This newest wave of gifted young South Koreans is making an intense push to the top of the women’s game, but Inbee Park remains a step ahead of them.
More so than ever, the talent pouring out of the Korean LPGA Tour is making an impact on the game’s grandest stages. Yes, the South Koreans have been dominant for a long time, but never as dominant as they are now.
Four of the top five players in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings are Korean born.
Korean LPGA members Hyo Joo Kim and In Gee Chun won majors over the last 12 months before becoming LPGA members. Jin-Young Ko took the 54-hole lead into the final round of the Women’s British Open last weekend in a bid to give KLPGA members three of the last five majors.
After winning the Ricoh Women’s British Open Sunday, Park said this new wave is pushing her.
“It’s definitely a big motivation for me,” Park said. “They’re just lined up waiting to come here, to come to the LPGA and compete at the world level.
“I just can’t be too comfortable where I’m sitting right now. I’ve just got to keep pushing myself to play better and better, and play a little bit smarter and wiser. I need to do something to get better every day.”
It’s working both ways. Park’s feeling pushed, but in winning her sixth major in the last 14 played, she’s pulling these young, new South Koreans up to a different level with her.
“They do look up to her a lot,” said Brad Beecher, Park’s caddie. “You can tell, the other fathers and coaches, they’re watching her, to relay it to their daughters. You’ll spot them out there on tournament days. They aren’t even watching their own daughters. I won’t name names, but I’ve spotted a few parents doing that.”
Beecher said even Inbee has noticed fathers and mothers of other players watching her play and practice. He says Park has asked him what’s going on.
“They’re watching you,” Beecher says he told her. “You’ve got all your peers’ families looking up to you.”
Jin-Young Ko, 20, talked about looking up to Park as her idol after she took the 54-hole lead at Trump Turnberry. Ko’s caddie, Jeff Brighton, said he thinks Park’s bold Sunday charged rattled Ko. With giant leaderboards well placed at Turnberry, Ko could see Park making her move.
“I was a little bit over thinking, and then I was a little bit nervous,” Ko said.
Even with the loss, add Jin-Young Ko to this long list of youthful Korean talent crashing major championship stages and the world rankings. Ko jumped to No. 17 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings this week.
Sixteen of the top 30 players in the Rolex world rankings are Korean born. Count four South Korean LPGA rookies among that top 30. Chun will join the LPGA as a rookie next year, and Jin-Young Ko says she hopes to join in the near future.
“They’re so talented,” American Cristie Kerr said. “They’re machines. They practice 10 hours a day.”
For a few years there, some of South Korea’s best young talent was staying home to play the KLPGA and Japan LPGA tours. Why this new push to the American-based LPGA?
“I joined the LPGA in hopes of making the Olympics team,” Sei Young Kim told GolfChannel.com.
Kim isn’t alone making the move. With golf returning to the Olympics next year, the LPGA offers the best avenue to qualify. The Rolex Women’s World Rankings is used to determine who qualifies, and the LPGA offers more world-rankings points than any other women’s tour in the world.
The competition to make the South Korean Olympic team is becoming extremely intense. With a maximum of four players allowed to make the team, nobody outside the top 10 in the world rankings today would make the South Korean team. That prompted Park last week to say she believes everyone among the top 50 should be able to compete in the Olympics.
There is other motivation for South Koreans coming over to the LPGA now. With the tour’s schedule rebuilt, there’s more money to be won now than there was a few years ago, when the American-based tour’s schedule shrunk to an anemic 23 events.
While Lydia Ko doesn’t play under the South Korean flag, you can include her in the wave of Korean-born stars. Why? It isn’t just the fact that Ko was born in South Korea before moving to New Zealand when she was 6. While Ko clearly relishes being a Kiwi, she says her South Korean heritage remains very important to her, to the point where she says she considers South Korea one of her two homes.
Ko, who now has an American base in Orlando, was asked last week at the Women’s British Open where she considers her “emotional” home.
“I think I'm really lucky that I have the Korean background in me,” Ko said. “I grew up in a totally different country in New Zealand. Those two would be home. If I go to Korea or New Zealand, that's where I feel most welcomed. I love going there. Most of the time, when I'm in Orlando having a week off, my mom cooks me Korean food. That's where my Korean background comes into it. I guess it's really hard to choose just one certain country, but I'm really fortunate that I'm getting great support from both.”
While Ko isn’t typically considered South Korean when looking at the international makeup of women’s golf, her dual emotional tug adds to the embarrassment of riches that Korean golf claims.