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Fantasyland: The women's golf oasis that is Korea

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INCHEON, South Korea – The best women in golf believe they deserve better.

From prize money to endorsement deals and media coverage, they believe they are undervalued.

That’s what makes back-to-back weeks in South Korea so exhilarating for players outside Korea. They are getting the red carpet treatment at the KEB Hana Bank Championship, after getting it at last week’s UL International Crown. The rest of the world can’t help but envy the passion Koreans bring to women’s golf.

“When we show up here, they don’t just treat us like we are stars,” Pernilla Lindberg said. “They treat us like we are superstars.”

Lindberg enjoyed extra attention when she arrived to represent Sweden at the UL International Crown at Jack Nicklaus Golf Club in Incheon. She defeated Inbee Park in a playoff at the ANA Inspiration back in the spring.

“Apparently, the Korean announcers for the ANA pronounced my name differently,” Lindberg said. “They were calling me `Lindberry.’ So when I was playing here last week, I could hear people in the gallery saying, `Oh, it’s Lindberry.’”

Lindberg said she received royal treatment when she checked in for the KEB Hana Bank Championship at the Sky 72 Golf Club Ocean Course clubhouse. She knew every LPGA pro from the United States to England, Spain and South Korea was enjoying the same adulation.

“You know that look people have when they see celebrities?” Lindberg said. “That’s the reaction we all get here in the clubhouse.”

American Marina Alex arrived Sunday for the Hana Bank, stopping at the Dream Golf Range in Incheon, billed as the world’s largest circular range. Alex is just a month removed from winning her first LPGA title at the Cambia Portland Classic. She found herself surrounded by seven or eight Korean juniors and their parents.

“They all knew who I was,” Alex said. “They knew I just won in Portland. It seemed like they knew everything about me. I was thinking, `Wow, this is unbelievable.’

“It was so endearing, but it’s not just me. I bet they would recognize any LPGA pro who showed up here. They really love golf here, especially women’s golf, and they follow us. They appreciate our talent.”

Alex was asked if she would expect that kind of reception showing up on a range in the United States.

“Truthfully, nobody would know who I was,” she said. “That’s fine. It’s just really nice how they recognize and appreciate our talent here.”

South Korea’s love of women’s golf makes LPGA pros wistful when they leave. They wonder if the intensity of interest Koreans have in women’s golf will ever be replicated in other parts of the world.

LPGA KEB Hana Bank Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“That’s our dream,” Lindberg said. “If that ever happens, we would feel like we were on the same level as the PGA Tour guys are. We get a taste of that over here.”

The South Koreans usually get just one shot at seeing the LPGA come through their country, and that intensifies their reactions. They get two chances this year, and they’ll get two regular tour stops beginning next year, with the BMW Group Korea in Buson launching in 2019.

No regular American tour event creates the level of intensity Koreans create. Even the major championships can’t match it. Only the Solheim Cup can.

The LPGA estimated that 38,000 showed up for the Hana Bank Championship’s final round last year. The galleries were also massive the year before, when Se Ri Pak made her farewell tour appearance. 

“I wish every tournament was like this,” Brittany Lincicome said.

Mo Martin will never forget the crush to see In Gee Chun last year. Martin watched a woman she estimates was close to 70 years old get down in a three-point football stance and bull rush security.

“She was trying to push through two security guards, just to get In Gee’s attention,” Martin said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. They are fanatics here.”

While players from other countries don’t get that extraordinary level of attention here, they still enjoy intense interest, with Korean fans clamoring for autographs and photos with them.

“We all feel pretty loved here,” Spain’s Azahara Munoz said. “There are a thousand people waiting to get our autographs when we finish playing. When they want their picture with you, it’s kind of funny, how they will actually grab on to you and pull you into the picture.”

American Ryann O’Toole said South Korea is her favorite international tour stop

“It’s amazing how they idolize female athletes,” she said. “You see it, and you wonder, `What’s wrong with the United States and women’s sports back home? Why isn’t it like this?’

“Over here, they appreciate the flow and beauty and grace of women’s sports, a different element that maybe the men lack, with their brute strength and their freaks of nature who hit it a million miles. I think the problem is we are always judged on our looks, more than anything else.”

South Korea’s intensity of interest isn’t just reflected in the massive galleries that turn out for the Hana Bank and turned out for the International Crown. It’s also in TV ratings.

Golf isn’t the national sport in South Korea, but women’s golf is followed more avidly than men’s golf.

The first four LPGA major championships of the year each scored Nielsen TV ratings higher in Korea than any PGA Tour major televised here, according to IMG’s media division.

The ANA Inspiration drew an average audience rating of 37,910 viewers. That was 55 percent higher than the 24,350 viewers the Masters drew a week later.

Even with Tiger Woods in the hunt at The Open and the PGA Championship, more Koreans tuned in to watch each of the women’s majors. In fact, the ANA ratings were almost four times greater than the PGA Championship.

When Ariya Jutanugarn beat South Korea’s Hyo Joo Kim in a playoff at the U.S. Women’s Open, the telecast drew an average audience rating of 33,210 viewers. The men drew a 13,910 viewers rating in the U.S. Open telecast.

The fact that female pros are more popular than male pros is evident in the Hana Bank Championship purses. The women play for $2 million in total prize money. The men play for $883,000 in the KPGA Tour event sponsored by Hana Bank.

Overall, purses for KPGA Tour and KLPGA Tour events are roughly similar, though the women play for more overall money, with 12 more tour events on the women’s schedule.

“Turn on the TV in your hotel room here, and women’s golf is always on,” said Craig Castrale, Martin’s caddie.

South Korea’s MBC network and JTBC cable TV channels each carried live broadcasts of the UL International Crown.

“Women’s golf isn’t prioritized in the United States, but it is here,” Martin said.

Players see how the galleries, TV exposure and all the adulation affect the sponsorship support top Korean players receive.

“They look like NASCAR drivers, with logos everywhere,” Munoz said.

Korean players making their debut on the LPGA usually enjoy more corporate support than American players doing so. Of course, Korean players who come over are typically already proven stars in their homeland and proven winners on the KLPGA Tour.

Still, LPGA commissioner Mike Whan says improving endorsement opportunities of all players joining the tour is high on his priority list now that he has rebuilt the schedule and stabilized the major championships.

With Golf Channel as its primary TV partner, the LPGA says the tour’s household reach is up 253 percent since 2011, from 137.5 million households to 485 million. It reports LPGA tournaments are now telecast in more than 170 countries.

Whan is looking to keep building those numbers in future TV deals, believing more eyeballs on women’s golf is key to more endorsement opportunities. He is frustrated opportunities haven’t surged more with the tour’s growing TV reach.

“When an LPGA player gets her tour card and then goes out into the marketplace to figure out who’s going to be on her hat, who’s going to be on her shirt and on her bag, generally they are underwhelmed with the level of interest,” Whan said. “I feel like we can’t talk about having truly turned the LPGA around, and about being in a great position, until we fix that part.

“It’s easy for those of us on the business side to say we have a strong schedule now, that we have strong TV, that purses are up. They are, yes, but I like to think if a player becomes an LPGA member, becomes one of the best 200 golfers on the planet, there ought to instantly be business opportunities for her, that weren’t available before, and that’s not necessarily the case today.

“That’s embarrassing, and that’s something I should be held to the fire to fix.”

This two-week stop in Korea exacerbates the sense of longing American and European players feel.

“I wish it was like this in Spain,” Munoz said.

The Korean model is almost unimaginable in the United States, with Korea women so much more popular than Korean men. Unique historical circumstance and cultural idiosyncrasies shaped the model.

Mostly, the Se Ri Pak phenomenon shaped it.

The nationalistic pride Pak created winning on a world stage, during an economic swoon in which South Korea’s emergence from a developing country to first-nation status stalled during the Asian financial crisis in the late ‘90s, radically changed the sport’s dynamic.

“With the whole country collectively depressed, this nobody from this small country became a world beater,” said J.S. Kang, a U.S.-based agent of Korean descent.  who represents some of the game’s top women, including South Korea’s Sei Young Kim. “Se Ri collectively lifted the mood of the country.”

Kang says Pak made women’s golf a patriotic phenomenon.

“Koreans have continued to be world beaters,” Kang said. “It’s almost unpatriotic not to be a fan.”

Kang believes the American football mentality is another factor in how women’s sports are viewed differently in the United States, with that mentality driving the nation’s overall sports psyche in ways that Korean women don’t have to overcome.

“It’s a male, machismo dominated sports culture here in the United States,” Kang said.

That’s not to say Korean golf fans aren’t aggressively partisan in ways that American golf fans aren’t. They are aggressively partial to their favorite players.

Korean golf’s fan clubs can make golf feel different over here.

The top players have their own fan clubs, with their own rivalries. They can be like Giants and Dodgers fans rooting for their respective players.

“They are fanatical,” said David Jones, Sung Hyun Park’s caddie. “They have their own uniforms, their own hats, their own colors.”

Park draws the largest galleries when she plays in South Korea. She actually has two fan clubs, both versions of “Namdalla,” her nickname, which translates as “I am different.” They have a combined following of 11,106.

In Gee Chun’s “Flying Dumbos” fan club has 7,745 members.

The Jin Young Ko “Love” fan club has 3,000 members.

“There are strong rivalries,” said Dean Herden, who has caddied for Chun, Ko and other prominent Koreans, including former world No. 1 Jiyai Shin. “I remember back in 2015 when In Gee was coming through, when she and Ha Na Jang played together on a Sunday. It was like a soccer match. You could hear them all over the course. It made it tough for the players to focus, but it really boosted the atmosphere.

“The KLPGA had to meet with the fan club leaders after the event to control their groups. It got difficult for the KLPGA, but it also increased the gate to the event.”

Those are problems the best players in other parts of the world would like to have.

“It’s just cool how much they love golf,” Lincicome said.