SAMMAMISH, Wa. – You might have noticed over the past decade that the LPGA Tour has taken on a different look. In fact, it’s hard to remember what the old look looked like.
Asian players have taken over, in so much abundance that it’s difficult to keep track for even the most dedicated women’s golf fan. One wave comes through followed closely by the next one.
Six of the world’s top 10 players, according to the Rolex Rankings, are Asian, including No. 1, Lydia Ko (from New Zealand of Korea descent), and Inbee Park (pictured) from Korea. In fact, 12 of the world’s top 20 female players are Asian, nine from Korea.
All five of the top players in this year’s LPGA money list are Asian, led by Ko, who is just 19 years old and already has won 12 LPGA tournaments.
Most of those players will be competing, beginning Thursday, in the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Sahalee Country Club.
Thailand’s Ariya Jutanugarn has won the past three LPGA tournaments she has played and is a favorite to win here. She could tie Nancy Lopez record with a fourth straight victory.
This influx of talent from the Far East is not unlike what baseball has experienced over the past couple decades. The Major Leagues had its share of Latin players for much of the second half of the 20th Century, mostly Puerto Rican.
But the Dominican and Venezuelan players emerged in larger numbers during the 1980s and their numbers have simply increased over the decades. Last season, 41 percent of baseball players were people of color, nearly 30 percent Hispanic.
This year, of the top 100 women’s golfers in the world, Korea currently has 53, Japan has 34, the U.S. has 25 and Thailand 10.
There are various reasons for the influx, certainly it’s a fine way for a female to better her economic condition and make a better living than she could ever expect. Another reason is early identification of talented players and providing intensive coaching.
What is lost of this phenomenon is the work it has taken for these foreign players, particularly those from Korea, to develop their skills then come to America and dominate.
“In Korea, it’s quite expensive to play and a lot of course don’t even have driving ranges,” said Inbee Park, who is seeking her fourth straight Women’s PGA Championship this week. “So we have to go to actual driving ranges just to practice and don’t get an opportunity to actually play the golf courses that much.
“Most often times, we hit on the practice ranges, just striking the ball. Not much of a putting green or short game.”
Most often times young players practice their swings in front of a mirror for hours, weeks and years, before stepping foot on a legitimate course. They hone their skills without hitting a ball.
“Everything in Korea is expensive to practice golf,” said Korea’s So Yeon Ryu, the world’s 11th ranked player. “But they do have a great national team program. I spent four or five years with team. It’s a great program. The players would have access to all the golf courses around the country and their practice facilities.
The courses, the national golf programs and the government work in tandem to churn out dozens of LPGA Tour candidates each year.
Fifteen of the 29 rookies to earn an LPGA card this season are of Asian descent.
Park, who has won more than $12 million and seven majors since 2007 and can qualify for the LPGA Hall of Fame with her participation this week, played three years in Korea before her family moved to Las Vegas for better instructions and conditions.
“When I came to America when I was young there was a chipping area and a putting green on the course,” said Park, who is struggling to find her form this year because of a nagging thumb injury. “I thought that was such a cool thing. Everything in one spot was a dream come true for me. I was lucky enough to come here.”
Ultimately, what really motivates each class of Asian players are those players already here.
“The LPGA (players from Korea) inspire everyone to practice hard,” Ryu added.