Mostly Koreans learn golf at driving ranges; many of them stacked four and five stories high. ‘We don’t have real grass practice fairway’ said the world’s third-ranked player So Yeon Ryu. ‘We pretty much practice at the mat.’
What young Koreans have are excellent technical models to imitate, a penchant for hard, disciplined work and a strong golf culture driving their domination of the game at the highest level.
A couple of years ago I was at the Hana Bank tournament in Seoul where Ryu was playing the opening round with her friend and at the time world number one, Inbee Park.
Park’s husband followed the round with a friend and his four-year-old daughter. It was a typically hilly Korean course and a long walk for a tiny little girl.
I wondered how long she would last and to my amazement she went all eighteen holes paying proper attention to everything going on around her and with only one ice cream at halfway.
On some level she knew what she was watching was important world-class sport but it’s a reasonable assumption that little girl with a willingness to watch five hours of golf doesn’t exist in Australia.
Golf in Korea is an important game attracting many of the country's best female athletes but here in Australia, by way of contrast, there must be ten sports we can all think of girls would choose to play before a game they mostly see as a pastime for boring old men. That it is difficult doesn’t make attracting participants any easier.
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But learning on a range has its limitations. It encourages, for obvious reasons, the constant repetition of shots, one after the other with the same flight. It’s the absolute opposite of the way Seve Ballesteros learned to play the game. The Spaniard would take his one club, a three iron, down to the village beach and make up his own course in the sand and he was a genius from the trouble.
My friend Tom Watson started caddying for Ryu at the 2012 Open at Royal Melbourne until a couple of weeks ago in the Bahamas when he decided he’d had enough of the grind of caddying.
‘She is such a great ball striker, so consistent but when I first started working for her she had no idea how to play out of the trees. I’d have to talk her through chipping the ball out and going for something Seve would have seen as a quite simple recovery was something she had little imagination for.’
Jin Young Ko plays the way of all the best of her countrywomen. Fairways are relentlessly split and greens hit one after the other and if the putter is working with some efficiency she is sure to be around the top of the leader board by the end of the week.
Ko began well with three birdies in the opening five and was ahead by four when she hooked a drive into the left trees off the 12th tee.
The lie was good, easily good enough to hit a hard low draw up onto the middle of the green. It was a shot Ballesteros would have hit on to the green ten times with ten attempts. Sure, he was stronger, but Ko is easily strong enough and good enough to hit the required shot.
Instead her caddy Dean Herden advised her to play ultra safely with a low pitch and run up thirty meters short of the green. ‘It’s an easy chip from there.’
With the pin up in the back-left corner and her ball short and right with a tier in the middle of the green to come over it was far from an easy chip but Ko played the requested punch out and then made the up and down look very easy, holing from six feet for the par.
At the next she hit a poor pitch into the front bunker and made a bogey but order was restored with a three at the tricky 17th although a five footer for a birdie and a five-shot lead slipped under the hole on the final green.
Tomorrow she is out with Hannah Green; the West Australian who played a brilliant round, a 66 on what is one of the more difficult courses the LPGA will visit all season.
The last think Ko looks like doing is losing so well does she play but predicting winners with a day to go is never a particularly good idea.
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