When Jiyai Shin first started to play in the West, her clubs did 99 percent of the talking, and the golf-writing fraternity struggled to add to what it saw. Today, in contrast, Jiyai has entirely enough English at her disposal to give an insight into what lies behind her dogged determination.
Back in May 1980, the citizens of Gwangju rose up against Chun Doo-hwan’s military dictatorship in a bid to take control of the South Korean city. The man who would become Jiyai’s father was about to join the protesters when his father intervened. He used force to shut his son in a cupboard. He locked the door and he saved his life.
Jiyai’s father became a preacher and one who continues to pen books on the bible. As much as any other passage, Isaiah 41 verse 10 – the one which exhorts people not to be afraid – struck a chord with his golfing daughter. “In golf,” says the LPGA’s leading money-winner in 2009, “I see others worrying about what will happen to their shots, but I don’t. I simply do my best every time I stand to the ball.”
Though her grandfather saved Jiyai’s father, no one was able to do the same for her mother when the latter was involved in a car crash in 2003. She died straightaway, while Jiyai’s two siblings each spent seven months in a hospital.
Jiyai, who at 14 took on a maternal role, has won a total of 30 tournaments in her mother’s honor. She is aware of her mother at all times and when, as the defending champion at last week’s HSBC Women’s Champions in Singapore, she was asked to don a black shirt and join a top table of VIPs, she gently explained that she could not wear black. She only did as much on the anniversary of her mother’s death.
A red shirt was substituted, with the audience assuming that this was to identify her as the key member of the group.
No one would have thought she was being difficult because that is not Jiyai. As Guy Kinnings of IMG has observed, much of the player’s star quality is down to her “incredible niceness.”
Her caddie, Dean Herden, is of the same opinion. “Jiyai’s got endless patience with people,” he marveled. He then told how, on a tournament day, his player will arrive two hours before her tee-off time in order to mix practice with a bit of the socializing she so enjoys.
Jiyai’s nickname in Korea used to be “Smile” until she started winning from a series of tight situations. At that point it changed to “Final Day Queen,” a label she much prefers. “When it was Smile,” she says, “there was pressure on me to be smiling all the time and there were times when I couldn’t. I like Final Day Queen because it gives me confidence.” Sunday in Singapore she tied for third behind winner Ai Miyazato while attempting to successfully defend the title she won in 2009.
Jiyai’s life-history is just one area on which she is only now in a position to expand.
Following the Tiger Woods revelations, everyone tends to want to know what golfers do in their spare time. Jiyai, in this situation, continues to reel off a phrase she must have learned off pat in her first week out of Korea – “I listen to music.” If pressed, she will mention a couple of songs she has had recorded in Korea.
Yet given a bit of time, she reveals an interest of far greater import. She is close to finishing a degree in physical education at Yondsei University, the second-most famous establishment of its kind in Korea.
Much of the work is done on-line, though whenever she returns to Korea she goes back to college and revels in the classes and the camaraderie. She explains that the reason she started the course was because she one day found herself thinking, “I’m so stupid, I only know golf.”
Though her father was never pushy by the standards of others in Korea, Jiyai, who will be 22 in April, is not alone among Asian players in feeling she spent far too much of her youth on the practice ground.
Yani Tseng, from Taiwan, is in the same position. Yani’s parents encouraged golf above schooling to the point where, on the days when she did turn up for a class, she did not have a clue what it was all about. At age 12, the Taiwanese player tackled her parents for the right to finish her education, but the damage was done. Today, as she works for a degree along much the same lines as Jiyai’s, Yani knows that there is endless catching up to do before she can qualify as the kindergarten teacher she one day wants to become.
Jiyai’s career plan is to spend nine more years on the LPGA Tour before returning to Korea.
Much as she is enjoying life on the LPGA Tour, she says it is necessary to put this time-limit in place because she wants to get married and have children.
At some point, she will need to win her man – a task she sees as tougher than winning tournaments. “With all the travel we do, the chances of meeting someone are not good,” she says with a sigh.
When this correspondent asked if Korean parents were good at making appropriate introductions, there was a peel of ruefully tinged laughter.
“No,” she said, “that’s not what they do. Parents in Korea tell you to focus on your golf.”