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South Korean Players Storm LPGA Tour

SEOUL, South Korea -- Despite winning her first LPGA tour title at 19, Jee Young Lee rates herself a late bloomer in her native South Korea, which is swamping women's golf with winners.
'I started golf when I was in the sixth grade in elementary school, which is relatively late as Korean professional golfers go,' she said while warming up for the LPGA Championship last week.
Lee, now 20 and in her rookie year on the tour, shot a 4-under 284 to tie for 14th with countrywoman Meena Lee at the LPGA Championship. The winner was another Korean, Se Ri Pak, who widely is credited with launching an avalanche of Korean women golf winners.
Players of Korean descent have claimed seven of 14 LPGA events so far this year. Nine of the 2006 runners-up are Korean, and nine are in the top-20 money list.
And that's not even including Michelle Wie of Hawaii, whose parents are of Korean descent.
Before Pak shot to stardom by winning two majors in her rookie year in 1998, Korean women had made almost no impact on the LPGA. In 1997, the women's tour had no South Korean members. Now there are 32 -- including seven rookies -- and another 35 listed on the developmental Future's Tour.
'I guess I give them a lot of confidence to come over and play in the U.S.,' Pak told The Associated Press in an e-mail interview. 'In the last four years, you see more than 20 players from Korea that play in the tour and, at the same time, they play so well. I'm kind of proud of it.'
Pak, whose latest win was her fifth major title and 23rd overall, says Korean women find it easier to cope with life on the tour because they already are adept at pressure management. She revived her career by training more than 12 hours a day and studying two martial arts -- muay thai kickboxing and taekwondo.
'The way we grow up is a little different. In our culture, there's always a lot of support from the family and, at the same time, always having a lot of pressure on ourselves,' Pak said.
In Korea's conservative society dominated by Confucian philosophy, women often live with their parents until they are married and study long hours to compete academically with their peers. Wie said the culture of hard work helps explain Koreans' success on the greens.
Korean players 'work their butts off, they work hard and they're very motivated and talented,' Wie said during a trip to South Korea last month when she made her first cut in a men's tournament at the Asian Tour's SK Telecom Open.
Jee Young Lee, who won her first title last October at the CJ Nine Bridges Classic in Jeju, South Korea, says she practiced up to seven hours a day while in high school.
Sociologist Shin Eui-hang said Korean women never would have experienced this level of success without what he called the country's 'all-in culture.'
'For many Korean parents, their children pick a career route and their parents bet everything they've got on that goal,' said Shin, a South Carolina professor who authored a 2004 paper entitled, 'Culture, Gender Role of Sports: The Case of the Korean Player on the LPGA Tour.'
'The other factor is the exam culture. What we would call 'exam hell.' Korean parents oversee their kids going through the university entrance exam, and this begins at elementary school. What I'm talking about is practice, practice, practice,' he said. 'That's why you see these kids are determined to practice their golf swing day after day.'
Despite Korean women's success, the country's men have failed to keep pace. The only male standout from South Korea is three-time PGA Tour winner K.J. Choi. This is partly attributed to the two-year disruption to men's lives for mandatory military service, but Shin said it also ironically has roots in the inferior status of Korean women.
'In a Korean family, parents still think that becoming a professional golfer is not a viable professional route. Sons should aim higher,' he said. 'But for Korean women, becoming a pro golfer is not that shabby, and even if they fail to make the LPGA tour, many are eligible to become golf training pros, which is a lucrative and respectable career in Korea.'
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