Three years ago in an interview with Golf magazine, former LPGA star Jan Stephenson was quoted as saying: “This is probably going to get me in trouble, but the Asians are killing our tour. Absolutely killing it.’’
According to Stephenson, Asians lacked emotion and refused to speak English. “People pay a lot of money to play with us (in pro-ams), and (the Asians) say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.’ ’’
Obviously, Stephenson’s prediction, which many viewed as racism aimed at the large number of South Korean players at the time, has proven to be way out of bounds. If anything, the LPGA is enjoying its most popular run ever, with international players often in the starring role.
In fact, there are more South Korean players than ever going into this week’s Safeway International, as 32 players from that country currently hold LPGA cards. Of that number, 26 are entered at Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club. Of those South Koreans, eight are rookies. One of those first-year players is Seon Hwa Lee, who is the tour’s leading money winner this season with $210,050. Lee, one of five South Korean players with that last name, has finished second twice and tied for 13th in her first three appearances.
Believe it or not, the No. 2 money winner in 2006 is another South Korean, Meena Lee, who has won once en route to piling up $193,804. Only Annika Sorenstam, who ranks No. 3 on the money chart, stands between a topthree South Korean sweep and No. 4 Joo Mi Kim, another 2006 winner and one of seven Kims.
If that seems like total domination, it might be from an American standpoint. Four South Koreans are among the top 10 (Soo Young Moon is No. 9), while only two Americans — No. 6 Natalie Gulbis and No. 10 Cristie Kerr — are in the top-10 mix.
So what makes the South Koreans such a force in women’s golf? According to LPGA players interviewed by The Tribune, four factors: a strong work ethic, a superior junior program, solid corporate sponsorship at home and pride.
Christina Kim, who was born in California but “raised in a Korean home,’’ said the reason South Koreans have been so successful is simple.
“They work harder than everybody else, hands down,’’ said Kim, who played a key role for the U.S. in last year’s Solheim Cup victory.
“Look around at all the dark-haired girls on the driving range and putting green. They’re the first ones here every day, and the last to leave.’’
Kim said that for many South Korean players, it’s a matter of wanting to prove themselves in a strange land.
“It’s like, ‘I may not be able to speak your language that well, but I can play, and I can kick your (butt).’ ’’
As for the language barrier, Kim added: “People don’t realize how hard it is to learn English after speaking Korean, in which you use different vocal chords and different parts of the mouth, and your lips shape the words. It’s not that they don’t want to learn English, they really do.’’
But golf is the common language, and while many of the South Koreans rely on interpreters, they still get their message across.
Seon Hwa Lee is the perfect example. Through her caddie, John Wilkes, she explained that the reason so many South Koreans do well is because they “outpractice’’ their rivals.
But when Wilkes told a reporter, “Seon Hwa turned pro when she was 14, so she’s not really a rookie,’’ she quickly corrected him.
“Oh, yes, I’m still a rookie,’’ Lee said behind a big smile.
It doesn’t take long for those who know the LPGA best to stand up for the South Koreans. Meg Mallon, one of the more respected veterans on tour, has nothing but praise, adding that, “I just wish I knew 10 words in Korean, because it’s a lot harder than Japanese; it’s more like Chinese.’’
Mallon also knows why the South Koreans have become more visible on the LPGA during the past three years.
“Just look around . . . The South Koreans are here practicing and playing 12 hours a day, seven days a week,’’ Mallon said. “When you do that, you’re going to outwork everybody else.’’
Mallon said, if anything, South Korea has proven to be a pipeline for women’s golf, using corporate funding to get young players started at an early age, and following them all the way to college, even at the added expense of sending them to American colleges.
“They’re the new Sweden,’’ she said of what once was the model junior program that produced players like two-time defending Safeway International champ Annika Sorenstam.
“(South Koreans) are getting it done better than anybody. And the formula they’re using, it’s a no-brainer.’’
Asked if she remembered Stephenson’s one-time prediction, about Asians being the ruination of the LPGA, Mallon nodded — and laughed.
“I’m glad she was wrong,’’ Mallon said. “If anything, they’ve been incredibly good for our tour and have helped it grow beyond borders.’’