Asian sensations give game boost

TODD SAELHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:53 AM ET

Before Y.E. Yang, Asia's link to the golf world was dominated by the women on tour.

You know their names -- Jayai Shin, In-Kyung Kim, Ai Miyazato, Yani Tseng

OK, so they're not exactly household handles.

But they are just a few talented reasons why the women's game has picked up steam in the last handful of years and why the future looks bright for Chinese, Korean, Taiwanese and Japanese golfers.

Try Eun-Hee Ji, Song-Hee Kim and Na Yeon Choi.

And Ji Young Oh, Jeong Jang and Sun Young Yoo.

The list of Asians on the LPGA Tour goes on and on and on, with South Korea alone boasting 47 golfers on the circuit.

"All of a sudden, just one year, there was 20 South Koreans in Q-school," said Taiwan native Candie Kung.

"Then, it was 30 the next year, and they kept coming year after year."

And year after year, the phenoms from the Far East keep climbing the money ladder on the LPGA Tour.

Heading into the 2009 CN Canadian Women's Open at Priddis Greens Golf & Country Club, Shin, Kim, Miyazato and Tseng were Nos. 2-5, respectively, on the LPGA's money list this season.

Tseng finished third last year with $1.75 million, and Inbee Park was eighth with nearly $1.14 million. Two years ago, Mi Hyun Kim and Seon Hwa Lee were fourth and fifth on the cash list.

The Americans no longer dominate the LPGA Tour.

"Everybody wants to win," said Park, a 21-year-old South Korean. "And when you're overseas, you're really far away from home, so you're motivated to do well.

"Whenever I look at the driving range, it seems to be full of Asians, especially Koreans -- early in the morning or late in the afternoon," Park continued. "They're out there practising all the time -- that's why they do well."

On off-days, Park herself is practising on the course anywhere between three and four hours. She says that's at least an hour less than other Asians on the tour.

"I think the key to the success is hard work," said China's Shanshan Feng, who was 36th on last year's money list with US$472,758.

"Before a tournament, Asian players always came to the course first to check and to practise and are there even into the night. Asians are not stronger than other players, but because we are hard working, we can compete with them on the tour -- and sometimes win."

Proof of that came last week, when 19-year-old M.J. Hur continued the recent Korean success with a playoff win over Suzann Pettersen at the Safeway Classic in Oregon. Hur's the cover story on SeoulSisters.com, a website celebrating Korean golfers of the LPGA.

It's a site that's a big hit among golf fans overseas and brings out more of the personality of the Koreans on tour.

In public, they're not all like Christina Kim, an original Seoul Sister who's become a fan favourite since her spirited enthusiasm spiced up the 2009 Solheim Cup.

No matter, because their success on the links is highly praised back home.

Miyazato's story didn't go unnoticed in Japan, as dozens of reporters from her native country followed her around the globe, interviewing her after every practice and tournament round from the time she blew away the LPGA Q-school field by a record 12 strokes in 2005. She's considered one of the big three athletes in Japan, alongside baseball stars Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui.

"Golf is popular in Asia but not popular enough in China," explained Feng. "As the first Asian player to win the PGA Championship, Y.E. Yang gives a shot in the arm to Asian golf. The most obvious change in China is many junior golfers setting their goal of playing in the PGA."

It's also gaining popularity in Taiwan.

"Slowly," said Kung, who is 19th with $486,041 on this year's money list. "We don't have that many families who can afford to play golf there. In Taiwan, it's very expensive to play golf. The government doesn't help -- they don't understand where golf stands in the whole world.

"And our body is not built to play the other sports that are played here (in North America)," added the 5-foot-6 Kung. "We're little, so we're into tae-kwon do and ping-pong."

TODD.SAELHOF@SUNMEDIA.CA


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