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Young Koreans storm the greens

And their parents are never far behind.

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.