Monday, November 29, 2010

Why Korean Women Dominate Women's Golf

Numbers do not lie:  Korean women occupy 22 (23 if you count Michelle Wie, my favorite) out of the top 50 in the latest Rolex Rankings which is the globally accepted women's ranking system.  Perhaps you would think that the rest of the world would have changed its practice routines, techniques, etc to adapt to the 5-year dominance by a country with only 50MM people.  In addition to being proud of these achievements, The Lost Seoul believes that this dominance as a group will continue.  Understanding how this came to pass provides valuable hints for people that want to understand Korea (and Koreans) as a whole.

Instruction is Available Everywhere
Korea has multiple golf channels on cable TV, which provide practical instruction to golfers of all levels.  I have taught both tennis and golf to people as a personal favor.  The fact is that English-language golf shows, and magazines, give largely irrelevant golf instruction.  The 15 handicapper doesn't require an article about how to hit 4 types of chips/pitches with 3 wedges.  He needs to master 2 chips/pitches (one high trajectory, one low trajectory) and probably with 2 wedges at most.  After watching shows in Korea, the amount of relevant instruction available and usable by most golfers is impressive.  Perhaps this is because U.S. golf instruction is dominated by "stars": Leadbetter, Harmon, et al, and of course, the top golf pros.  And while there is zero doubt that many of this instruction is great and correct, the point of this post is that a common person with average coordination/talent, only has the time or budget to remember 2 or 3 key points.  In Korea, the instruction does a better job of focusing on these points than in the U.S.

Koreans Study and Practice Habits Translate Perfectly into Golf
It is the institutionalized Korean study and practice habit routine which separates Korea from the rest of the world.  Koreans have learned from a very young age to practice, practice, practice.  Children attend study centers until 8-10pm from a young age.  Most of this is practicing problems or drills of some sort.  Taekwondo is a sport where form is all-important.  If I can show slow motion video of a proper golf swing, a Korean has already learned how to replicate the motion almost perfectly.  If you go to a driving range in Korea (including in the middle of Seoul), you would be SHOCKED at how many golfers have the club set properly on the plane at the top of the backswing.  My personal opinion is that number is probably something like 60%.  It isn't an exaggeration.  Since golf is a game of building a reliable, repeatable swing, by the time a Korean woman becomes a pro, the swing is almost completely built from a technical viewpoint.
It is true that access to golf courses is limited for middle-class Koreans.  However, access to driving ranges and now golf simulators (called Screen Golf in Korea), is easy:  they are everywhere.  In certain neighborhoods in Seoul, you can easily find 5-10 Screen Golf centers within a 10-15 minute driving radius.  While they do not simulate the lie (and weather) correctly, these simulators are very accurate with respect to distance.  So, a Korean golfer can know, in the middle of winter, that his/her 5 iron travels 180 yards.

Teamwork is a Secondary Goal
Korean history is not a story of groups of people who collectively overcome obstacles and achieve greatness.  Instead, it is filled of individual heroes/heroines.  King Sejong, Lee Kun-Hee, the list goes on and on:  the focus is on individual achievement.  What sport (along with tennis) is more individualistic than golf?  Certainly, trailblazers have created the inspiration for the current generation of Korean women golfers.  Pak Se Ri and Grace Park have instilled the notion that a Korean golfer can conquer the world.  This has been the case in other sports in the past as well. Sweden's Bjorn Borg success mobilized a country of less than 7mm people to create the world's dominant nation in men's tennis during the 1980s.  Pak Se Ri and Grace Park have done the same for Korea, when golf was not a popular sport.  The two transformed Korea into a golf-crazed nation.

Korean-Americans Have Joined The Korean Golf Wave
Second-generation Koreans, born in Korea or the U.S., have also begun to make their imprint on the golf world.  This year, a Korean-American won the U.S. Women's Amateur.  Young Koreans have also advanced very far into the U.S. men's amateur.  Korean-Americans Michelle Wie and Anthony Kim are two of golf's brightest stars.  It may be the fact that being brought up by native Koreans, with the study/practice routines mentioned above, may have been instilled in this group.

Why Have Korean Men Not Made the Same Impact as a Group?
Certainly, there are outstanding Korean men professional golfers on the global stage:  KJ Choi and YE Yang are well-known to golf fans.  YE Yang was Asia's first major winner, and perhaps more famously, the first to defeat Tiger Woods in a major when Tiger Woods led after three rounds.  There are three reasons that Korean men do not, as a group, have the same stature as Korean men.  First, men's golf has far deeper competition than the women's tour.  On a given day, the 50th ranked men's golfer can win a major championship.  This is rarely the case on the women's tour, i.e. a "suprise" winner of a women's major is usually the stage used to announce a new star to the tour who will last near the top of the rankings for years.  Second, physical size and strength in men's golf is a factor.  Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson can drive the ball 300 yards in the air.  "Stupid long" is how Tiger Woods has described Dustin Johnson.  Third, The Lost Seoul believes that the mandatory military service serves to stop the progress of male Korean golfers.  As males mature physically, and mentally, Korean men have to go to the military for 2 1/2 years at the age of 23-26 (approximately).  Well, that is precisely the time that men develop and mature in athletics (and in every other way).  The study/practice routine is interrupted, and when American/European young men are pursuing their dreams of joining their professional tours, Korean men are in the army.  That serves as a barrier that almost cannot be overcome, except in a very limited number of cases.  It is unlikely, then, that we will witness a Korean wave of men that dominate on the PGA or European Tour.

If You Understand How Korean Women Have Done This, Then You Can Understand Korea
None of the information above is a secret.  They are facts that can easily be confirmed by going to Korea, and stepping inside a driving range.  The attention to practice and repetition, along with an understanding of the importance of form, has been combined with availability of relevant instruction.  In addition, the recent advent of Screen Golf (which is run via PC) will also favor the development of Korean golf.  That is not to say that putting, touch, etc are not important.  Of course they are.  You could make the argument that if Michelle Wie was better from 100 yards and in (including putting) that she would be even higher in the world rankings.  That doesn't mean that Korean women will win multiple major championships.  In fact, Korean women have underperformed their rankings in majors.  You could claim that while the repetition has made Koreans consistent contenders, that winning championships is still something that must be learned, and that has not been mastered by Korean women.  However, as a group, Korean women will stay among the most well-represented on the Rolex Rankings. 

About the Seoul Gyopo Guide
This blog is dedicated to those Koreans that want to learn about how the world outside Korea works (which includes the English langugage).  It is also meant to help foreigners to understand Korea and Koreans.  Korea is a fascinating combination of old and new, and occupies a critical position within the global economy.   Visit the Seoul Gyopo Guide for posts on the Korean economy and society:  its quirks, its brilliance, and amazing vitality.


Post a Comment