The curious case of Korean golf

D'you know what South Korea has a lot of? Heavily populated cities. And mountains. Know what it doesn't have in abundance? Affordable golf courses. So why, of all the countries in the world, do they dominate women's golf?

As of September 2015, nine of the top 20 LPGA money earners are from SoKo, and four of the top 10 Rolex Rankings are too. Number one on both lists is Seoul-born Inbee Park. It's a disproportionate number, even if you take their population of 50 million into account.

Having lived in the Land of the Morning Calm for two years, the first thing I pondered was: Where on earth do they play? In those two years, on my extensive travels, I saw maybe a handful of full-length golf courses.

Korea is predominantly mountains and rice fields, with very little flat, open land. Concrete and cars are plentiful, manicured green spaces are not. But the internet tells us there are around 200 courses, though many are nine-hole venues, and a big chunk of those are in the north, in and around Seoul.

Koreans love, love, love their driving ranges and screen golf. In every town you'll find massive, multi-storied ranges, their green net cages visible for miles. And screen golf is a social pass time affordable to most. You can play Pebble Beach or Augusta National while never moving more than a few feet from your beverage. People legitimately go on first dates to screen golf.

While this love of the game is all-consuming, it doesn't explain their dominance on the women's tours. A driving range, or screen golf in a basement, cannot give you the feel of how the wind changes your shot, or how dry winter grass lets the ball run further along the fairway. Or how intense heat can drain you by the time you reach the halfway house. For that, you need a real course.

And in Korea, real golf is fairly expensive. People will fill the driving ranges, wearing the most up to date gear, but most are unable to afford Nine Bridges on Jeju Island. So are all these women from wealthy families? That seems unlikely, though, if we're being fair, golf is generally expensive the world over.

Another reason, knowing Korean parental ambition, is that when a talent is identified at a young age, the girls are sent overseas for further training. Speaking from experience, once a kid shows talent in a sport or activity, a lot of money and energy is put into it, for the pride of the family, school, and town.

Inbee Park, or Bak In Bi if we're being accurate, moved to the USA at age 12, once her talent was spotted. She learned her game not on the expensive and mountainous Korean courses, but on the wide open American fairways. She's been ranked number one for most of the past two years, and lives in California.

But what of the other Korean players flourishing now? Second-ranked Lydia Ko, who plays under the New Zealand flag and lives in Auckland, moved to that country at the age of six, having learned to hit a golf ball on Korean driving ranges.

Amy Yang is one of the older Koreans under discussion, at 26, and has established herself on various tours and is 11th on the Rolex Rankings. She moved to Australia as a teen to hone her skills, having picked up a club at 10. Her parents, both top sports people, opted to go Down Under to nurture her talent.

But: Sei Young Kim, fourth on the LPGA money list this year, found the bulk of her success prior to 2015 with the KLPGA. She doesn't fit into the 'away' box, having studied at Korea University, while Rolex fourth-ranked So Yeon Ryu went to Yonsei University. 
 
Hyo Joo Kim, who did brilliantly on the KLPGA tour prior to her rookie touring season with the LPGA this year, is only 20. She burst onto the scene at age 14, and has grown into a powerhouse, all the while living and studying in SoKo. Same too for Na Yeon Choi.

So while many young Korean women do go overseas to play, the same applies to teens from other countries too, so where are they? And many stay where they're from, and do superbly, so this 'learned it elsewhere' assumption isn't accurate either.

Another striking aspect is that while the women's tour is held under Korea's thrall, the men's tours are not. So what is it about Korean sporting culture that sees women play golf in such high numbers, and to such great effect?

Korea are not in the top 30 of the world netball rankings, but they are ninth in the field hockey rankings. Table tennis, badminton, Tae Kwon Do, and basketball were popular sports for girls at the high school I taught at. Not so for football, tennis, or rugby.

The answer then seems to follow Occam's Razor. The simplest answer is probably the right one. Korean women are so good at golf because a very high number of girls play golf from a young age, and if they're good enough they are coached further. 
 
Their choice in sports is smaller than in, say, the USA, and even a reluctant talent is likely pushed harder to succeed than elsewhere. Ambition, be it sporting or academic, is strong in Korean culture, and being middle of the road is discouraged.

Lastly, a possible reason for the glut of rookie Koreans on the LPGA tour in 2015 especially, is that they're trying to make the national Olympic team. Rio 2016 will see golf for the first time since 1904, and as it stands, Korea's IOC-allowed four players are all in the top 10.

By Lindsay du Plessis

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