The KEB Hana Bank Championship may not be a major championship, but it feels like one for all the South Koreans teeing it up this week in the lone LPGA event played in their homeland.
It may not be an Olympic event, either, but it also has that kind of feel to it for the Koreans, with so much nationalist honor, pride and responsibility compounding the challenge.
So there you have a summary of what this week means to the Koreans, with the combination of quasi-major championship and Olympic pressure defining the nature of the test at the Sky 72 Golf Club’s Ocean Course in Incheon.
Though it’s a limited field, with 78 players, the strength of the field at the top of the game adds to the prestige of the title.
Fifteeen of the top 16 players in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings are teeing it up and 21 of the top 23. The strength of the field is also enhanced with 12 players from the formidable Korean LPGA Tour exempt into the competition.
Overall, there are 31 Koreans in the field, 10 more than from the United States, the second-most-represented nation.
Notably, there will be at least one Korean in every pairing sent out in Thursday’s first round.
How much pressure is on the Koreans?
This event has been more difficult for them to win than the U.S. Women’s Open over the last decade. They haven’t won the KEB Hana Bank Championship the last two years and have won it just four times over the last 10 years. Conversely, they’ve won seven of the last 10 U.S. Women’s Opens.
Rolex world No. 2 Sung Hyun Park gave a glimpse of the strong sense of responsibility Korean players have to their homeland. She apologized on Tuesday for her performance at the KLPGA’s Pak Invitational a few weeks ago, when she tied for 34th.
“I didn't really get the result I wanted at the time, so I was quite sorry for my Korean fans,” Park said. “I hope this week gives me an opportunity to redeem myself to my fans.”
Two-time major championship winner In Gee Chun provided another look at the stressful dynamic earlier this year.
After Chun was hospitalized this summer with a mysterious esophageal malady, her coach, Won Park, said he believed mounting pressure from back home was a factor. While Chun has recorded five second-place finishes this season, she hasn’t been able to break through for another win.
“In Gee is a superstar in Korea, but people have such high expectations,” Park told GolfChannel.com at the time. “It’s like second-places finishes weren’t good enough.”
Chun said she was only dealing with pressure common to all top players, but she spoke this week of the frustration that mounted with so many second-place finishes.
“Of course, when you don't win, there is a certain disappointment, and I was slightly depressed at times,” Chun said.
Chun has a large fan club, The Flying Dumbos, who will be following her this week. She says she will judge the week’s success by how much fun she has with them. She got the nickname “Dumbo” because of her excessive curiosity.
“This is my first time in a year since I am playing in Korea, in front of my Korean fans, and so I'm really excited,” Chun said. “I hope I can channel this kind of excitement into positive energy.”
Rolex world No. 1 So Yeon Ryu, who didn’t make the Korean Olympic team last year, said trying to make that team was a gut-wrenching proposition.
“Just makes me crazy,” Ryu said last year. “With the media, it’s like if someone is going to make the team, they’re a great player. Then if somebody cannot make it, they’re a really bad player.”
Ryu ascended to world No. 1 this year while claiming two victories, including the year’s first major, the ANA Inspiration. This marks her 16th consecutive week atop the rankings, and she leads the Rolex Player of the Year points race, but she says she hasn’t been satisfied with her play of late. She tied for 40th at the Evian Championship in her last start and missed the cut at the Cambia Portland Classic before that.
“To be honest, I think for the last six weeks, or about a month, I haven’t had the same kind of buzz,” Ryu said. “I really hope to be able to feel that again.”
For the Koreans, winning this week will generate a major kind of buzz.