When Chako Higuchi was elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame earlier this year, LPGA Tour commissioner Ty Votaw credited her with “opening the door to the world.”
Indeed, the Japanese golfer was a pioneer whose victory at the LPGA Championship in 1977 broke down borders and led, over time, to what is now a full-scale foreign invasion on what can hardly be called an American women's tour any more.
There are currently 101 international players on the LPGA Tour, and many of them haven't been bashful about making their presence felt.
In fact, during a stretch that began in August of 2002 and ended this past May, foreign-born players captured 17 consecutive LPGA tournaments. And, contrary to the popular notion, not all of those winners were named Sorenstam.
Yes, Higuchi was the pied piper. Ayako Okamoto was the next Japanese star, while Jan Stephenson came from Australia and Pia Nilsson from Sweden. When Laura Davies of Great Britain jumped from the European Tour in the late 1980s, it signaled a charge from that continent, especially its Scandinavian countries, to the LPGA Tour.
Only one now-prominent country seemed to lag.
And Se Ri Pak changed that in 1998 when, as a tour rookie, she won two major championships and the first of her three Jamie Farr Kroger Classic titles.
You could say South Korea is making up for lost time.
Five years ago there were Pak and Pearl Sinn, who was born in Seoul but raised in the U.S.
In 2003 there are 19 or 20 Koreans, depending on how technical you want to be, making up the largest foreign contingent on the LPGA roster. Jung Yeon Lee was born of Korean parents in London, but was reared in Korea and played on the Korean LPGA before coming to the U.S.-based tour last year; 19 players were born on Korean soil.
They come from Seoul, Daejeon, Chung Nam, Chunchun, Bundang, Gong-Ju, Pu-San and Keumsan. They come from a country that, at least south of the demarcation zone between the communist north and the democratic south, is slightly smaller in land mass than Ohio.
And they all want to be the next Se Ri.
“Huge, huge impact,” Hee-Won Han said of Pak's influence after recently posting her first LPGA win at the Sybase Big Apple Classic. “Se Ri is idolized [in Korea] like Tiger. She is of same generation, and when she did it here, many of us said, Why not?”
Han's story is typical of many of the young Korean stars. She began playing at the age of 8 under the tutelage of her father, knew by age 13 that she wanted to be a professional golfer and was playing as a pro in Korea and Japan before her 20th birthday.
Han came to the LPGA Tour in 2001, captured rookie-of-the-year honors and has already surpassed $1 million in earnings. She and at least nine of her fellow Koreans are entered in this week's Farr.
Her rookie award was the third in four years to go to a Korean golfer. Pak, of course, was the top newcomer in '98 and Mi Hyun Kim was the LPGA's top rookie a year later. Only a late-season rib muscle injury, perhaps, prevented Grace Park from making it a four-year Korean sweep; she finished second in the rookie standings to Dorothy Delasin in 2000.
Park is one of several Korean-born players who spent many of their formative years playing junior golf in the United States before competing on the collegiate level in this country. Park and Jimin Kang attended Arizona State, and Jenny Park-Choi, a U.S. citizen, played at UCLA.
Park's win at the Michelob Light Open in early May - it was the last of those 17 straight tour wins by foreign-born players - was her fourth as a pro, which makes her the third-most successful Korean on the circuit.
Mi Hyun Kim, who is nicknamed Peanut because she stands just 5-1, has five tour wins, including back-to-back Ohio triumphs last summer at the Giant Eagle Classic near Youngstown and the Wendy's Championship in Dublin. She won more than $1 million last year and has career earnings in excess of $3.5 million.
“We are just hard workers,” Kim said of the Korean contingent. “We play golf hard, and when a Korean player is good, she just practices more hard.”
The work ethic is certainly a part of their success moreso than a strong national junior golf program such as those that exist in countries like Sweden and Australia, wrote Ron Sirak, editor of GolfWorld.
“With the Koreans, the answer probably comes from a complex cultural mix of hard work and the fact its corporate world is dominated by men, making golf an attractive profession for Korean women,” Sirak wrote in the May 9 issue.
Park, who recently returned to her roots by enrolling at Ewha Women's University in Seoul, while still playing on the Tour, agrees with at least part of that.
“I know that Korean players are the first ones on the range, the last ones to leave,” she said. “I think that's why we are seeing more and more [Koreans] at the top.”
And at the very top is Pak.
She has two victories in 2003, giving her 20 titles in fewer than six full seasons with the LPGA.
Given Pak's history, that quick success should not be surprising. She started playing golf at age 14, and by the time she turned professional at 18 she had already amassed 30 amateur wins in Korea.
Pak exploded onto the American scene, with her first two wins coming in the LPGA Championship and the U.S. Women's Open in 1998. A week after winning the Open she scored again at the Jamie Farr Kroger Classic. Se Ri also posted Farr wins in 1999 and 2001. The one time in that four-year stretch that she did not win at Highland Meadows Golf Club resulted in a third-place finish.
Pak has career earnings of more than $6.5 million, and $495,000 of it has come from the Farr coffers.
Why does she think so many good, young Korean players have found their way to the LPGA?
“That's simple, it's because of me,” Pak said recently, laughing. “I was the first one from Korea to join this tour. As soon as I'm doing well, there are 18 or 20 of us out here. It's a strong field. I've known them for a long time. We're all pretty good friends. Some of them are here now, but not sure. I was the same way.
“I wasn't sure I was doing [the] right thing or not because I knew it wasn't going to be easy. It's a totally different life. The country is different; the food different, especially the language is different. Then there's making friends and [playing] new golf courses. There are many things you don't know if you can handle.
“But when I start and I'm doing well, then I gave them a lot of confidence and [now] they're coming over here and trying. [They play in] perfect conditions, the equipment is great and you play with strong players. So they come from my country, they get stronger mentally, work hard, learn and grow, and they play well.”
It's hard to keep all the Koreans straight without a pictorial directory. Among them are two Kangs, a Jang and a Yang, three Kims, three Lees, four Parks and a Pak.
A lot of those names can be found near the top of the LPGA money rankings. On the most recent list, U.S. and Korean golfers played to a 3-3 tie among the top-10 earners. Americans owned 11 spots among the top 25 while Korean-born players claimed five slots.
Also, this year's LPGA rookie standings feature seven foreign-born players, including three Koreans, among the top 10.
It could be more of the same this week at Highland Meadows.
The last American player to win the Farr? Kelly Robbins in 1997. Since have come three victories by Pak as well as triumphs by Sweden's Annika Sorenstam in 2000 and Australia's Rachel Teske last summer.