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Korean Golfers Are Remaking The LPGA—And Not Everyone’s Happy About It

By Eric Adelson

Donna Andrews tried not to stare. The LPGA vet walked to the first tee at the Canadian Women’s Open last summer in Vancouver and looked out at the gallery. Finding hundreds of fans but few white faces, she turned to her caddie and whispered, “Where are we?” Baseball has a Matsui here and there. Basketball has Yao. Football’s got Dat Nguyen. Hockey’s got Richard Park. And then there’s women’s golf. No American pro sports league has been reshaped by Asians like the LPGA. Three of the top four money-winners (Se Ri Pak, Grace Park, Hee-Won Han) are Korean. Almost every LPGA event is broadcast in South Korea, which pays more rights fees than any other foreign country. The LPGA even has a tour stop on Jeju Island. And while the golf market averages zero growth globally, golf-related imports boomed at a 30% clip last year in this nation of 50 million people. Not bad for a place where space is tight and greens fees are through the roof. “It’s amazing,” says Park, who’s endorsing Nike’s first women’s golf clubs. “They’re at the range from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. Men, women, kids, everyone.”

Everyone together. Because the real story of South Korean golf is of daughters tagging along with their links-crazed dads. (Park says she hasn’t forgiven her father for dragging her from a high school party to practice.) Most every Korean who is interested in golf takes lessons before playing a single hole, and Korean corporations sponsor junior golf the way American companies sponsor bowl games. “They all have flawless swings,” says Juli Inkster, a 20-year LPGA veteran. “And they’ve all grown up with video. I didn’t look at my swing until I was in my thirties.”

The one thing young Korean’s can’t prepare for is LPGA culture. While golfers like Pak need bodyguards back home, American players starve for attention. Says Amy Alcott, who joined the Tour in 1975: “I used to say that to be a great women’s golfer, you have to shoot 65, wear a miniskirt and roll over and bite yourself.” LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw hasn’t asked for that yet, but he does encourage everything from sound bites to sexy shirts as part of his Five Points of Celebrity marketing plan.

Most American pros are willing, but it’s tougher for reserved, performance-first Koreans. (Park actually gets chided by her country’s media for smiling too much.) “Americans are more outgoing,” says Young-A Yang, a 25-year-old rookie. “Koreans tend not to stick out.”

They couldn’t help it this season. At the U.S. Open, 15-year vet Danielle Ammaccapane publicly scolded Korean-American teen phenom Michelle Wie for etiquette lapses. Weeks later, Votaw conducted a little rules refresher seminar with Korean players and their fathers, who had been accused of instructing their daughters from the gallery and in one case, of kicking a ball from behind a tree. Then, in October, Tour icon and former glam queen Jan Stephenson told Golf magazine that Asians were killing the LPGA. The 52-year-old Australian even called for a quota. Suddenly women’s golf got plenty of attention. “We have to do a better job of understanding,” Votaw says. “We have to impress on certain individuals that the old days are over.” But the new days may be over too. A Next generation of more media-savvy Koreans, including 27-year-old Soo Yun Kang, has already begun to make noise. The Seoul native, known back home as the fashion model of the fairways for her wide-brimmed hats and formfitting clothes, had six top-10 finishes out of 23 starts in her first full LPGA season. And her English is nearly as flawless as her smile. Meanwhile, younger Koreans are coming to the States well before hitting the Tour. “Education is huge in Korea,” says Yang, who graduated from Tennessee last year. “That was one of the reasons I came over here.” Sukjin-Lee Wuesthoff, this year’s U.S. Junior Golf champ at 16, came to New Jersey from Korea at age 12 and was legally adopted by her aunt. Then there’s Wie, a 14-year-old from Hawaii whose parents met and married in South Korea. Michelle loves Ashton Kutcher, hopes to go to Stanford and wants to play on a U.S. Olympic team. In fact, Votaw says he can envision a U.S. Solheim Cup squad made up mostly of Korean-Americans. Which is just fine with Inkster. “If they’re American,” she says, “I’d take em.”