Sport & Culture

South Korea’s Female Golf Stars

There have been some strange theories over why South Korea does well in women’s golf. Including chopstick use.

The news that South Korean women golfers will place their handprints on a Seoul street dedicated to celebrating their success shouldn’t come as a surprise. These women are dominating, and at times, exasperating the world with their dominance.

Park Se-ri, Choi Na-yeon, Ku Ok-hee and others will place their hands in soft cement in the Yeungdung-po district of the city.

“We decided to go ahead with this plan in order to celebrate the 100 victories by Korean women in the LPGA Tour and boost the morale and base support for Korean golf,” said Kim Dong-wook, vice president of the KGA. “Young golfers who aspire to become great athletes will be inspired and motivated by what they see featured on the street.”

Much of the present success can be traced back to Park Se-ri, who burst onto the scene by winning the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open at the tender age of 20, the first of five majors. Since then, dozens of compatriots have followed in her footsteps.

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In July, Ryu So-yeon won the same tournament, becoming the fifth Korean to do so, defeating Seo Hee-kyung in an all-Korean play-off.

At the time of writing, four South Koreans are ranked in the world top ten, more than any other nationality.

Many words have been written as to just why it is that Korean women are so successful.

We can probably discount most of a fairly bizarre theory posited by the Korea Times a few years ago which suggested that it all came down to Korean women traditionally being good with their hands, as is seen by the traditional preparation involved in creating the national dish of kimchi.

The use of chopsticks, so the theory goes, improves dexterity. Well, regardless of whether it helps anyone sink a 10-yard putt or not, it should be said that the long, metal Korean chopstick is more difficult to master than the shorter, thicker and wooden/plastic versions used in China and Japan.

This was also mentioned by the University of South Carolina’s Shin Eui-hang in a study of the subject.

Shin’s study claimed that female Korean golfers were successful due to:

“1) the Korean ‘Golf Boom’ that began in the 1980s; 2) the toughness of Korean women; 3) the close father-daughter relationship in Korea in which fathers are quite indulgent of their daughters; and 4) excellent hand-eye coordination that is a product of a culture in which women traditionally sew and people use chopsticks.”

Much of the success has also been attributed to the pushiness of Korean parents (although Park herself didn’t start playing until she was 14) and an education system which stresses long – very long – hours of study. The education system in the country is tough even before kids hit their teenage years.

A day can start around six or seven in the morning, and run through a combination of schools and then the ubiquitous after school private academies that exist for all kinds of subjects: English, computers, music, art and pretty much anything you can name.

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The need to work and study hard and long is drilled into kids at an early age.

Still, whatever the reason behind it, the success hasn’t always been greeted by universal delight.

“This is probably going to get me in trouble, but the Asians are killing our tour,” LPGA veteran Jan Stephenson infamously said in the November 2003  issue of Golf Magazine.

“Their lack of emotion, their refusal to speak English when they can speak English. They rarely speak. We have two-day pro-ams where people are paying a lot of money to play with us, and they (Asians) say hello and goodbye.”

Stephenson later apologized, but in 2008, the LPGA told its members that they have to speak English or be suspended.

The reasons behind the plan, rightly thought to be aimed at Korean and other Asian golfers, were business ones, with the tour wanting to please media and sponsors. It didn’t last long after the ensuing outcry ensured a rethink.

It seems that all have become accustomed to the reality that the stars of the East, and especially South Korea, look to be here to stay.