COLUMBUS, Ohio — It is early evening, and the sun is low over the Ohio State University Golf Club. Several dozen players continue to practice on the putting green. Almost all are Korean Americans. Their parents watch from a nearby grassy mound. Many mothers ward off the heat by sitting sheltered under dainty umbrellas, chitchatting in Korean. A tournament official will soon close the practice area. Otherwise, the Koreans would keep on putting into the darkness.
Most serious junior golfers practice hours a day — when they finish a round, they head to the driving range or the putting green — but the parent-enforced diligence of many Korean players surprises even the mother of a son who plays up to 72 holes in a single day.
“I’ve seen Asian parents tell their kids ‘stay on the practice green until you make five putts in a row,'" says Sandy Popeck, the mother of a top-ranked junior golfer from Pennsylvania. During rounds, Korean fathers scout out ahead of their children, while the mothers follow the children from behind. Popeck says that once, when a thunderstorm erupted, she watched a mother run over to open an umbrella over her child.
Of the 143 players invited to attend the prestigious 2007 Rolex Tournament of Champions for under-18-year-old golfers, about 40 are Korean. Some were born in the States. Others moved as little children. After SeRi Pak helped put Korea on the map by winning the 1998 United States Women’s Open, Korean women discovered a new path to success and an obsession became training daughters to become professional golfers.
“Golf sort of matches the Asian mindset,” with its emphasis on practice and repetition, insists David Leadbetter, the famed golf teacher who has traveled frequently to Asia and taught the Korean national team. “It requires not just pure physical exertion, but also a lot of mind control. It requires practice. Koreans train eight to 10 hours a day, with only one day off in two weeks. It is [a] game in which parents can get involved with, where parents must travel with kids. For the Asians, doctors, lawyers, pianist, dancer, you have to give it 110 percent from the word go.”
What Americans see as negative pushing, Koreans often consider right and proper parenting. Among most Koreans, little time or temptation is left for kids to be kids. Wasted moments are seen as irresponsible, just as leaving children to make their own decisions is considered disastrous. A child’s schedule is a serious affair. Children are in school, in an after-school tutoring program, or in a sports activity until it’s time to go to bed. The parent’s role is to teach the child to be successful in a tough world. Many Korean parents scorn the American idea of creative and well-rounded kids. Instead, they see the need for children to succeed.
After the Rolex’s first day of play, the Korean players pack the top of the scoreboard. Kristen Park of Buena Park, California, leads the girls with a three-under-par 68. Jane Rah of Torrance, California, is tied for second place with a one-over-par 72.
Kristen Park, an incoming freshman at Sunny Hills High School, is a shy, razor-thin teenager who steps back slightly when strangers shake her hand. Her father runs a Korean restaurant, and her mom travels with her to tournaments. She took up the game only three years ago and until this spring was unknown among the junior golf elite.
“I was actually in tennis and then my grandpa got me into golf,” she says. “For the first six months, I kind of wanted to quit, but then I started getting competitive and decided to stick with it.” Her parents were skeptical. “They saw that golf takes lots of money, but I wanted to play.”
Second-place Jane Rah, a stocky five foot, one inch tall, overcomes her small stature and a jerky, awkward-looking swing with course intelligence and a ferocious bulldog competitive will. Rah grew up in Chicago, where she originally trained as a figure skater. “I was on the rink before 6 o’clock in the morning and there were such strict rules,” she says. “In golf you can have these flaws and you can still make it.” By the age of seven and a half, Rah had abandoned the rink. Her parents — her father is a high school math teacher, and her mother is a homemaker — relocated to Southern California so she could play golf year-round.
In the boys’ division, another Korean, Alex Shi Yup Kim leads with a one-under-par 70, followed in third place by Korean Sihwan Kim. Alex hails from Fullerton, California, and Sihwan, who’s from Buena Park, the same town as Kristen Park, is a 10-minute drive away. Sihwan graduated a few weeks earlier from Sunny Hills High, which Kristen will attend in the fall. In 2004 Sihwan Kim burst upon the scene unexpectedly, becoming the second-youngest U.S. Junior Amateur champion, behind Tiger Woods.
Alex Kim is a wisp of a teenager who stands a mere five feet, seven inches tall, and he is thin and angular. His methodical, well-proportioned swing lacks the punch and power of his rivals. But what Alex loses in distance, he makes up in steadiness and accuracy. He almost never drives off line. He makes few mistakes.
Sihwan Kim, by contrast, sports an unblemished baby face and stands a strapping six feet, one inch tall and weighs 200 pounds. He hits the ball as far as any other junior, and appropriately, his favorite golfer is South Africa’s giant, Ernie Els.
Born in Korea, Sihwan “Big” Kim started playing golf at age 9. “I was kind of chubby back then,” he recalls. “I couldn’t run and my parents thought golf would be a good sport for me.” With his mother and two sisters, Kim moved to the United States when he was 12. His father, a clothing manufacturer, stayed in Korea. His mother, who still doesn’t speak English, enrolled her son in an American elementary school that had few other Korean students.
"It was rough, but it worked,” Kim admits. “I learned fast.”
As a 15-year-old high school sophomore, he won the U.S. Junior Amateur at the historic Olympic Club near San Francisco. Since then he has struggled to stay at the top of the junior game, in large part, he says, because he was worrying about his applications to college. Recently Kim was accepted at Stanford, and he seems more relaxed.
The boys at Rolex endure a similar bruising emotional roller coaster that also challenges golf’s tradition of etiquette and fair play. The Korean challengers stumble in the second round. First-round leader Alex “Little” Kim shoots a one-over-par 73 for a two-round total 143 that drops him to fourth place. Sihwan “Big” Kim finds himself a further stroke back, tied for eighth. In the tournament’s final and fourth round, the Korean players gather momentum. Alex “Little” Kim birdies two holes on the front nine. He birdies the 12th, putting him three under par for the day.
After nine holes, Sihwan “Big” Kim is one under par for the day. He keeps plugging away, and his putts begin to fall. On the 15th hole, he sinks an eight-foot putt for a birdie, bringing him to four under par for the day. He finishes with a four-under-par 67 for the tournament, three shots ahead of his closest challenger.
At the award ceremony, Kim seems subdued, partly overtaken by a rare calmness, partly with renewed confidence and by a strange sense of freedom. This is his last major junior golf tournament. He plans to spend most of the summer before Stanford playing adult amateur tournaments. “I don’t feel as much pressure as I did a long time ago when I was really young,” he acknowledges.
The Korean players are not one-dimensional stock characters. Some like Jane Rah are spunky and sparkle. Others like Kristen Park are shy and soft-spoken. Some are big and broad-chested like Sihwan Kim. Others are thin and wispy like little Alex Kim. Some raise their voices against their parents, and others do not. Yet in Korean culture, one trait seems to dominate: Parents will do whatever needed to cultivate their children to ripen and reach the top. They serve as chauffeur, counselor and critic all at once. Once successful, the reactions from the offspring seem to separate depending on sex.
While many Korean women star on the pro tour — of the 120 players on the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour, some 45 hail from South Korea — few Korean men do. “Once the boys are released and allowed to experience something new, they find golf is not everything,” explains Rah. “We girls stick with it.”
When asked, Sihwan “Big” Kim says his goal is “to get done with school, get a diploma and go to the PGA.” If pressed, though, he seems to express some doubts. He wants to “relax and fish.” His parents are pressing him to study engineering, or become a doctor or lawyer. “I don’t want to take such a hard major and screw myself,” he says.
Sihwan “Big” Kim triumphs at the moment when he manages to gain enough self-confidence to fly on his own. As Kim holds up his Rolex trophy, his crooked half smile seems to hide a riddle. Does the impressive, relaxed confidence that he demonstrated in his Rolex win underscore a new determination that will drive him to golf stardom? Or once he arrives at Stanford, will he find new interests that literally take his eye off the little white ball?
Read more from this series:
Shooting for Tiger
Advanced Placement, Golf
Excerpted from "Shooting for Tiger: How Golf's Obsessed New Generation is Transforming a Country Club Sport," publishing this month from PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2009.