Korean Domination Comes With A Price

In the wake of Korea’s runaway win in the recent World Amateur Team Championships in the Argentine, plenty of countries will be following England’s example in staging a post-mortem. To recap, the Koreans finished at 30-under par and won by 17 shots from the U.S.; by 26 shots from Sweden, France and South Africa; by 28 shots from Canada; and by a yawning 40-shot margin over the aforesaid England.

The results of the English post-mortem may or may not be made public. What is obvious, however, is that it is not like against like when it comes to Western players and Koreans. There are English parents, no less than Koreans, who are starting their offspring earlier and supervising them as they practise harder and harder. But children from the UK are never going to be as compliant as their Eastern sisters when it comes to spending long hours on the range.


Korean culture being what it is, those from what was once known as “the land of the morning calm” are blessed – or some might think cursed – with what it takes to spend eight hours a day on the practice range. Other than to watch the flight of their next ball, they never look up.

At David Leadbetter’s Academy in Seoul, the head coach, Stephen Moriarty, once advised this correspondent that even when his back was turned, his Korean pupils did not seize the opportunity to have a chat and a giggle. No more did they want any free time when they went on a tournament-playing sortie to Australia. Asked if they fancied an afternoon on the beach, they opted instead for a chipping contest among themselves. 

Western girls they are not.

Yet no less than the other countries are pondering on how to stay in touch with the Koreans, so the Koreans have worries of their own. They may be getting better faster but, just as surely, some among them are wearing themselves out sooner. Not just physically but mentally.

Pia Nilsson, the Swedish coach who mentored Annika Sorenstam, has worked with any number of bored, unhappy and frustrated young Korean professionals, girls in their early 20s who have fallen out of love with the game. 

Nilsson has managed to sort at least some of them out by finding them a hobby, very possibly the first they have ever had. “The idea here,” she says, “is that they can get away from golf and give their minds a well-earned rest.” 

In a couple of instances, cookery has proved to be the answer, with the players in question renting homes for themselves during tournament weeks in order that they can practise their new culinary skills. 

Nilsson points to how all those looking for a sustained career in golf need to hit on a happy medium, a state in which golf and social development go hand in hand. “It’s not enough,” says this former Solheim Cup captain, for a girl to be playing the game for the money. She has to love what she does. It’s what all the players at the very top have in common.”

 

In spite of everything that has ever been said about Michelle Wie, Nilsson suspects that the American, amid her often-stormy career, is probably closer to having found the right answers than many might suppose.

Across the years, people have torn into the player’s parents for the way they have brought up their golfing prodigy. They said it was madness that she should be dipping her fingers into the men’s game without first winning at each level in turn – and never mind the fact that Wie, at 14, was only one shot away from making the cut in the men’s Sony Open. 

Those same critics chose to ignore the fact that the Wies were not all about golf. Overly hands-on parents though B.J. and Bo Wie may well have been, they never wanted their daughter to rush headlong into playing the game full-time. They were right behind her ambition to go to Stanford and B.J. made it plain from the start that it would not be for a token year. She would stay the course. 

“From the outside,” said Nilsson, who would have cringed like the next person at how Wie played through potentially career-threatening injury problems, “the way Michelle started was a bit strange. For a time, I wondered where it was all going to lead but she has survived all the early scrutiny and there’s no question that she has made some smart moves over the last couple of years.”

Nilsson admires the fact that Wie has the guts to do her education and she approves her choice of subject – communications. “It’s the perfect subject for someone with her experience with the media,” she says.
To her, Wie has become a good example of a player who, at 21, is in possession of all pieces of the jigsaw – “and they’re coming together.”

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