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(Yonhap Feature) Grass not always greener on other side for S. Korean female golfers

2017/10/26 09:00

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By Yoo Jee-ho

INCHEON, Oct. 26 (Yonhap) -- Should I stay or should I go?

   Most of the top South Korean female golfers today weren't even born when The Clash posed the above question in its eponymous single in 1982.

But it's the one these golfers are wrestling with frequently today while mulling a possible career switch from the Korea LPGA (KLPGA) Tour to the U.S.-based LPGA Tour.

And more and more of them are staying -- or at least, they take a lot more time than their predecessors in deciding whether they'll go.

They are more reluctant now because they know the grass on the other side of the pond isn't always greener and, when trying to make a living playing golf, there's no place quite like home.

In this file photo taken Oct. 15, 2017, Ko Jin-young of South Korea celebrates her victory at the LPGA KEB Hana Bank Championship at Sky 72 Golf & Resort's Ocean Course in Incheon. (Yonhap) In this file photo taken Oct. 15, 2017, Ko Jin-young of South Korea celebrates her victory at the LPGA KEB Hana Bank Championship at Sky 72 Golf & Resort's Ocean Course in Incheon. (Yonhap)

It used to be that the LPGA Tour was the ultimate stage for Korean stars who had nothing left to prove on the domestic tour. It seemed as though the KLPGA players would graduate to the LPGA Tour after learning how to win and compete under pressure.

Over the years, the tour's biggest names, from Shin Ji-yai and Seo Hee-kyung to Kim Hyo-joo, Ryu So-yeon, Chun In-gee and Park Sung-hyun, have made that leap. And they've swept up major championships, won Rookie of the Year honors and, in the case of Shin and Ryu, reached No. 1 in the world rankings.

These stars have proven that the best in Korea can also be among the finest in the world. They have also helped transform South Korea from a fledgling player in women's golf into a dominant force. In 2017, South Koreans have won more than half of all LPGA tournaments -- 15 out of 29, to be exact -- and three of the five major titles.

That the LPGA Tour is still the world's greatest women's golf competition hasn't changed. But South Korean players have.

Look no further than Ko Jin-young, who earned her first LPGA title on Oct. 15. She happens to be a KLPGA member and a really good one at that -- she was the 2016 KLPGA Player of the Year and his nine career victories.

The 22-year-old got her LPGA card by winning the LPGA KEB Hana Bank Championship in Incheon, just west of Seoul, and Ko had two choices.

She could've jumped into LPGA water immediately and play there the rest of the season. She had until 5 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time) last Friday to notify the LPGA if she wanted to go that route, but Ko forewent that option.

The other option is she can start fresh as a new member at the start of the 2018 season. To do that, she must inform the LPGA by 5 p.m. (EST) on Monday of the week prior to the LPGA Final Qualifying Tournament, which is typically held in late November or early December.

One thing she can't do is this: defer her decision and join the LPGA Tour in 2019. If she doesn't make the move next year, then Ko must earn her tour card again.

After her first LPGA title, Ko didn't sound all that certain that she would take her talent to the LPGA Tour.

"I am still a KLPGA player, and I think it's only right for me to focus on the rest of the KLPGA season," Ko said. "It's not something I can decide on my own. And I don't think it'll be too late for me to speak to my parents and others first, and think long and hard about it."

   That Ko is hesitating at all speaks volumes about how top KLPGA players now view a potential LPGA career.

Korea LPGA Tour player Lee Jeong-eun celebrates after clinching her win at the OK Savings Bank Se Ri Pak Invitational at Lakewood Country Club in Yangju, Gyeonggi Province, on Sept. 24, 2017, in this file photo provided by the KLPGA. (Yonhap) Korea LPGA Tour player Lee Jeong-eun celebrates after clinching her win at the OK Savings Bank Se Ri Pak Invitational at Lakewood Country Club in Yangju, Gyeonggi Province, on Sept. 24, 2017, in this file photo provided by the KLPGA. (Yonhap)

First, let's look at the money. Ko made a little over 1 billion won (US$883,000) last year and has earned about 710 million won this season.

The 2016 total, when converted into U.S. dollars, would have placed Ko inside the top 20 on the LPGA money list. This year, Ko would be safely inside the top 30.

The major difference is Ko didn't have to make that money grinding her way through America from one tournament stop after another or struggling with the new surroundings, culture, language and food, among other areas in which people living and working in a different country must adapt.

Traveling can often be grueling and two high-profile Korean players have recently given up their LPGA memberships to be closer to home.

In 2014, Shin Ji-yai, two-time major champion and former world No. 1, handed back her LPGA card to focus on the LPGA of Japan Tour. She often traveled to play in South Korea and Japan during the U.S. seasons and said such demanding schedules had taken their toll on both her mind and body.

Then in May this year, Jang Ha-na, four-time LPGA winner, rescinded her LPGA membership so she could spend more time with her aging parents while playing full-time on the KLPGA Tour. Jang made that decision only three months after collecting her fourth career LPGA win, and she was still No. 10 in the world rankings at the time.

These two players decided all that glitters isn't gold, and whatever money or prestige that came with LPGA wins just wasn't worth the trouble in the end. And their returns also highlighted the hardships of playing on the U.S. tour.

Korea LPGA Tour player Oh Ji-hyun poses with the champion's trophy after winning the Hanwha Classic at Jade Palace Golf Club in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province, on Sept. 3, 2017, in this file photo provided by the KLPGA. (Yonhap) Korea LPGA Tour player Oh Ji-hyun poses with the champion's trophy after winning the Hanwha Classic at Jade Palace Golf Club in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province, on Sept. 3, 2017, in this file photo provided by the KLPGA. (Yonhap)

And then there is the growth of the KLPGA Tour.

The 2016 season was the most lucrative one ever for the KLPGA Tour. It held 33 tournaments with a total purse reaching 21 billion won, up from 29 events with 18.5 billion won at stake in 2015.

Ko's 1 billion won in earnings last year wasn't even good enough to put her at the top of the money list, as Park Sung-hyun set a single-season record with 1.33 billion won, on the strength of seven wins and 13 top-10 finishes.

To put that in perspective: Shin won the 2007 KLPGA money title with 674 million won. She had nine victories and posted 16 top-10 finishes in 18 starts.

Park and Ko both surpassed 1 billion won in earnings last year. Before them, only Kim Hyo-joo in 2014 had made over 1 billion won in a season.

Also, five players made over 500 million won in 2015, but nine did so in 2016. This year, six have reached that plateau with three tournaments left.

And today, the path to the LPGA Tour is more open to the Korean tour players than in the past, and they don't necessarily have to win a tournament.

It used to be difficult for KLPGA players to get into U.S. tour events without sponsors' exemptions. Basically, short of going through the qualifying tournament -- better known colloquially as the Q-School -- the only way for them to earn their LPGA card was to win the one LPGA tournament they could actually get into -- the LPGA KEB Hana Bank Championship.

But with more KLPGA tour stars with world ranking points, it's become easier to get into a handful of LPGA events, including major championships, as nonmembers each year. Ko Jin-young nearly won the 2015 Ricoh Women's British Open, one of the five majors.

And nonmembers who make enough money to rank inside the top 40 at the season's end can still earn their LPGA card for the following season.

Last year, Park Sung-hyun became the first South Korean to obtain her LPGA membership via that route.

Park made seven LPGA starts as a nonmember and posted four top 10s, three at major championships. She earned about $682,000, which would have ranked her 22nd on the money list that year.

The LPGA KEB Hana Bank Championship has been held since 2002 -- it used to be held under a different corporate sponsor -- and before Ko this month, it had produced four homegrown winners in Ahn Shi-hyun, Lee Jee-young, Hong Jin-joo and Baek Kyu-jung.

All four jumped across the Pacific to join the LPGA Tour. None ever won an LPGA event.

Combine cautionary tales of these players with Park Sung-hyun's unique success story -- she cracked the top 10 in the world rankings as a nonmember without an LPGA victory -- and it is easy to see why KLPGA players today are less likely to rush into a decision that they may later regret.

Kim Min-sun of South Korea tees off at the 11th hole in the first round of the LPGA KEB Hana Bank Championship at Sky 72 Golf & Resort's Ocean Course in Incheon on Oct. 12, 2017, in this file photo provided by the tournament organizing committee. (Yonhap) Kim Min-sun of South Korea tees off at the 11th hole in the first round of the LPGA KEB Hana Bank Championship at Sky 72 Golf & Resort's Ocean Course in Incheon on Oct. 12, 2017, in this file photo provided by the tournament organizing committee. (Yonhap)

After sharing the first round lead at the LPGA KEB Hana Bank Championship, KLPGA player Kim Min-sun was asked about her future if she won that tournament and picked up her LPGA card.

"It'd be unbelievable to win this tournament," she said with a smile. "If it happens, I'll move over to the LPGA Tour and never look back."

   Kim is now in the growing minority in that sense. But even Kim said unless she picked up an LPGA win along the way, she wasn't going to rush to the other side of the Pacific.

"I've been thinking about giving myself two or three more years on the Korean tour," Kim said. "I think it'd be good to build more experience before moving to the United States."

   Other top KLPGA players appear to be in the same boat.

Lee Jeong-eun, who leads the KLPGA Tour this year in wins, scoring average, money and Player of the Year points, has often said she has no immediate plans to make her leap.

Oh Ji-hyun, who has won twice in 2017, admitted to having given the LPGA Tour some thought but said, "This isn't the time yet."

   In that iconic song by The Clash, Joe Strummer asks, "Should I stay or should I go?" and says, "If I go, there will be trouble."

   In the year 2017, many South Korean female golfers agree.

jeeho@yna.co.kr

(END)

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