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Why are South Korea's women so good at golf?

Reigning Olympic champion Inbee Park is one of the South Korea golfers who have dominated women's golf over the past decade. But what's the secret?
By Rory Jiwani

It was altogether fitting that the first Olympic champion in women's golf for over 100 years hailed from the Republic of Korea.

The country has dominated the women's game for the past decade with seven-time major winner Inbee Park taking gold at Rio 2016.

What is perhaps most striking is the sheer depth of talent in Korea with no fewer than 17 women winning a total of 34 majors starting with Pak Se-ri's victory in the 1998 LPGA Championship.

With more than a handful of the world's top 20 players, and a seemingly endless supply of title contenders, there is no sign that Korean women will relinquish their grip on golf's big prizes any time soon.

So what is the secret to their success?

The trailblazers in Korean women's golf

Aged just 20 and the winner of six tournaments on the Korean LPGA Tour, Pak Se-ri moved to the United States to join the LPGA Tour in 1998.

She made an immediate impact, taking victory in the LPGA Championship before becoming the youngest ever US Women's Open champion.

Pak was tied with American amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn at Blackwolf Run in Wisconsin after 72 holes, and the pair could not be separated after 18 holes on the Monday.

Watched by millions on television in Korea, the Daejeon native birdied the second hole in second sudden death to claim her second consecutive major and spark a golfing revolution in her homeland.

Inbee Park was one of the "Se-ri Kids" - as the next generation of Korean women golfers came to be known - watching Pak beat the best in the world, and practising for hours to try to emulate her hero.

Another was Jiyai Shin who had a record-breaking nine victories from 18 starts on the KLPGA Tour in 2007 while still a teenager.

In 2008, 19-year-old Park took Pak's record as the youngest US Women's Open winner before Shin claimed the British Women's Open on her way to becoming Asia's first world no.1 golfer.

With her bubbly personality, Shin also endeared herself to her fellow professionals and became the second great Korean golfing role model.

Park and Ryo So-yeon are among those who have carried the torch since with Park Sung-hyun and Ko Jin-young also reaching number one in the world and winning multiple majors.

In 2019, there were 21 Korean players on the LPGA Tour with the likes of New Zealand's Lydia Ko, Australian Minjee Lee, and American major winners Michelle Wie and Danielle Kang all born to Korean parents.

All of them are indebted to Pak, the youngest inductee into the World Golf Hall of Fame at 29 in 2007, and her incredible legacy.

Dedication and sponsorship

Golf remains an expensive pursuit in Korea but, since Pak's rise to stardom, it has become extremely popular.

With considerable international appeal and a lucrative global tour, women's golf has become the go-to sport for companies in Korea in terms of sponsorship.

Budding golfers and their families are similarly keen to obtain lucrative deals on the path to the LPGA Tour and major title success, requiring serious dedication and sacrifice from both children and parents.

Months ahead of winning her first major at last October's Women's PGA Championship, Kim Sei-young told AFP that "all-out parental support" was key to success.

Speaking to Asia Media International, Korean-American college golfer Cassie Kim said, "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.

"South Korean golfers have the same amount of talent, but they develop and practise their golf game more intensely than anyone else." - Gonzaga University golfer Cassie Kim

Kim Sei-young (L) and Ko Jin-young line up putts during the final round of the 2020 CME Group Tour Championship
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The KLPGA Tour system

Success breeds success with the KLPGA Tour providing a steady stream of future major winners. And even making it is an achievement.

The first stage is the Jump Tour which comprises tournaments made up of professional and amateur golfers.

The KLPGA then invites the best golfers from the Jump Tour to the Dream Tour, a fully professional circuit where the top money-earners are then offered membership of the KLPGA Tour.

By the time the top performers on the KLPGA Tour make the move to the LPGA Tour, they are already hardened pros and well used to performing under pressure unlike those graduating from the American Symetra Tour.

That is borne out by Korea providing the five most recent LPGA Rookies of the Year - Kim Sei-young (2015), Chun In-gee (2016), Park Sung-hyun (2017), Ko Jin-young (2018), and Jeongeun Lee6 - so named because there were already five professional golfers named Lee Jeong-eun - the last winner in 2019.

Chun, Park Sung-hyun and Lee6 were all KLPGA Tour money list leaders the year before taking the LPGA Rookie of the Year title, while Kim Sei-Young and Ko Jin-young had both been money list runners-up before heading to the States.

Even 2014 Rookie of the Year, subsequent world number one and Olympic silver medallist Lydia Ko, was born in Seoul with her family emigrating to New Zealand when she was a small child.

Speaking to Golf.com ahead of the 2018 Women's British Open, American Olympic hopeful Jessica Korda said, "I know that they have to play two years on the Korean LPGA before they even come to the States. So they’ve already been a pro before they come to our tour.

"So as you call them 'rookies', they’ve won like 10 times professionally. And that’s a huge advantage coming here whereas if you see all of the American girls they might have played a year on the Symetra Tour or they’re fresh rookies."

Ryu So-yeon (L) and Jessica Korda ahead of the UL International Crown in July 2018
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

Not since 2010 has there been a year without a Korean major winner with Inbee Park taking the first three majors of 2013.

And the conveyor belt keeps on producing with three first-time Korean major winners in 2020 - Mirim Lee in the ANA Inspiration, Kim Sei-young's long overdue success in the Women's PGA Championship, and Kim A-lim taking the US Women's Open in her first tournament in the United States.

Needless to say, competition for the four possible spots at Tokyo 2020 is fierce with Ko Jin-young, Inbee Park and Kim Sei-Young all but assured of their places as the top three players in the world.

Whoever takes the fourth berth is likely to be a genuine medal contender at the Kasumigaseki Country Club in early August.

READ: Olympic golf at Tokyo 2020: top five things to know