PHOENIX – Ha Na Jang’s dynamic emergence as an LPGA winner this year hit the tour like a freshening breeze with her colorful victory celebrations going viral.
That “Samurai Lasso” Jang unveiled winning the Coates Golf Championship sent a jolt of delight through the gallery around the 18th green in Ocala, Fla. Her Beyonce “Single Ladies” dance after winning the HSBC Women’s Champions was just as electric.
With her 10,000-watt smile and playful disposition, Jang is the fun, new headliner in women’s golf this year, and that’s what makes her revelation at the JTBC Founders Cup this week so disconcerting.
“Now every day, crying in my room, last night, last week,” Jang said.
Jang’s spirits ought to be soaring with two victories in her last four starts, but she’s struggling emotionally dealing with a media tempest back in her South Korean homeland. She’s upset about a controversy pitting her against reigning U.S. Women’s Open champion In Gee Chun.
If you missed this, when Jang arrived in Singapore before the HSBC Women’s Champions, her father lost control of a 15-pound carry-on bag at the airport. The bag crashed down an escalator and struck Chun in the lower back, which led Chun to withdraw from that event and also from this week’s Founders Cup.
The drama intensified when Jang won and jumped into the South Korean Olympic golf team’s four-player mix, bumping Chun out, at least for the time being.
Chun issued a statement last week that basically said she didn’t get the proper apology due her, but she didn’t want to see Jang face any more stinging criticism.
As fallout from all of this, Jang’s Beyonce dance created a backlash in South Korea that Jang didn’t see coming.
The backlash is twofold.
First, there’s an element of Korean culture critical of Jang’s animated, celebratory style.
“The Korean culture is much more reserved than celebratory,” an LPGA/South Korean liaison said. “So when she did [the Beyonce dance], a lot of people thought it was a little overboard.”
Chun’s situation exacerbated that. Her supporters complained that Jang’s dance was ungracious and ill-timed, given Jang’s father’s role in Chun being sidelined.
Here’s how highly scrutinized this whole issue is back in South Korea. Even before Chun’s injury, Jang’s “Samurai Lasso” victory move was criticized by some as disrespectful, with Jang hearing complaints that she should have compared her sword-like slashes to Korean fencing moves, not to a Japanese Samurai move.
“In Korea, it’s a very big issue,” Jang said.
Jang said she used the Samurai term sitting in front of American media because she believed the term translated better, was more easily understood by English audiences. Still, the intense scrutiny over Jang’s flamboyant style appears to be taking a toll on her. She wiped away tears Tuesday after trying to explain the situation to American media without inflaming the issue back in her homeland. She’s walking on egg shells trying to the right thing this week, trying to please American and Korean fan bases.
“It’s hard on my heart,” Jang said. “It’s a little sad.”
This is the difficult terrain Jang is trying to play through this week.
It isn’t just a South Korean issue. It’s a potentially unfortunate turn for the LPGA, because there is something about Jang that might prove to be transformative. This is a delicate topic, but there’s no getting around how South Korean dynamics play in the United States. Even after a decade of dominance, there’s a certain segment of American audiences who remain cold to South Korea’s omnipresence on LPGA leaderboards. You see it in Internet commentary threads, in chat rooms and in tweets.
Jang’s nature, the way she elicits smiles in galleries throughout her round, is potentially game changing. Her body language may be the most eloquent in the women’s game. Her mannerisms and expressions transcend spoken language. In that way, she connects meaningfully with fans without having to utter a word.
Getty Images photographer Scott Halleran, who has been shooting golf for 27 years, followed Jang for the first time in Sunday’s final round in Singapore. He makes his living trying to capture more than images. He tries to capture moments that speak to people in ways words never can.
“Following her was one of the most refreshing days I’ve ever had on a golf course,” Halleran said. “She’s the most passionate, energetic golfer I’ve been around in a long time. The last 30 minutes of that tournament was incredible.”
Halleran loved Jang’s Beyonce dance. More than that, he loved how much fun Jang had playing to the cameras, sidling up next to the small band at the trophy presentation and pretending to play the drums.
“It was by far the most high-energy trophy presentation I’ve ever seen,” Halleran said. “I think at some point I blurted out, `I wish you could win every week.’”
Stacy Lewis was paired with Jang in the first round of an event last year. They were among the first groups off early in the morning on a Thursday, and shortly into the round, with the sun barely up, Jang holed a birdie putt and let loose a spirited fist pump. Lewis laughed.
“It’s never too early to fist pump.” Lewis remembered saying.
David Stone was Jang’s caddie for nine months of her rookie year last season and said he thoroughly enjoyed their journey together.
“Ha Na is crazy, and I mean that in the best sense of the word,” Stone said. “She is funny, always smiling, joking about everything. Practice rounds with her were hilarious, some of the most fun practice rounds I’ve ever had.
“The thing about Ha Na is she is the same way on and off the golf course. Doesn’t matter if she shoots 75 or 68, she’s the same person.”
Kevin Kim, the Korean-born Web.com Tour player, put Jang through a month-long boot camp to get her ready for the start of this year.
“I’ve never seen a man or woman on the Korean tours celebrate like she does,” Kim said after watching Jang win in Ocala. “It’s just not Korean style, but she’s one of a kind.”
Dean Herden, an Australian caddie who has toted for a long line of South Korean players, including Jang, says she is a natural entertainer on and off the course.
“She is very open with people,” Herden said. “She enjoys people and going out and chatting and socializing. I never got to see her at a night club, but I’m sure she would be the life of the place.”
Herden said Jang was animated but less so while playing the Korean LPGA Tour.
“In our western culture, we love that, and Ha Na has realized this and is now opening up to it,” Herden said. “This is so healthy for our sport, and I personally hope there will be a few more younger players watching Ha Na who will realize professional golf is a living, but you can also enjoy yourself and show people how much fun you are having expressing yourself. I’m so happy Ha Na is doing what she is doing. This is what our sport needs.”
The South Korean contingent playing the LPGA is a special group.
Inbee Park will earn induction into the LPGA Hall of Fame with her 10th start this year. She doesn’t get enough credit for how important her mastery of the English language has been to her connection with American media. Park’s ability to tell her story in her record-setting runs was important to the LPGA. So Yeon Ryu and Na Yeon Choi have been important, too. They’ve been terrific Korean ambassadors in the LPGA ranks. Sei Young Kim, the LPGA’s Rookie of the Year last season, may not be as animated as Jang, but she has shown a fun-loving personality in her 14 months on tour.
For Jang, the challenge now isn’t just continuing to connect with American fans. It’s walking the line between American and Korean tastes.