INCHEON, South Korea – The Americans were working in virtual isolation during Tuesday’s practice round at the UL International Crown when they heard distant roars.
The South Koreans were practicing with up to 400 fans in tow at Jack Nicklaus Golf Club.
The gallery chasing Sung Hyun Park, So Yeon Ryu, I.K. Kim and In Gee Chun was larger than you see in some regular rounds of LPGA events.
It was noisier, too.
The Koreans even got hearty ovations after dropping and hitting second balls into greens.
“They were cheering practice putts,” said Brady Stockton, American Cristie Kerr’s caddie.
In fact, they were cheering putts that weren’t even hitting real holes. They were cheering putts that hit those white, plastic circles caddies throw on the green in practice to simulate hole locations.
“Big roars,” said David Jones, Park’s caddie.
When Park finished her practice round and began signing autographs along the ropes behind the 18th green, there was a mad rush. An outmanned security guard, trying to keep fans from overrunning Park, shielded her with outstretched arms while barking at spectators.
This is the way it is for the best female players from this country.
They’re rock stars with their own fan clubs.
“That’s cool, that they have their own fan clubs,” American Jessica Korda said. “You don’t see that in the United States, not even on the PGA Tour. They come strong, hundreds of them.”
Korda appreciates the following the Americans get at home, but she would relish seeing American players get that depth of love.
“It would be great to pull crowds like that,” Korda said.
The fan clubs stand out.
“They are fanatical,” Jones said. “They have their own uniforms, their own hats, their own colors.”
Park’s fan club is called “Namdalla.” That translates as “I am different.” It’s one of the nicknames Park goes by. They wore their official black club shirts Tuesday with “Namdalla” in gold lettering.
In Gee Chun’s fan club is called “The Flying Dumbos.”
Jin Young Ko isn’t playing this week, but her club, “Jin Young Love,” joins Park and Ko as the the most popular fan clubs.
All three were grouped together in the last round of the HanaBank Championship last year.
“There were 20,000 people following them,” Jones said. “All the fan clubs were out. It was brilliant.”
They carry signs. They chant.
“I’ve been on tour for 17 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Candie Kung, whose on the Chinese Taipei team that will take on the Koreans in Thursday’s start of fourballs. “It's awesome. It's like going to a basketball game, a hockey game. You see fans with signs, cheering for their favorite players. Makes golf a lot more fun to watch.”
Giant crowds are expected this week.
LPGA commissioner Mike Whan said 38,000 fans turned out for the final round of the HanaBank Championship last year, the LPGA’s only regular tour event in South Korea.
“That’s a monster Sunday, but I’d expect to see that around the first tee on Thursday,” Whan said back in July.
Players know what that will mean if they are not Korean or they are not used to the nature of the galleries here.
“They get pretty loud at HanaBank, following their favorite players,” Kung said. “This week, you're going to have two [Korean] players in each group, so that's going to add fans.
“You're going to hear cell phones clicking, ringing, people walking, talking. Anything you can think of is going to happen tomorrow. We're all expecting that to happen.”
Kung said she was going to get a horn to blow, to clear her way through fans on the way to tee boxes.
“I’m probably not going to be able to walk from the green to the tee box,” Kung said.
The Korean players get a lot of love from their fans, but they feel pressure, too.
As the dominant force in women’s golf, they’re expected to finally win this thing. They are 0 for 2 in the event’s history, and now that they’re playing this at home ...
“All of the pressure is on them this week,” Kerr said.
Fellow tour pros have seen the love heaped upon Korean players here, and they’ve seen the scorn for failure, too. Korean fans will boo, but they tend to mostly cluck their tongues to display their displeasure.
So Yeon Ryu pleaded with Korean fans on Tuesday to restrain themselves if things aren’t going Korea’s way.
“Really painful, sharp criticism can actually erode our confidence,” Ryu said. “I think that if we were given a lot of support during the event, then we would definitely be able to win this time.”
A Korean victory would set off a victory celebration unlike anything the Crown has seen in its young history.
Win or lose, players can’t wait to experience the Crown going to another level in South Korea.
“The atmosphere is going to be incredible,” Korda said.