MATEO VALLES QUINTANA WRITES — Since the early 2000’s South Korean female professional golfers have been a dominant force on the LPGA tour and are repeatedly found at the top of the money list.
In 2017, South Korean nationals Sung Hyun Park and So Yeon Ryu were first and second on the money list. The following year Sung Hyun was third. In 2019 Sei Young Kim was second on the money list following behind Jin Young Ko in first. So far this year Sei Young Kim is currently leading the money list with Inbee Park in a close second. This is no novelty either, in 2003 Se Ri Pak, Grace Park, and Hee-Won Han held second, third, and fourth on the money list.
To answer the question of why these female athletes are so dominant I reached out to my former coach Chris Smeal and Cassie Kim, a South Korean American golfer and a sophomore on the Gonzaga women’s golf team. My conversations with them revealed a complex answer that combines cultural and structural aspects of South Korean society.
South Korea and the United States have very different cultural norms and customs. Chris has years of experience coaching young athletes of all nationalities. Many of his students go on to play NCAA golf.
Mateo Valles: What are some of the differences you have noticed between Korean players and all of the other players you have coached over the years?
Chris Smeal: “I just think from a work ethic position I wouldn’t say the talent is any stronger there than it is here. But if you really wanted to go 24 hours a day and eat, breathe, sleep golf just imagine how good you would be. Growing up in the US there are many other things people want to do: people have friends, people want to go do stuff. People don’t want to dedicate every hour to golf.”
Chris further explained how life in the two different countries results in different types of golf players. Golfers in South Korea do not have more talent than the rest of the world, but South Korean society has fewer distractions when compared to American society — which results in golf specialization at an early age. This means the young athletes practice golf intensely year round and only focus on this one specific sport. Golf specialization is common around the world, but no one can rival the intensity with which it is practiced in South Korea. South Korean golfers are more likely to dedicate all of their time to golf because there is a limited number of recreational activities available to them. American players are much more likely to split time with school friends, other sports, and golf — instead of pouring all of their time and effort into this one sport.
The strict discipline and work ethic of South Korean golfers is distinguishable from the rest of the world. Cassie also touched on this in our conversation. Her junior golf and NCAA experience give her a unique perspective into why South Korean women dominate the LPGA [Ladies Professional Golf Association].
Mateo Valles: What are the differences you have noticed between South Korean players and South Korean American players?
Cassie Kim: “When you decide to do a sport in South Korea, everything is towards that sport. School doesn’t matter as much, nothing else does, everything goes into that sport. And they do it on a more intense level just from what I have seen than anyone here. They practice all day, they eat, sleep, and play tournaments… The discipline if you grow up in South Korea playing a sport is at a different level than if you grow up here [the United States].”
The cultural norms and customs of South Korean society facilitate the specialization of golf for many South Korean junior golfers. Their intensity is much greater than the rest of the world. Naturally, players that are practicing and playing more are going to be more successful golfers than those who spend less time on the course or range (American golfers for example). South Korean golfers have the same amount of talent, but they develop and practice their golf game more intensely than anyone else. This has resulted in the dominant figures on the LPGA tour, as mentioned earlier.
Mateo Valles: South Korea’s junior golf structure is very different from what we have in the US. What makes their junior golf structure so different?
Chris Smeal: ‘Most players will have a coach, but in say another country (Korea) they have government funding, and those kids are supported by government money, so they have a team around them. They have an academy model where all of the best players go and that is how they get better.’
The structural aspects of how junior golf is organized and played in South Korea provides the second half of the answer. The reason for focusing on junior golf and young athletes is they are the ones who go on to the American Pro tours. Most players that become professional golfers all went through the Korean Golf Association’s (KGA) system of tournaments and rankings.
The role of the KGA is to host a series of tournaments and rank the participating player each year. From there the top players compete for a spot on the highly desired elite winter golf camps or a spot on the national team. The government is essentially paying some of the expenses to give their players as much practice and experience as possible before they turn pro. This academy model and government support prepare South Korean athletes incredibly well. This is why South Korean female golfers sometimes immediately win and become successful upon arrival on the LPGA scene. Even though they have never played an LPGA event, their abundant experience playing on Asian tours and tournaments makes them better prepared than an American rookie on the tour who is fresh out of college. The additional experience goes a long way, for the past five years the winners of the LPGA Rolex Rookie of the Year Award have been South Korean athletes.
Together the structural and cultural aspects that make up South Korean society, have created a disciplined and hardworking junior golfer population that has gone on to win tournaments on the LPGA and PGA tour. Their system in place is not perfect, and it is not for very society — but it does get results.