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Young Koreans storm the greens

And their parents are never far behind.

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.