Golf grew in popularity in Seoul after it held the 1988 Olympics, and now U.S. college coaches are witnessing the emergence and competitiveness of Korean golfers.
Looking back, University of Florida senior C.J. Kim considers her start in golf more than 10 years ago inevitable. Her parents played. And growing up in South Korea, many of her friends did, too.
As a member of UF’s women’s team, Kim, 23, is one of a growing number of players of Korean descent in college golf. Some are international students like Kim, who came to this country in 2001. Others are U.S.-born. All have grown up in cultures that widely embrace this popular sport.
In fact, Kim says that when she was in middle school in South Korea, she attended class only in the mornings. After lunch, she and other young golfers would work on their game until 9 p.m.
“Over there, young people aren’t encouraged to pursue both school and sports,” she says. “You pick one.”
Dr. Kyeyoung Park, an associate professor of anthropology and Asian American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, says playing golf has historically been viewed in South Korea as a status symbol reserved for the rich. Park was born and raised there, moving to the United States in 1981 for graduate studies. Land for golf courses in South Korea is scarce because the country of 49 million people is about the size of Indiana, she says. Kim adds that an 18-hole round of golf there costs about $250 — five times the cost in the United States — unless a person has a club membership that typically runs six figures.
Korean attitudes grew more accepting of golf — and other sports — as a career when Seoul hosted the 1988 Olympics, Park says. Leading up to it, city leaders toiled to build new sport venues and modernize facilities to house athletes, journalists and tourists in a frenzied makeover that was like preparation for a head of state’s visit. “What happened in Seoul is what is now happening in Beijing,” Park says, referring to China hosting this summer’s Olympics. “Of course, people take sports more seriously after going through all that.”
The accomplishments of Se Ri Pak on the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour also have sparked excitement among Koreans, beginning with her 1998 rookie year when she won two major championships. With 24 victories on the tour and $9 million in career earnings so far, Pak entered the World Golf Hall of Fame last year at the age of 30. Her fellow South Koreans on the men’s tour, K.J. Choi and Kevin Na, are climbing the ladder to becoming elite golfers as well.
Exact numbers of Korean and Korean American players in U.S. college ranks aren’t known. According to the NCAA, Asian Pacific Islanders made up 2 percent of male and 5 percent of female golfers in academic year 2005, the most recent year statistics available.
International students like Kim made up 6 percent of males and 8 percent of females that year. In academic year 1999, Asian Pacific Islanders made up only 1 percent of male golfers and 2 percent of females, while international students were only 3 percent of males and 4 percent of females.
Obviously, Asian Pacific Islander golfers include not only Korean Americans but also Indian American and Chinese American, to name a few. International golfers hail from countries as varied as Australia, Colombia, Indonesia, Singapore and South Korea, according to U.S. teams.
The University of Michigan men’s golf coach Andrew Sapp has witnessed the emergence and competiveness of Korean players here from the time he was a college player himself more than 15 years ago. College golfers of Korean heritage have grown increasingly common, says Sapp, who also has coached at Purdue University and the University of North Carolina. Their accomplishments are impressive, Sapp and others say, some of them occurring before they won athletic scholarships.
To name a few:
• As a high school senior, Lion Kim was ranked second nationally among junior golfers by Golfweek magazine. Kim now plays for Sapp at Michigan. (None of the Kims in this story are related.)
• Tiffany Joh, a member of the UCLA women’s team, was named Pac-10 conference Player of the Year for this season after consistently ranking among the nation’s top five players. Joh also won the 2007 Pac-10 title and the 2006 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links title.
• Sihwan Kim won the 2007 U.S. Junior National Championship. While playing for Stanford University’s men’s team this past school year, he placed first and second at two tournaments and third at two others.
These and other Korean golfers are much like college athletes of all ethnicities whose parents made life-changing decisions to help their children excel, Sapp and other coaches say. They add that it isn’t surprising that these athletes work hard at their game to maximize opportunities, they say.
“Lion Kim went to high school in Florida so he could play golf year-round,” Sapp says. “His father maintained businesses in the New York area much of that time. They’ve made a lot of sacrifices for Lion.”
In other students’ cases, the sacrifices involve trans-Pacific separations. UCLA women’s golf team member Glory Yang left her whole family in South Korea at age 14 to attend a California boarding school that combined academics with golf. Like C.J. Kim, Yang wanted more of an education than many Korean athletes overseas were getting.
“When I was about to move to the United States, my mom showed me a Bible verse about a guy who asks God to bless him with enlarged territory,” Yang writes on a UCLA Web site. “Because of this verse, I could manage the hardship to be in the United States without my family.”
C.J. Kim, who’s graduating with a bachelor’s in finance, has been back to her homeland only once — the summer between high school and college. Recently, she spoke excitedly of her mother’s pending trip to her UF commencement. “I can’t wait to show her my school,” she said. “I really miss her.”
When she came to the United States for high school in California, her businessman and bank owner father joined her and split time between both countries. That allowed Kim to live in an apartment with her father during the school year. Because her school had no golf program, her father coached and trained her, often accompanying her to junior tournaments. “I’m grateful my parents have been so supportive,” she says.
Even with their support, it has been anything but easy. After her freshman year at UF, a car accident necessitated surgery on her leg. She dropped competitive golf for a year. For two years, she has been on a comeback, resuming play despite lingering pain from so much walking on the courses.
Alongside the growth of college golfers, more Koreans and Korean Americans are coaching college teams. At UCLA for instance, Alicia Um is finishing her second year as assistant coach for the women’s team. She personally gained commitments from Yang and another international student to play there. At Wake Forest University, Kathy Choi-Rogers is completing her second year as assistant coach for the women’s team.
She and Um golfed professionally after graduating from UCLA, where they were members of the team during their respective college tenures.
Choi-Rogers finished third in the nation in 1996 at the NCAA women’s championship. Like a lot of today’s college golfers, she and Um each started playing recreationally as young girls while tagging along with family members. Choi-Rogers also gave lessons to the public at a Los Angeles-area practice facility before joining Wake Forest. Among her many pupils were “tweens” ages 8 to 11 whose Korean fathers were avid golfers. She also taught many local Korean and Korean American women beginners who were eager to join their husbands on a course but were beginners who barely knew the difference between a driver and a sand wedge. “I think it helped that I was a Korean woman too,” Choi-Rogers says. “They seemed comfortable asking questions.”
Park, the UCLA anthropologist, says that her sister, a professor in South Korea, and her brother have taken up golf because it has become so ingrained in the culture there. She doesn’t play, however, sparking jokes among those close to her that “I must not be a true Korean,” Park says with a laugh.
She observes that in Los Angeles’ Koreatown district, shops do brisk business selling expensive, European-designed golf apparel. Travel agencies in Koreatown regularly post advertisements of golf getaways as part of vacation packages — both domestic and South American. And when local Koreans want to raise money for charity or for disaster relief funds, putting together a golf tournament to solicit donations is a popular choice, she says.
Meanwhile, C.J. Kim plans to turn professional, play on a tour and work as manager for a friend who’s an LPGA player. “I’ll give this a try,” she says. “I came this far.”
PHOTOS (LEFT) COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, LOS ANGELES; (RIGHT) THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
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