Inbee Park carries hopes of a nation

All of South Korea will be watching Inbee Park this week as she goes for her fourth major in a row at the Women’s British Open. Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty Images

When South Korea's Inbee Park goes for an unprecedented fourth LPGA major in a row this week at the Women's British Open, she will carry a personal narrative at St. Andrews: the shy, steely-nerved young woman still a little jarred by seeing pictures of herself all over the media but who says she fully embraces the chance to do something so special.

But she also carries a national narrative. On the surface, it's easy to understand: people rooting for one of their "own." Upon reflection, though, it's more complex and multilayered.

"Obviously, we are very proud to represent South Korea on the world level," Park said of herself and other athletes. "If I'm able to put a Korean name on such an historical trophy -- putting my name into the history of golf -- I mean, all of Korea is watching me, and they are very proud of me. Not many people get this kind of opportunity, and I'm the lucky one."

But does it ever feel burdensome? The sports world recently witnessed Andy Murray's reaction to winning Wimbledon. It was almost as much intense relief as joy, since for years he clearly had felt weighed down by the dreams of the entire United Kingdom.

Park said she doesn't look at hopes/expectations in a negative way. Her run at golf history lets us take a broad view of the nation she comes from, and how its sports heroes -- female golfers in particular over the past 15 years, spurred by the transformational success of Se Ri Pak -- have come to represent more than just athletic triumph.

Korean athletes and national pride

"There is a very strong sense of nationalism, and sports is one of the most powerful stages on which Korean nationalism operates," said Rachael Miyung Joo, an assistant professor at Middlebury College in Vermont who has studied Korean sports extensively.

Joo's 2012 book, "Transnational Sport: Gender, Media, and Global Korea" details many facets of how Korean athletes are perceived to affect national identity.

"Athletes who play abroad represent the image of the newly globalized Korean subject who leaves the country to succeed -- yet continues to maintain a strong sense of Korean identity," Joo wrote. "The Korean athlete is held as an example of the loyal overseas Korean.

"Athletes operate to spread the 'brand name' of South Korea to other national media markets. They advertise the nation ... and an idea of a Korea that competes on par with the most developed nations in the world."

To understand why their global reputation means so much to South Koreans, you have to look at their history in the past century, in particular. This past weekend was the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War. North Korea and South Korea, divided along the 38th parallel after World War II, remain divided along the demilitarized zone, but both continue to claim sovereignty over the entire Korean peninsula.

North Korea is considered one of the world's most "rogue" nations and is often referred to as the Hermit Kingdom. South Korea is an extreme contrast, boasting one of the world's top-15 economies and having strong diplomatic relations with the United States.

South Korea interacts in the global community in a way North Korea doesn't at all, and the perception of their country by the rest of the world matters a great deal to South Koreans.

"It still surprises me, because I grew up in the States for so long," said former LPGA player Grace Park, 34, who came to the United States at age 12 but now lives in her native South Korea. "People here take things very personally if Korea is involved. Good or bad. Like the airplane crash [in San Francisco recently] made everyone -- the whole country -- feel like it was our fault."

After her retirement from the LPGA in 2012, Park returned to Korea, got married and re-assimilated to life in her homeland. She had visited her family a lot during the two decades she'd lived abroad, so it wasn't a culture shock to go back. Still, the intense feeling of national pride -- or embarrassment -- when Koreans are on the world stage for any reason was something that's taken her a while to get used to.

"We have a very long history, but after the Korean War, we had to start from the bottom and build back up," she said. "I think we were able to get stronger within both our families and our country. We work almost as a whole, not individually. So when Koreans accomplish things, they get huge applause and everyone takes pride in it."

The spirit of unified cooperation is publicly evident in how the Korean players on the LPGA Tour always seem to help and encourage each other.

"There are still rivalries, unseen and unspoken," Grace Park said. "But at the same time, Koreans have learned that they have to watch each other's backs and support each other."

Grace Park won six times on tour, including one major, but was plagued by injuries that never let her reach her potential. Still, she was very popular in part, frankly, because she was considered quite attractive.

Joo addresses this in her book, as well: how appearance and personality impact athletes' popularity in South Korea. Of course, that's not unique to that country. But Joo notes that success elevated the status of the female athlete and even, in general, the value of daughters in the eyes of parents. Yet, she said, stereotypical gender norms are still a big part of the narrative around South Korean athletes.

Male athletes are looked to as reinforcing a kind of hypermasculinity; Joo points to examples such as baseball pitcher Chan Ho Park and Olympic swimmer Tae-hwan Park.

Female athletes, like their counterparts worldwide, are often evaluated on a scale of so-called traditional attractiveness. Joo points out that the most popular female athlete in South Korea is Olympic figure skating gold medalist Yu-na Kim.

"I've written a lot about body-image issues and the media in South Korea," Joo said. "In the case of Yu-na Kim, there is no hesitation to celebrate her as an individual, and I think that has everything to do with what she looks like.

"In the celebrity-driven culture of South Korea, I don't think people who aren't thought to be attractive are necessarily 'punished,' but they aren't considered as 'appealing' as an individual. So then, it's much more about this national-pride issue and less of a celebration of them as individual."

The Se Ri Pak revolution

Inbee Park won the U.S. Women's Open at age 19 in 2008. She didn't get another LPGA victory for four years. Park has talked about the pressure she felt to follow up that big win.

Joo said back home, there was pressure put on Park by the Korean media -- and even some people close to Park -- to lose weight and alter her appearance. Also, her quiet nature was at odds with so-called celebrity appeal. She's not the first South Korean LPGA player to have to try to embrace that kind of celebrity while continuing to play at a high level; Se Ri Pak paved that path.

Pak's success changed the LPGA so significantly that she's one of the most important players in the organization's history. She is credited with starting the wave of South Korean golfers that redefined the makeup of the LPGA and, along with the success of golfers from other Asian nations, greatly helped the tour expand to a much larger global television audience.

But she also had a more general impact: showing how athletes can lift people's spirits in bleak times.

Pak's breakthrough victories in the 1998 LPGA Championship and U.S. Women's Open -- the latter in a 20-hole playoff -- served as a tonic for a financially and emotionally depressed nation.

The Asian financial crisis that began in 1997 was an oppressive cloud that still hung over the country in the summer of 1998. Pak was a smiling, charismatic 20-year-old whose determination on the golf course became symbolic of Korean mettle.

As Joo wrote, "She came to symbolize how South Korea might pull itself out of the crisis through global competitiveness, individual drive, and private capital."

Joo references a television commercial that ran in Korea at the time for Samsung cellular phones. It showed images of Pak winning the Women's Open, with this high praise: "In our difficulty, she became out strength. In our weariness, she gave us a reason to smile.''

That Pak was considered "working class" and somewhat of a "country girl" made her story appealing to Koreans of all classes. And Pak, who turns 36 in September, was no one-year wonder; she has won 25 tournaments and is still competing.

Inbee Park, like virtually all of her countrywomen who followed Pak, pays homage to the "queen" of South Korean golfers.

"Golf is pretty much the sport that I always watched," Park said. "Se Ri, Grace Park, Mi-Hyun Kim -- they were all the first generation who came out on the tour. Those were the golfers that I really liked. And Karrie Webb was playing very good golf, and Annika [Sorenstam]; they were also my role models."

Sorenstam, from Sweden, and Webb, from Australia, are the most successful women's players from their respective countries. Both spent time ranked No. 1 and combined have 17 major victories.

But they didn't inspire the same influx of strong competitors from their nations that Pak did from hers. Since Sorenstam won her first major, in 1995, only one other Swedish woman has claimed a major title: Anna Nordqvist, who won the 2009 LPGA Championship. No other Australian has won an LPGA major since Webb won her first in 1999.

Pak's protégés, to use the term loosely, have been very successful. Pak has five majors; nine other Koreans have combined for 13. Leading the way is Inbee Park, who has four.

Inbee Park was back for a visit to South Korea last week and was hailed as a national hero. Her status could get even bigger with a win at the Women's British Open.

While her success doesn't have the same groundbreaking feel to it that Pak's did, the attention she's getting now nonetheless is impacting a new generation of young Koreans who aren't old enough to have seen Pak's glory days.

To them, Inbee Park is the face of golf for a country that's become the standard-bearer for that sport on the women's side.

"I go to tournaments where a lot of Korean galleries come to watch," she said. "The little kids say, 'I started playing golf watching you.' I'm only 25 years old, and I feel a little old hearing that.

"But I feel really happy that I could inspire somebody like Se Ri did to me, and be in the kind of position where I've always dreamed of, where I've always wanted to go."