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The success of Koreans in the LPGA

Sept 13,2017
Korean players have won 13 out of the 24 LPGA tournaments in the 2017 season thus far. Among those 13 wins are three of the four majors. In 1988, Ku Ok-hee became the first Korean player to win an LPGA tournament. Since then, Korean players have won 167 tournaments on the LPGA tour.

Golf pundits cite various factors in explaining the success of Korean players, including a strong work ethic and mental toughness, intense parental devotion, the golf boom in Korea, the effectiveness of the three-tier women’s professional golf tour system, strong corporate sponsorship of the KLPGA and its players, echo effects from LPGA Hall of Famer Se-ri Pak’s success as a role model, and outstanding instruction programs for junior golfers.

Some observers even note that the game of golf is free from potentially biased calls by referees and judges which might otherwise disadvantage racial and ethnic minority players.

But in my own research on Korean LPGA players I have found an intriguing demographic factor that seems to be a common denominator. Of the twenty three full-seeded Korean players on the 2017 LPGA tour, sixteen are from families with daughters only, no sons.

Eleven are either the only child or the oldest daughter. Until the 1980s, parents in Korea showed a fairly strong preference for sons. The parents of Korean LPGA golfers appear to raise their only or oldest daughter the way Korean parents typically raise their sons.

In light of potential gender-based discrimination in the labor market, working- and middle-class families in Korea have pushed their daughters to pursue sports where girls do not have to compete with boys.

I believe that this concentrated parental attention and family resource allocation towards daughters have been key contributors to those players’ success in their professional golf careers. These parents quit their jobs, sold their businesses, and immigrated to the U.S., Australia, or New Zealand to prepare their daughters for the LPGA tour.

I believe that this “all-in” approach taken by these parents resulted in their daughters feeling a drive to pay back those sacrifices. In fact, many Korean players on the LPGA tour have become their family’s primary breadwinner. Needless to say, this puts a lot of pressure on these players, and they seem to have a mindset of “only golf now, happiness and everything else later.” Very few Korean players on the LPGA tour seem to pursue any relationships or personal hobbies, and a great majority of these players tend to delay marriage until they retire from their playing career.

Recently I have been hearing two acronyms in frequent use in Korean television network jingles: WAAC (“win at all cost!”) and YOLO (“you only live once!”). I hope that Korean LPGA players find a way to live a balanced life, with success and happiness on and off the golf course.

*Professor Emeritus, Department of Sociology, University of South Carolina, and Invited Professor, Sungkyunkwan University

Shin Eui-hang