Dominating the fairways Is tiger parenting the key to South Koreans’ success?
Competitive spirit and strong family support are reaping dividends, writes Kate Rowan
Anyone observing the practice greens of the Evian Golf Resort last week could have thought they were at the Anyang Country Club between Seoul and Incheon rather than in the French Alps. It was not just the number of South Korean players present, including eventual winner Ko Jin-young, but the overwhelming amount of branding from Korean companies on everything from umbrellas to club covers.
Walk further to the outdoor terrace reserved for players and their entourages and, at times, anxious Korean parents dominated it. The scene was similar in the pro shop with proud parents splashing out on expensive merchandise such as £250 silk scarves.
When you consider that 10 of the players in the top 20 women’s golf world rankings are South Korean, this should be of little surprise. Nor was it a shock that three Koreans; Ko, Park Sung-hyun and 2016 Olympic golf medallist Inbee Park, populated the final group on Sunday.
So why do South Korea’s women dominate golf?
In Korea, the women’s golf revolution has not been state driven but supported by parents. Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, Inbee Park credits the Koreans’ natural competitiveness combined with parental encouragement as keys to the success. “We are very competitive, we start at a young age, we get really good support from our parents,” she says. “What our parents do is special, they really sacrifice in order to help their daughters play professional golf. Then, when many players turn professional, their parents join them on the tour to support them.”
The culture of tiger parenting has come in for criticism in south-east Asia having been blamed for a mental health epidemic among young South Koreans, yet it would seem this parental drive has been harnessed as a positive for young female golfers. Despite progress in recent years, including Park Geun-hye
becoming the first female president of South Korea from 2013 to 2017 and an increase of women in chief executive roles, Korea still has one of the highest gender pay gaps in the developed world, while rigid beauty standards also dominate the workplace, with many Korean women speaking out about how make-up was “compulsory” in the corporate world at the outset of the Metoo movement.
Korean girls are at an advantage compared with their male counterparts as all men aged 18-35 must complete military service as, officially, South Korea is still at war with North Korea. Conscription has taken male players, including the 2017 Players’ Championship winner Kim Si-woo, out of the PGA Tour.
Just as Tiger Woods inspired a generation of American major winners such as Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed, Korean women have their own role model or “mentor” in Pak Se-ri.
In 1998 Pak became the first Korean woman to win a major and her gutsy performance to win the US Open in a play-off in 1998 became South Korea’s equivalent of Bobby Moore lifting the World Cup as she waded bare foot into a water hazard. A video of the seminal moment is used by the government to showcase South Korean mental fortitude and has led to the current generation being dubbed “Se-ri’s kids”.
The LPGA operates with the Korean market at its heart and has its Asian headquarters based in Seoul. Players, due to their perfectionist tendencies, will often use interpreters rather than speak English for fear of not appearing perfect.
While England may not have enjoyed the same footballing success since 1966, the Koreans are just as fanatical about women’s golf now as Premier League football fans. The LPGA viewing figures outnumber those of the PGA Tour in South Korea, according to LPGA commissioner Mike Whan.
Although the American is keen to point out the global nature of women’s golf, he cannot help but smile at the success in Korea. “Right now Koreans have this special relationship with women’s golf, the way Canadians feel about ice hockey,” he says.
Park Sung-hyun has her own dedicated fan club with many members making the trip to Evian last week and to the Women’s Open at Woburn teeing off tomorrow. As a result of the players having status equivalent to K-pop stars, The Telegraph understands players can earn upwards of $10,000 a month in endorsements.
Ron Sirak, the veteran American golf writer and broadcaster, says: “The Korean women remind me of Lee Westwood, the amount of sponsors’ logos they wear.”
This is helping the women’s game financially with Whan taking note of a new brand name adorning players’ gear that could become wider partners in the women’s game as he checks out the practice ranges.
So, if you are at Woburn this week and want to understand how South Korea has changed the face of women’s golf, stop and count the logos.