean [TV], Korean movies. When I first came to America, I had to quit all those Korean things."
As he was making his way through another victory on Sunday, one of Choi's fans held up a sign that made reference to his nickname, which is "Tank."
"Move forward just like a tank," he said later. "Just progress. It's how I felt when I first came over to the U.S. starting out . . . There were a lot of hurdles for me to overcome."And so far, at least in the men's game, he's one of the few Koreans who have had to endure. For a while, Pak began a revolution in women's golf. The men's game still is awaiting when a similar one might come, if ever.◦