SKorean golfers seek change in fortunes

AFP
A look at the world golf rankings reveals an astonishing fact _ three of the top four, 11 of the top 20 and 41 of the top 100 are from South Korea.
AFP

A look at the world golf rankings reveals an astonishing fact _ three of the top four, 11 of the top 20 and 41 of the top 100 are from South Korea.

But that's the women. Finding a South Korean in the men's top 100 is a little harder: There are only four.

The best of them is 41st-ranked Kim Si-woo, who aged 21 this year became the youngest winner of the Players Championship.

There's a big gap to the rest. An Byeong-hun is 79th, Kang Sung is 80th and Wang Jeung-hun 87th.

It has perplexed golf fans for years: Why does South Korea have such a massive gulf between the sexes? 

It has also been a talking point at this week's CJ Cup, the US PGA Tour's first foray into South Korea. Some believe it is all to do with size. 

"The women don't have a decided disadvantage physically," said Kang, who stands 1.73 meters tall on the US PGA Tour's website.

"I think we're at a disadvantage to the Americans. We're a little smaller, a little weaker. The Americans are stronger, taller, bigger."

FedEx Cup champion and PGA Tour player of the year Justin Thomas is one of the longest hitters on tour. He launched a drive 413 yards at the WGC Bridgestone in 2016. 

But at 1.78m Thomas is hardly a giant. He is the same height as four-time major winner Rory McIlroy, another who belts the ball prodigious distances.

"I've always been a smaller person. I guess I always swung really hard," Thomas said. "I am trying to get a little stronger but it is really just for injury prevention."

If size isn't everything, there must be something else contributing _ such as military service. 

The South Korean men must serve two years in the armed forces, usually between the ages of 20-25. Women are exempt, and therefore free to continue their golf development.

Bae Sang-moon returned from the army to golf last month having seen his world ranking plummet from 85 to 1,900 in the two years he didn't play. The CJ Cup will be his third event back. He hasn't made a cut yet.

If military service were compulsory in the US then two of the hottest golfers on the planet, 23-year-olds Justin Thomas and Xander Schauffele, could be in the armed forces now. British Open champion Jordan Spieth won the first two of his three majors as a 21-year-old.

Imaginechina

In this 1998 file picture, South Korea's Pak Se-ri kisses the US Women's Open trophy. Pak is retiring at the end of the season.

There's also the Pak Se-ri factor: The impact on the women's game of South Korea's first superstar golfer, which cannot be underestimated. Pak's rookie LPGA Tour season victory in the 1998 US Open, when she was just 20 years old, is still seen as a watershed moment in the women's game.

She was not only the first South Korean, but also the first Asian to win the oldest women's major, and became the poster girl for a South Korean golfing boom that has gone from strength to strength and shows no sign of slowing.

There have been successes for the country's men. The 2009 US PGA Champion YE Yang was Asia's first, and to date only, male major winner. 

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KJ Choi watches his approach shot on the 16th hole during the first round of the PGA Sony Open at Waialae Country Club in Honolulu, Hawaii, in January this year.

KJ Choi is the South Korea's most successful player with eight US PGA Tour titles among 22 worldwide victories. Choi says the CJ Cup is vital to help South Korea's men match the women's achievements. 

"In terms of the level of performance I think Korean men are in line with the Korean female players," Choi said. "A lot of other players are ready to take on the PGA Tour in terms of their physical condition, their mentality, their technique, and this event will give them a push to show them that they can indeed do it.

"I'm quite optimistic and I think that Asian players, including Korean players, will keep knocking on the PGA Tour's door."

The 2013 Masters champion and former world No. 1 Adam Scott went further.

"I think the number of Korean players will double on the PGA Tour in the next five to 10 years," he predicted.

"There are so many Korean professionals playing tours around the world it is for sure going to happen that the number of Korean players is going to increase on the PGA tour."

And Australia's Scott said if practice makes perfect, they are on the right track. 

"Generally the Korean players practise as much if not twice as much as other players," he said. "They are very hard workers."

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