TURNBERRY, Scotland – You could argue Inbee Park enjoys the best view of what’s happening in the women’s game.
She does, after all, occupy the high ground as the Rolex world No. 1.
She says she is proud of what she is seeing this year.
She sees South Koreans riding yet another new wave of dominance into this week’s Ricoh Women’s British Open.
“I knew this was going to be our best year, even before the year started,” Park said. “Much better than what we’ve had the last 20 years.”
Park knew just how strong all this new talent coming over from South Korea was before the first shot of this LPGA season was struck. She predicted Korean rookies would make a giant impact in an interview on the eve of the season opener at the Coates Golf Championship.
“It was just a matter of how quickly they were going to start winning,” Park said.
South Korean veteran Na Yeon Choi won the season opener, but she had to hold off South Korean rookie Ha Na Jang to do so. The very next week, South Korean rookie Sei Young Kim won the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic. South Korean rookies won three of the first nine LPGA tournaments this season.
Overall, Korean-born players have won 13 of 19 LPGA events this year. Four of the top five in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings are Korean-born.
Park, Choi, So Yeon Ryu, Amy Yang and Mirim Lee were a stellar cast who had already established themselves in the LPGA ranks coming into this year, but the addition of rookies Jang, Hyo Joo Kim, Sei Young Kim, and Q Baek could make this the most dominant group of South Koreans yet.
And that’s not including In Gee Chun, who won last month’s U.S. Women’s Open as a Korean LPGA Tour member.
These young Koreans are so good they aren’t waiting to win major championships as LPGA rookies. They’re winning them before they’re rookies. They’re winning them as pre-rookies and using their victories as tickets to join the LPGA.
Chun won the U.S. Women’s Open playing in her first major championship. While the 20-year-old may not have been a familiar name to American golf fans when she arrived at Lancaster Country Club, she was already a star back home.
Hyo Joo Kim followed the same pre-rookie script winning the Evian Championship at the end of last year. She also won the first major she played, shooting a remarkable 61 in the first round. At 19, she used the victory to claim LPGA membership this year. Chun is soon likely to do the same.
Hyo Joo Kim may be an LPGA rookie, but she’s already No. 4 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings. Chun is No. 9. Sei Young Kim, Jang and Baek all rank among the top 25 in the world.
“They are not really rookies,” said Lydia Ko, who was born in South Korea and moved to New Zealand when she was 6. “They are super rookies. They have had multiple wins on the KLPGA and other tours. It’s hard to call them rookies.”
Park was part of a generation of players inspired to follow in the footsteps of Se Ri Pak, who ignited the popularity of women’s golf in South Korea winning the U.S. Women’s Open in 1998. While Park may be one of “Se Ri’s kids,” these young, new South Koreans pushing in behind her aren’t. Yes, Pak will always be the Godmother of Women’s Golf in South Korea, but this new wave is more a product of the system Pak inspired.
What makes these South Koreans so good?
“It’s the work ethic, it’s the parental support, it’s all that,” says Dean Herden, who was on the bag as caddie for three different South Koreans when they won majors. “But it’s also the tour structure. They KLPGA has a fantastic structure.”
While the LPGA has the Symetra Tour as its developmental circuit, the Korean LPGA Tour goes deeper. The KLPGA has the Jump Tour for fledgling pros and then the Dream Tour for more advanced pros.
The Jump Tour features 16 events, the Dream Tour 22 events and the KLPGA 32.
“They are all run out of the same office,” Herden said. “It’s the perfect structure, a fantastic formula. They are really seasoned tour players by the time they get here.”
After watching the Americans win the first three majors of last year, the South Koreans answered in force. They’re looking to win for the fifth time in the last six majors at this week’s Ricoh Women’s British Open.
While Americans tend to downplay any rivalry with South Korea, Park says there’s definitely nationalist pride at work in her homeland’s continuing run of success.
“The United States and South Korea have the best players in the world in women's golf,” Park said. “So we are going to have, somewhat, a little bit of a rivalry at all times, I think, and that's a good thing.”