South Korea’s golfing women: ‘You’re either a champion, or nothing’

Story highlights

South Korea dominates women's golf

Se Ri Pak was first to land a major in 1998

11 Korean women have since won majors

CNN  — 

“You are either a champion, or you are nothing.”

It is a line that encapsulates the sporting mentality that has seen South Korean golfers swarm the upper echelons of the women’s game.

Since 2008, nearly 40% of the major championships on the LPGA Tour have been won by South Koreans. It boasts six of the world’s top 10 ranked players and 40 of the top 100.

A fiercely competitive society married with an intrinsic dedication to getting better has fostered a generation of women that has transformed and revolutionized the game.

“Koreans are the most disciplined people on earth,” PGA coach Brian Mogg, who has an academy in Seoul, told CNN’s Living Golf show.

“You tell them to do something but they don’t just do it, they do it to the nth degree, and they do it hard and passionate. When you put hard work and discipline together you’re going to create some success.”

‘Se Ri Pak’s kids’

The pioneer for this influx of golfing prodigies was Se Ri Pak.

She became the first South Korean to capture a major at the 1998 LPGA Championship. Such was her limited grasp of English at the time, Pak didn’t realize it was a major until after she’d clinched the title.

Pak would go on to win a whopping 39 professional tournaments and five majors in a career that was spawned by a fastidious father who would occasionally make her spend the night alone in a cemetery to toughen her up.

Ten years after her breakthrough triumph, Pak’s “kids” began to permeate the LPGA’s ranks and started a trend that now sees its women dominate.

There have been 11 more major winners from the country since.

Inbee Park has seven to her name at just 28. World No. 1 Lydia Ko, a two-time major champ who won her first pro tournament aged just 14, was born in Seoul before moving to New Zealand.

“Se Ri has raised the standard of Korean golf and helped the careers of so many players,” two-time major champion In Gee Chun says.

“Not only that, her success has lifted the whole golf industry in the country.”

Ha Na Jang, who has three LPGA Tour victories and $2 million career earnings to her name, adds: “Se Ri is a golfing legend in Korea. It’s an honor for me to try to follow her path.”

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A winning mentality

Such is the South Korean mentality, Pak’s kids didn’t just want to emulate their idol, they wanted to eclipse her.

From an early age only those who win are rewarded, creating single minded competitors who work tirelessly to reach the peak of their profession.

“When I look at American players I can see that they’re friends, cheering for each other,” Jang explained. “But there is a lot of rivalry between Korean players. They consider each other as competitors, not as a friend or fellow player.”

“This sense of rivalry makes me work harder all the time,” Chun adds. “If I see others achieve success it makes me work harder to achieve my goals. I think everyone has that kind of competitive spirit.”

Chan-Goog Yang, head pro at Seoul’s Sky 72 club, develops the theme further.

“In Western culture, although the winner is important, they respect all competitors and reward them for their effort, regardless of where they finished,” Yang says.

“In Korea, however, only the winner is rewarded. Only first place. This has an effect on young children who learn from an early age, no matter what form of competition, you are either a champion or nothing.”

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Single minded

This unflappable temperament is vital out on the course, when a golfer often has to battle their own mind as well as the opposition.

Trusting your swing is imperative, and this is where a paucity of golf courses in South Korea has actually proved beneficial. Most players hone their skills on the driving range instead, which can make their swing water tight.

Add that to the rest of the package, and it’s no wonder South Koreans are ripping it up on the links.

“With other sports an umpire decides whether you’ve won or lost,” Yang explains. “Whereas in golf, results can be seen straight after you hit the ball, which is why it fits so well with a Korean’s character.

“Phrases such as “see you later,” “let me see” or “we’ll see” – phrases that suggest waiting – do not suit a Korean’s character. It’s all about “what I do” and “what I get.” Koreans need to know what they have done and what they will receive immediately, which fits right into golf.”

As world No. 12 So Yeon Ryu explains, on the rare occasion a bad shot occurs, South Koreans are well equipped to deal with it.

“We all learn how to control our mind especially when you’re upset or when you’re happy so Koreans just naturally know how to manage your anger or your happiness because it’s our culture,” she said.

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Revitalizing the Tour

This surge of South Korean superstars has not only changed the golfing landscape on the course, but also revitalized its fortunes off it.

Five years ago there were 23 events on the LPGA Tour. That numbers now stands at 33, and 14 of those are sponsored by Asian companies.

Eight of those tournaments are being staged in Asia this season, while the Korean Ladies’ Professional Golf Association organizes 78 national tournaments a year with prize money totaling $20 million.

Young players progress through three levels of competition, and by the time they take flight towards the United States and the LPGA Tour, they are primed to prosper.

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So, too, is the LPGA. Its first retail store in Seoul opened recently, and it plans 100 more in South Korea by 2018.

But it is on the course that success will continue to be measured, and according to Mogg, the very fabric of South Korean culture is the best support the game can have.

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“It’s pretty much a disciplined culture, very much an inherent and rigid way in terms of daily roles and how you follow these patterns of behavior and golf is an extension out of that,” he said.

“I think that’s probably at the root of why you’re seeing so much success.”