A Culture Clash for South Korean Players on the L.P.G.A. Tour
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Sun Nov 2 14:01:28 UTC 2008
November 2, 2008
A Culture Clash for South Korean Players on the L.P.G.A. Tour
By KAREN CROUSE
While waiting for her parents outside the pro shop, Song-Hee Kim took
her sand wedge and bounced a ball off the toe, then the heel. After a
dozen bounces, Kim froze the ball on the face of the club and spun it
as if she were a chef sautéing it. By the time the ball stopped
spinning, she held a small crowd in her sway. This was how Kim began
one of her best weeks as a professional, by entertaining L.P.G.A. fans
last month at the Samsung World Championship in Half Moon Bay, Calif.
The week ended with Kim, a 20-year-old South Korean, in second place,
one stroke behind Paula Creamer, and panic-stricken about speaking to
Kim felt enormous pressure to conduct her news conference in English
because of L.P.G.A. Commissioner Carolyn Bivens's short-lived proposal
that foreign-born players with two years' experience on the Tour be
proficient in English or face suspension beginning in 2009.
Entertaining answers are not a trick Kim can pull out of her bag.
Growing up in South Korea, she spent countless hours addressing a golf
ball but rarely an audience, public speaking being a skill that is not
encouraged. Although Kim speaks English well enough to have been her
mother's interpreter during the tournament, she opted to play it safe.
She spoke in Korean while an L.P.G.A. official translated.
And another chance to shine a light on a tour personality was lost in
the translation. Although language has become a primary talking point
on the tour, the cultural gap may be wider than any English-speaking
policy can bridge. Bivens has since strained relations more by
indicating that her plan was also meant to help the South Korean
players shake their omnipresent fathers. By singling out the South
Koreans, Bivens has reduced them to one-dimensional stock characters,
which is like reading no break in a putt on a contoured green.
Walking the fairways of the L.P.G.A. Tour for two weeks, one finds
that the South Korean players are an eclectic and varied lot who love
their parents, Facebook and pumpkin pie. They are crazy about purses,
texting and practicing, and manage to balance a lot of complex
relationships, including their often confused feelings about golf.
An Evolving Image
The L.P.G.A. Tour is the longest-running and most successful
professional women's sports organization. Its image has undergone more
makeovers in its 58 years of existence than Betty Crocker: from
dilettante to tomboy to pin-up to postfeminist and, much more
recently, to multinational.
This year, 120 players — half the tour's membership — are from outside
the United States. Of those, 45 are from South Korea. They have won
seven tournaments this year and have eight players among the top 20
money earners. The pipeline shows no signs of drying up as more than
three dozen South Koreans competed this year on the Futures Tour, the
L.P.G.A.'s development circuit.
The influx of international talent comes as the tour has recently lost
four title sponsors and has yet to complete a television deal beyond
the one with ESPN and the Golf Channel that expires next year.
When she met with South Korean players in August, Bivens said she had
received complaints from corporate sponsors in the lucrative pro-ams
because some L.P.G.A. players could not schmooze in English. After the
details of her language-proficiency policy were leaked, the public
outcry was louder than any gallery roar.
Within two weeks, the L.P.G.A. announced it was rescinding the threat
of suspension but maintaining its expectation — fostered through its
program of language tutors and software programs — that playing
members would become proficient in English.
Bivens's motivation extends beyond the fiscal health of the tour. In a
recent interview, she said her goal was to help assimilate the South
Korean players into a culture starkly different from their own and to
emancipate them from what she characterized as overbearing fathers.
Forcing the players to learn English and threatening their livelihoods
was the best way she saw to accomplish that.
"The language is part of the control the parents have over their young
daughters," Bivens said. "If they don't even know survival English,
they're totally dependent on the dad."
Seon Hwa Lee, the L.P.G.A. rookie of the year in 2006 and a two-time
winner this year, is considered one of the quieter South Koreans, but
she was outspoken about Bivens's emancipation proclamation.
"I don't think that's her job," Lee said.
Christina Kim, a 24-year-old who dresses to blind and has a neon
nature, has a split personality, cavorting like the American girl
immortalized in song by Cyndi Lauper while maintaining a Korean
Born and raised in California to parents who emigrated from South
Korea, she once described herself as being not just the life of the
party, but the party itself. During the pro-am at a tournament in
Danville, Calif., she was the perfect hostess, drawing out her golf
partners by asking them personal questions. By the end of the round,
they were exchanging fist pumps and contact information.
Later, Christina motioned for a reporter to take the golf cart seat
her father, Man Kim, had just vacated.
At the mention of Bivens's name, Man Kim, who was standing in his
daughter's shadow, leaned into the cart and spoke to her in Korean. He
interrupted her repeatedly as they discussed whether she ought to
"Dad," she said finally, "either you listen or whatever, but don't do
my interview for me."
When asked later about her father, she wrote in an e-mail message:
"Regardless of what people think, my father and I have always had a
great relationship. We would come to raised voices, but which family
has never done that before? I always have and always will defend my
father's role in my career, both as a caddie, coach and father. He
sacrificed so much to get me to this point in my life."
In Korean culture, parents will do whatever is necessary to help their
children's prospects. They have a name for it, child farming, and
cultivating successful sons and daughters confers great prestige on
the parents. For golfers, that means fathers leave their jobs to
travel the circuit and serve their daughters in many unofficial roles:
coach, caddie, chauffeur, counselor, critic and cook.
At night during the Danville tournament, the halls of an Extended Stay
America Hotel smelled of garlic and kimchi as parents of the South
Korean players made dinner. Filial obedience and financial
independence are not mutually exclusive to the South Koreans, who see
nothing contradictory about taking home the bulgogi (barbecue beef)
and letting their mothers or fathers fry it up in a pan.
Some of the fathers turn up the heat, pushing their daughters to
practice and berating them when they do not play well. Three caddies
who work for them said there were a handful of South Korean players on
the Tour who have been ostracized by their compatriots because of
their overzealous fathers.
Christina Kim said: "I can understand and appreciate what Carolyn is
trying to do in regards to emancipating Korean players from their
fathers. However, it is my firm belief that just like in any other
culture, one has to go and reclaim their independence, learn who they
are as humans in this world, of their own volition. If someone is not
ready to leave the comforts of the nest, or they haven't got the
strength to do it, I feel that it is their own choice."
When does a daughter stop being daddy's little girl? The question is a
vexing one for Jeong Jang. The 2005 Women's British Open champion,
Jang is easy to find on the course; just follow her laugh.
Jang is accompanied on the tour by her father, Seung Jang. He retired
as a police officer and left his wife behind to run the family
restaurant when his daughter joined the L.P.G.A. Tour in 2000. Now 28,
Jang has two older sisters back in South Korea.
Jang gave her father a night off from cooking last month. Accompanied
by three other South Korean golfers, she held bilingual court over
dinner at a Korean barbecue restaurant in Oakland, Calif. In English,
she recalled how she once talked her way out of a speeding ticket in
Florida by telling the officer who stopped her, "I have to pee real
bad." Wading into politics, Jang said she liked Gov. Sarah Palin of
Alaska, the Republican candidate for vice president.
"Does she have pregnant teenage daughter?" she said to a reporter.
Yes, she was told. Jang grinned and said, "Just like Jamie Spears!"
The next night, Jang, who has earned more than $900,000 in 24 starts
this year, was in the hotel doing her father's laundry.
"He has more clothes than I do," she said.
Jang was counting down the days until she returned home to play in
this week's tournament in South Korea. She had been away since March.
Sometimes, she said, when her scores are high and her spirits are low,
she will call her mother.
"I ask my mom, 'Why me?' " Jang said. " 'Why you guys pick me to play golf?' "
She spoke of the pressures that come with being her family's Chosen One.
"I really appreciate what my dad is doing," she said. "But think about
it. How you'd feel if your dad retires because of you, and your mom is
lonely because of you. I don't want everything to be about me."
Her father, who explained through an interpreter that he travels with
Jang because his presence "keeps her from being lazy," spoke of the
long absences from his wife and two daughters and said he experienced
"The person I feel most sorry for is my wife," he said. "I'd like to
apologize to her for being away." He rose abruptly and went outside to
Hee-Won Han, a 30-year-old player from Seoul, has her own separation
anxieties. She longs to see her 1-year-old son, Dale, who is being
cared for by her in-laws in South Korea and her husband, Hyuk Son, a
retired baseball pitcher, as she completes her eighth year on the
tour. Han glues photographs of Dale onto the covers of her yardage
"I miss him," she said, adding, "In Korea, every time it's a big deal
when I want to take him on a plane. They say he is too young to be
She is the first South Korean to have a child and return to the L.P.G.A. Tour.
"Everyone's not getting married," Han said. "All the players are the
same. They practice, practice, practice. They just want to play golf
As children, South Koreans are funneled into sports or schoolwork. The
two do not mix in a culture that places a premium on excellence, not
Seon Hwa Lee turned pro at 14 and won her first event on the South
Korean L.P.G.A. tour the next year. Song-Hee Kim was 17 when she won
on the Futures Tour in 2006. When Lee and Song-Hee Kim gained their
full L.P.G.A. privileges, they were cocooned teenagers not quite ready
to be social butterflies.
At last year's pro-am in Danville, Chuck Rydell, an employee of the
tournament sponsor Longs Drugs, was paired with a young South Korean
who spoke little English. He said he spent an enjoyable round teaching
her American curse words.
This year, his pro partner was Sun Young Yoo, a 21-year-old who is
known among the South Koreans as the course clown. She made Rydell
laugh when the windshield in her cart flew off. Without missing a
beat, Yoo said, "Maybe we are going to lose tires next."
The pro-ams are like a roving cocktail party, with plus-fours instead
of petit fours, and entry fees of $3,500 to $12,000 a person. Coolers
around the course are stocked with soda and beer; golf is the
ice-breaker for conversation. This kind of socializing is new to the
South Koreans, who may even consider it improper. In their culture, it
is unusual for young people to mingle with older strangers.
Juli Inkster, who has had a front-row seat for golf's globalization
during her 26-year L.P.G.A. career, said: "You put an 18- or
19-year-old girl that's maybe not comfortable with her English with
four C.E.O.'s, men or women, she is not going to feel comfortable
going up there and making small talk. That's not the way they are
With a little ingenuity, this gap can be bridged. For the last two
years, the tour stop in Portland, Ore., has held a separate pro-am for
Korean-speaking players. They are paired with Korean-speaking amateurs
for 18 holes, and a meal catered by a local Korean establishment is
served afterward. Everybody wins. The players gain practice
interacting with strangers, and the tournament is tapping into a new
fan base. This year, the Portland tournament sent out nine foursomes
with South Korean pros, up from five in 2007.
Among the players who took part in this year's South Korean pro-am was
Song-Hee Kim. One of 10 players on the tour this year with the surname
Kim, Song-Hee is easy to pick out. She walks the course with a
thoroughbred's gait and favors short, cropped hair and long pants.
Until she signed a clothing contract with Fila, her father was her
stylist. He bought her shirts in pro shops, choosing what he might
Song-Hee's Kim's personality is blossoming with her golf game. One day
she left the practice green with a messenger bag slung over her right
shoulder. The Swedish veteran Helen Alfredsson touched the flap and
purred, "Nice bag, Song-Hee."
Beaming, Kim said her coach had helped her choose the Louis Vuitton,
the first purse she had ever owned. Her English was perfect.
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