In 2003 Jan Stephenson infamously said ‘The Asians are killing our (LPGA) tour.’ For ‘Asians’ you can assume the 1983 U.S Open champion was referring primarily to the South Koreans who by then had begun to show they had an uncommon talent to play the game.
She went on to suggest a quota system on the tour, with just 40 percent of places reserved for foreigners.
Of course the notion of a quota system in a sport where the best have always been free to prove themselves is silly. It is also discriminatory especially in a country priding itself on the spirit of competition, free enterprise and the notion both makes everyone better.
Se Ri Pak was the pioneer and in 1998 when, in a portent of things to come, she won the U.S Open, the premier event in the women’s game.
Pak inspired the generation to come and in 2005 Birdie Kim won the Open and she was followed by Inbee Park in 2008 and 2013, Eun Hee Ji (2009) So Yeon Ryu (2011) Na Yeon Choi (2012) and this year In Gee Chun.
The world rakings show off the Korean domination of the game. Six of the top ten and ten of the top twenty are Koreans and one could argue it could be stretched further to include New Zealander Lydia Ko (#2) and Australian Minjee Lee (#15)
In fairness both learned the game entirely outside of Korea but it begs the question why they are so far ahead of their home country contemporaries.
An often-asked question in Australia is why the South Koreans have come to dominate the game.
It is all too easy and simplistic to point to their ‘work ethic’. They do work hard but so did Ben Hogan and Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo and Vijay Singh. Koreans clearly don’t have exclusivity on hard work. People from all cultures, and many different countries, work hard.
Golf has always been a game of technique above all else. Some will disagree, suggesting it is as much mental as physical but I’m in the Bernard Darwin camp. He wrote long ago that ‘I sometimes think that players with unsound methods are unjustly criticized for lack of nerve, and conversely those with sound method are too loudly praised for dauntless courage.’
I was at the Hanna Bank LPGA championship in Seoul last week and one has to come to Korea to see why they are dominating the game at the highest levels.
Any observant eye was able to stand on the range and compare the techniques of the locals with the techniques of the rest. It then becomes startlingly obvious why they play so well. Indeed it is more obvious in Korea because aside from the ones you have heard of there is another group unknown outside of their country
Jessica Korda, the Australian Open champion in 2012 is one of the best of American swingers and she won last week in Malaysia after half a year of miserable results by her standards.
Lexi Thompson, the champion in Seoul, is clearly a brilliant young player but would you ever in your life teach anyone to swing like her?
Morgan Pressell and Paula Creamer have both won major championships but their swings are not in the class of In Gee Chun, Q Baek, So Yeon Ryu or Sung Hyun Park who finished up in second place behind Thompson. No one outside of Korea had heard of her until this week. Nor did anyone notice Amy Yang was even playing until she birdied the final nine holes to finish fifth.
In Gee Chun was unknown in America when she arrived in Philadelphia to contest the U.S Open. They had heard of her 72 holes later when they engraved her name on the trophy. She, like Korda, is a beautiful athlete exuding both power and grace and her swing is built to last for as long as she wants to play.
The Koreans have raised the standard of women’s golf to an unprecedented level and if the evidence of the swings on the range in Seoul is anything to go by there are a lot more to come.
Nor have they killed the tour as Stephenson predicted. The LPGA has become a world tour playing in Australia, all through Asia and twice in Europe. No longer are the international players ‘taking American money’. The boot is now well and truly on the other foot and America is not the centre of the playing strength of the game. Arguably they are not even close.
The question for them, and rest of the world, is can they keep up.