She da man...

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She da man...

In 1978, the Korean Ladies Professional Golf Association began with four competitors. Seven years later, a Korean woman won a pro golf tournament for the first time. Then for more than a decade, Korean women couldn't sink a putt and seemed to fall off the golf radar screen.

During those years, golf was expensive and access limited. For the most part, only the upper class teed it up.

In the late '90s, things began to change. By then, travel restrictions outside of Korea had been lifted and more courses had been built in Korea. It became easier for prodigies to move to another country for coaching.

In 1998, at age 20, Pak Se-ri became the youngest player to win four LPGA events in one season. In 1999, Kim Mi-hyun won a tournament in Illinois and was named the LPGA's Rookie of the Year. Many victories followed, by many golfers.

Fast forward to 2002. There are 11 Koreans on the LPGA tour, compared to five from Japan, two from Taiwan and one each from the Philippines and Malaysia.

The KLPGA has 538 members, divided into pros and "semipros." That's more competitors than there are in the men's KPGA. The number of tournaments in Korea has increased and interest has grown. There are about 50 golf courses in Korea, and new ones are being built every year. Korea is the world's third-largest golfing market, tied with Europe ?all of it. The United States is first, Japan second.

Golf fans, from grade school kids to office managers, call Pak Se-ri and a male golfer, Choi Kyoung-joo, heroes. Parents encourage children to learn tgolf, even sending them to summer golf camps in the countryside instead of putting them through the intensive studying of English or other subjects.

Golf experts say Koreans practice as much and usually more than any other golfers. Some golf writers have said the concentration on the course that Korean women have is "frightening." Many of the golfers have demanding fathers.

Five LPGA tournaments this year have been won by Korean women. "What makes our women win?" wonders a KLPGA official. "Family values and focus."


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Park In-bee


AGE: 14

YEARS PRO: 0, still competing in the junior amateur leagues

HOMETOWN: Seoul

RESIDENCE: Florida

TOURNAMENTS WON: U.S. Junior Amateur Championship

EARNINGS THIS YEAR: N/A



Less than a month ago, Park In-bee proved herself one of the world's best junior golfers. The 14-year-old, who recently moved to Florida, captured the U.S. Girl's Junior championship in New Jersey on July 27. Her win made her the second-youngest champion of all time. After the match, she told the crowd, "It's a dream come true."

The victory was her third this summer.

Park and her family moved to Florida last year. She said she moved because Florida has more sunshine than Korea, which translates to year-round playing. Her coach, Charlie Yoo, also works as her interpreter.


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Grace Park


AGE: 23

HOMETOWN: Seoul

RESIDENCE: Phoenix, Arizona

YEARS PRO: 3

LPGA WINS: 2

EARNINGS THIS YEAR: $485,460



Grace Park started playing golf at the age of 8, and got serious about the game soon, moving to Arizona at 12.

When she started playing on the tour, golf had already taken off in Korea. She was often compared with Se Ri Pak, even though Pak was a relative newcomer to the United States and Park had already spent years in the United States.

Her father is an ever-present figure on her tours -- most Korean golfers are actively supported by their families. Her father runs Samwon Garden galbi restaurants in Seoul and Ilsan, but is also her road manager.

In 2000, Park was the runner-up for LPGA Rookie of the Year, to Dorothy Delasin, even though she suffered a rib muscle injury that forced her to pull out of events for five weeks and hampered her play throughout the rest of the season. If she had been injury-free and won the award, it would have been the fourth straight best rookie award taken by Korean golfers.


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Kim Mi-hyun


AGE: 25

HOMETOWN: Incheon

RESIDENCE: Seoul

YEARS PRO: 3

LPGA WINS: 5, including 2 this year

EARNINGS THIS YEAR: $839,733



By 1999, when Kim Mi-hyun started playing internationally, Korean golfers had already risen to the tops of the leaders' boards at LPGA tournaments. In 2000, she defeated her compatriot Jeong Jang on the second hole of a sudden-death playoff at the Safeway LPGA Golf Championship to claim her first tour victory. This August, Kim won her second title in three weeks with a victory at the LPGA Wendy's Championship for Children in Ohio, holding off her compatriot Han Hee-won for a single-stroke victory. It was her fifth career victory.

She turned professional in 1996 and competed in the Korean league until 1997.


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Pak Se-ri


AGE: 24

HOMETOWN: Daejon

RESIDENCE: Orlando, Florida

YEARS PRO: 6

LPGA WINS: 15, including 2 this year

EARNINGS THIS YEAR: $883,302



Pak Se-ri began playing at 14. When she went professional, she made an immediate impact. During her first tour, she won a major, becoming the first rookie since Liselotte Neumann to do so. In her second major championship, Pak became the youngest player to win the U.S. Women's Open after a 20-hole playoff. It was an 18-hole playoff followed by two holes of sudden-death with amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn. She was chosen as LPGA Rookie of the Year in 1998.

Her compatriots may compete against her, but she is recognized for being one of the first in the blaze of Korean women golfers.


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Gloria Park


AGE: 25

HOMETOWN: Incheon

RESIDENCE: Seoul

YEARS PRO: 3

LPGA WINS: 5, including 2 this year

EARNINGS THIS YEAR: $839,733



By 1999, when Kim Mi-hyun started playing internationally, Korean golfers had already risen to the tops of the leaders' boards at LPGA tournaments. In 2000, she defeated her compatriot Jeong Jang on the second hole of a sudden-death playoff at the Safeway LPGA Golf Championship to claim her first tour victory. This August, Kim won her second title in three weeks with a victory at the LPGA Wendy's Championship for Children in Ohio, holding off her compatriot Han Hee-won for a single-stroke victory. It was her fifth career victory.

She turned professional in 1996 and competed in the Korean league until 1997.


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Han Hee-won


AGE: 23

HOMETOWN: Seoul

RESIDENCE: Seoul

YEARS PRO: 4

LPGA WINS: None, but becoming celebrated for several high finishes

EARNINGS THIS YEAR: $460,692



Han Hee-won claimed 40 victories when she competed in the amateur leagues. She went professional in 2001 and took Rookie of the Year, placing second in a tournament in California.

Han placed in the top 10 at the Chick fil-A Charity Championship in Georgia this spring, along with Se Ri Pak, Grace Park, and Kim Mi-hyun.

And early this month, she got second at both the LPGA Wendy's Championship, with a 7-under 207, and the Big Apple Classic in New York.

She's known for being an iron player, but might need to work on her putting to come out a winner.


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SCORECARD




KU'S COUP

The first Korean woman to win an international golf tournament was Ku Ok-hee in 1985. She won an event in Japan on a bunker shot, on the 17th hole, and she still meets fans who remember the shot.

Ku moved to Japan in 1982 to work on her game. "Korea was just starting to get into the swing of golf," she says. At the age of 46, she still competes, mostly in Japan.



LEGITIMATE YIPS

The first LPGA tournament in Korea was supposed to be held last Oct. 19-21 on Jeju island. But because of the escalating military strikes in Afghanistan and the players' fears of terrorism, the tournament sponsors, Sports Today, decided to cancel the event.

This year, the Korean LPGA is co-hosting a tournament in Osaka in December, the Maruhan Club 2002 Japan Korea Women's Golf Team Match Play Competition.



EACH WEDGE SHOT COSTS 75 BUCKS

The most expensive club membership in Korea goes to the Lakeside Country Club in Yongin. The National Tax Service recently reassessed the value of a golf club membership there, placing it at 530 million won ($440,000).


IN A PALM TREE, ADD 2 STROKES

The Lotte Hotel is planning to build a major 36-hole golf course on Jeju island, in the city of Seogwipo. Construction will begin later this year, and the 1.8 million square meter facility is due to open in September 2004. The U.S. design firm Robert Trent Jones is doing the layout.



I'M OFF SATURDAY, LET'S PLAY 27

The amusement park Samsung Everland is planning to contruct a resort complex in Yongin, Gyeonggi province, that will feature a 27-hole golf course. Organizers say they had the expected switch to a five-day workweek in mind, referring to the shortened week as promising a "great future for leisure businesses."



COVER GIRL

Pak Se-ri in 1998 appeared on the cover of Time magazine.



GUY TALK

Until last year, only three Asians -- two Japanese and a Taiwanese -- had won men's Professional Golfers Association tournaments. In May, Choi Kyoung-ju, 31, who, as a teen, drove his father's tractor to his firstlessons on the island of Wan, South Jeolla province, gained fame by winning the Compaq Classic in New Orleans. The youngest male golfer to qualify for a national open championship is An Jae, at 13. The Korean-born youngster's family moved to New Zealand -- just for his golf. An shot a course record 65, which ensured him one of 18 spots in the New Zealand Open.


by Joe Yong-hee

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