For today’s golfers, glory can start off the fairway

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For today’s golfers, glory can start off the fairway

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Yang Yong-eun strikes a pose for the camera during his senior year of high school. [YONHAP]

Athletes often take up various sports early on, before they settle on their favorite. Some of the top Korean golfers started out competing in drastically different fields before they got serious on the links.

Pak Se-ri, Choi Kyung-joo and Yang Yong-eun are the best-known cases.

Pak was a track athlete in her youth, while Yang was a bodybuilder and Choi lifted weights before they tried their luck on the greens.

Pak, now a member of the LPGA Hall of Fame, got her start as a sprinter in elementary school. She went on to switch to hurdles and shot put in middle school.

“Se-ri’s strong lower body and powerful swing, which are her trademarks, were built in her early years in track and field,” said Pak Joon-chul, the golfer’s father.

Yang, who shot to fame by defeating Tiger Woods at the PGA Championships last year, dreamed of becoming a bodybuilder in high school. Injuries forced him to switch to golf at the late age of 19.

“After I graduated from high school, I had a hard time finding a job. I ended up doing some construction work and seriously injured my knee,” Yang said.

It was the start of a slow journey to the top which would eventually lead him to one of golf’s greatest upsets of all time.

It’s not news that Choi, the first Korean man to compete in the PGA Tour, was a weight lifter in his youth. At the age of 13, Choi weighed 43 kilograms (94 pounds), but was able to lift 150 kilograms.

He initially competed for his elementary school’s football and ssireum, or traditional Korean wrestling, teams, but he was recruited for his middle school’s weight lifting team because of his great strength and sizeable frame.

After he entered high school, Choi changed direction again, this time choosing golf.

They’re not the only ones to make the switch.

Kim Hyun-ji, 22, earned her first victory at the J-Golf sponsored Daishin Securities Tomato Tour Korean Ladies Masters Trophy last November. The promising golfer got her start in sports with taekwondo as a third-degree black belt who won the Incheon city tournament in elementary school. She had great potential, but she opted for golf in middle school.

Kim Wi-joong, who won his first tour event at the 2008 Yeonwoo Heaven Land Open, was once a baseball player. From fourth grade until his first year in middle school, Kim was a pitcher.

“I let my son play baseball with the long-term goal of having him compete in golf,” said Kim Do-yong, his father.

There are others: Hong Ran (swimming), Park Ji-eun (roller skating), Kim Young (basketball), Kang Soo-yun (figure skating), Ahn Sun-ju (tennis) and Ji Eun-hee (water skiing) are just a few with a colorful past.

But times have changed and switching sports is not as prevalent as it used to be.

“Compared to the past, there aren’t as many golfers who make the jump from other sports,” said the national team head coach, Ahn Yeon-hee. “I think many favor golf for the simple reason that it can lead to a longer career than other sports.”

By Choi Chang-ho [jason@joongang.co.kr]

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