An unassuming winner sparks an unlikely sports dynasty

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The schedulers may not have realized it, but President Biden’s plan to host South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol for a three-day state visit this month comes just before a milestone anniversary for the history of South Korean sports.

It was 25 years ago, on May 17, 1998, that a little-known 20-year-old rookie pro from the central South Korean city of Daejeon completed a three-stroke, wire-to-wire victory in the Ladies Professional Golf Association Championship, played at the DuPont Country Club in Mr. Biden’s home state of Delaware. Ms. Pak’s victory was the first by a South Korean golfer in one of the LPGA’s four prestigious “major” tournaments.

It would not be the last — either for Ms. Pak or for a remarkable cohort of South Korean female golfers who were about to transform the sport.

With just 0.66% of the world’s population and a homeland that does not have much room to spare for ballfields, soccer pitches and golf courses, South Korea has always punched above its weight when it comes to international sporting competitions, in disciplines ranging from taekwondo, archery and short-track speed skating to team sports such as soccer and baseball.

Marathoner Hwang Young-cho won Olympic gold in Barcelona in 1992, and Kim Yu-na did the same in ladies’ figure skating in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. Baseball is hugely popular in South Korea and the victory by the national team in the 2008 Beijing Olympics set off a massive celebration back home. South Korean soccer players can be found on some of the world’s elite teams ,and many rank the Red Devils’ run to the semifinals at the 2004 FIFA World Cup, co-hosted with Japan, as perhaps the country’s top sporting memory of the modern era.

But it’s safe to say no win on the field, the rink or the pitch has had such a far-reaching impact as Ms. Pak’s surprise victory that day in Delaware. Not only would Ms. Pak go on to win the U.S. Women’s Open two months later — the youngest player ever to do so — and forge a Hall of Fame career, but she also proved a harbinger for a generation of South Korean female golfers, a national sports dynasty that would rival the Kenyan runners who followed the path blazed by Kipchoge Keino or the hordes of Swedish tennis stars who rose to prominence in the 1980s trying to be the next Bjorn Borg.

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Golf came to the Korean peninsula in the early 20th century, according to a 2020 survey in the Asian Journal of Sport History and Culture, brought by foreign missionaries and dock workers during the period of Japanese colonial occupation. The ravages of World War II and the Korean War nearly decimated the sport in Korea.

“Korean golfers who survived the Japanese colonial era began to rebuild the golf courses, thereby creating the cornerstone of what has today become a global golf powerhouse,” researchers Sang-woo Cho, Hyun Woo Lee and Gwang Ok wrote. Even then, however, the women’s game took a distinct back seat to men’s competitions.

Remarkably, given the number of golfers who would follow in her footsteps, Ms. Pak was the only South Korean player on the LPGA tour when she scored her breakthrough victories in 1998.

“The first couple of months, everything [was] lonely,” Ms. Pak recalled in an interview with Sports Illustrated last year for a story titled “Today’s LPGA is brought to you by Se Ri Pak.” “… I never used the locker room, because they spoke English and I didn’t know [how]. Only the parking lot, to the course, back to the car, back to the hotel, back to the course in the morning. Just lonely, lonely, lonely.”

She would not be lonely long: Largely inspired by her example, a parade of South Korea female golfers, often referred to as “Se Ri’s Kids,” would go on to claim a slew of titles and dominate tournament leaderboards around the globe. In one sign of the times, 26-year-old LPGA star Lee Jeong-eun is routinely listed on the scoreboard as “Lee6,” to distinguish her from the five more senior Lee Jeong-euns who play golf at the professional level.

Consider some numbers: South Korean women golfers won 17 of the 34 LPGA major titles up for grabs in the wake of Ms. Pak’s 1998 wins. Five of the world’s top-ranked female golfers today are South Korean, and 27 of the top 100. When Jin Young Ko won the 2021 BMW Ladies Championship in 2021, it marked the 200th tournament win for a South Korean female golfer on the LPGA tour since 1998.

Even the world’s current No. 1 female player, Lydia Ko, was born in Seoul before her family emigrated to New Zealand when she was a young girl, and several other top 50 players can boast Korean ancestry.

And the pipeline of new Korean stars shows no signs of running dry — for five straight years starting in 2015, the LPGA Tour’s “Rookie of the Year” award went to a South Korean.

South Korean male golfers also have found success globally, although nowhere near the scale of their female compatriots. There has long been a debate in South Korean circles over whether the country’s military service mandate has held back the men by forcing them to take years out of their prime playing days to serve.

Analysts point to a variety of factors to try to explain South Korea’s late-blooming success as a golf superpower, starting with a strong cultural work ethic and a dedication to the teaching of fundamentals on the country’s thriving youth golf scene. South Korean stars such as Birdie Kim, the 2005 U.S. Women’s Open champ, credit strong parental involvement and support, especially for promising young girls.

The domestic KLPGA and the highly competitive men’s and women’s national teams — backed by increasingly generous corporate sponsorship as the economy boomed — provide a level of training and match seasoning for Korean players before they ever enter an international competition. And some argue that, unlike in other countries, South Korea’s best young athletes tend to gravitate to the sport, partly because of the success of the country’s professionals such as Ms. Pak on the world stage and partly because golf does not require unusual strength, height or an imposing physique for success.

Ms. Pak has said that her major titles in 1998 came at a good time for her country, struggling at the time with a crashing economy and the fallout from the decade’s Asian financial crisis. But she says she was surprised — and a little intimidated — that so many younger South Korean women would look to her as a role model.

For the Se Ri Kids, however, there’s no mystery about the astounding success.

“A lot of people are curious why Korean players are so good,” Soyeon Ryu, a star on the LPGA tour and, like Ms. Pak, a winner of the U.S. Women’s Open, told Sports Illustrated. “One of the biggest things is we always had a good role model. Se Ri opened the door.”

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