Posted by: happyfan08 | November 12, 2010

Turning Japanese?

Why are so many of the top Korean women golfers looking towards playing in Japan rather than the US these days?

Last week, the Korean LPGA tour and the Ladies European Tour contested the third Daishin Securities Tomato Tour Women’s Masters; it is their only jointly sanctioned tournament of the season.  Notably absent from the field, however, was the top player on the KLPGA tour this season, Bo Mee Lee.  Lee was over in Japan, taking part in the Japanese tour’s Qualifying School sectional.  Her goal: to join the JLPGA in 2011.  What’s interesting about this is how unusual such a move would have been only a few years ago.  Back then, the assumed trajectory for most Korean golf stars was: play on the KLPGA for a few years to get your feet wet, then play either the Futures Tour or the LPGA’s Q-School, with the goal being to earn a card to play on the LPGA.  Thanks to Se Ri Pak’s example, the LPGA was seen as the ultimate destination for any serious world class women’s golfer.  The last few years, that has all changed.  Now an increasing number of top Korean stars are delaying joining or even avoiding the LPGA tour entirely in favor of the JLPGA.  Some of the Korean golfers are also returning from the US to Korea, or even trying the LET full time.  What has happened to take the shine off of an LPGA career for these ladies? 

Bo Mee Lee is the KLPGA's leading player this year

First of all, there have always been capable Korean golfers who have chosen to play full time on the JLPGA.  One prime example of this is Mi Jeong Jeon, who has consistently ranked in the top ten on the JLPGA since joining that tour in 2005.  Among her notable accomplishments are winning three straight tournaments in 2007, something no golfer had done on that tour since 1988.  Jeon is probably the most accomplished of the Korean lifers on the JLPGA, but she isn’t the only one.  Eun Ah Lim, Hyun Ju Shin, and Ji Hee Lee are three more top Koreans who have made Japan their home.

Mi Jeong Jeon in 2007

Despite these examples, most of the big KLPGA stars over the past decade have chosen to play in America sooner or later.  Among these stars are Hall of Famer Pak; Mi Hyun Kim, an 8 time winner on the LPGA; Soo Yun Kang, who was a top star in Korea before moving to the US; Il Mi Chung, at one point the top career money earner on the KLPGA; and Joo Mi Kim and Meena Lee, both KLPGA Players of the Year.  Jeon and the other JLPGA players previously discussed were, by comparison, not nearly as accomplished in Korea before they moved to Japan.

The first notable change to this pattern came in 2007.  Bo Bae Song had been the KLPGA’s top player in 2004 and 2005.  She even represented Korea, along with Jeong Jang, at the Women’s World Cup in South Africa at the start of 2005 (and again in 2006, partnered with Meena Lee).  A few months later, she became one of the few Korean players to ever win an LET event when she claimed the Samsung Ladies Masters title in Singapore.  The 2006 season was more problematic for her, as she struggled with injuries that sidelined her much of the year.  Still, she finished 8th on the money list and claimed one win during the season.  When it came time for her to leave the KLPGA for greener pastures at the end of the year, most observers assumed her destination would be America.

Bo Bae Song wins the 2005 Samsung Ladies Masters

But as it turned out, Song instead joined the Japanese LPGA tour.  Song continued to struggle with injuries, but in 2009 finally played enough events to qualify officially as a rookie on the JLPGA.  That year, she won the Japan Women’s Open and claimed the Rookie of the Year award.  But perhaps her most impressive feat was claiming the title at the LPGA’s co-sanctioned Japanese event, the Mizuno Classic.  By winning that event, Song earned the right to play on the LPGA for 2010 if she chose.

Amazingly, Song turned down the exempt card and returned to the JLPGA in 2010.  Of all the Koreans in the Se Ri Pak era who have won LPGA events before joining the tour, she was the first one to refuse membership there.

Bo Bae Song at the 2009 Mizuno Classic

Granted, Bo Bae Song might just have been an anomaly.  She clearly was comfortable and successful playing on the JLPGA tour, as was Mi Jeong Jeon before her.  But in the last few years, an increasing number of Korean golfers are moving to the JLPGA from the KLPGA or even the LPGA, and fewer are trying their luck on the Futures Tour or at LPGA Qualifying School. 

In 2008, the Rookie class for the LPGA contained two of the top KLPGA golfers of recent years, Hee Young Park and Na Yeon Choi.  Jiyai Shin, the biggest star of her generation, was still in Korea, but everyone assumed she would soon join them.  But Shin made it clear in interviews that year that like BB Song, she, too, was intending to join the JLPGA the following season.  Even after Shin won the British Women’s Open to earn LPGA status, she STILL was talking about going to Japan in 2009.  Eventually she changed her mind, joined the LPGA tour, and rose to the #1 spot on that tour’s money list (and in the world, according to the Rolex Rankings). 

Meanwhile, another big KLPGA star, Sun Ju Ahn, went to LPGA Qualifying School in late 2008.  She won her sectional, beating such players as Stacy Lewis and Michelle Wie in the process.  But at the finals, she suffered an injury and had to drop out.  She ended up playing on the KLPGA one more season than she had intended;  but most assumed that she would try to make it onto the LPGA in 2010.

Instead, Ahn went to JLPGA qualifying school, where she earned full status for 2010.  It proved to be a good decision; she has been brilliant on that tour this year, winning several times and planting herself firmly atop the money list with a huge lead entering the final few events.  If she continues to hang on, she will be the first Korean (and only second foreign player) ever to lead the JLPGA’s money list for a season.

Sun Ju Ahn with one of her KLPGA trophies from 2009

But regardless of how things turned out, the noteworthy thing is that she decided to forego the LPGA tour in the first place.  Clearly she has the talent to succeed over here; she was one of the longest players off the tee on the KLPGA, and was hugely consistent, leading the scoring average in her final year on tour much of the season.  When she has played LPGA events, she has done well, including a near top ten at the US Women’s Open in 2009 and multiple top tens at the Evian Masters.

In 2009, the LPGA Rookie class still contained Jiyai Shin and MJ Hur among other Korean golfers; both players would win on tour that season, with Shin grabbing the Rookie of the Year honors.  But in 2010, two potential star rookies, Sun Ju Ahn and Bo Bae Song, both decided to play in Japan instead.  Thus, the Korean rookies who joined the tour this year were mostly the lower tier players.  For 2011, the LPGA’s Qualifying School is almost devoid of top flight Koreans.  The few players who are leaving the KLPGA, like Bo Mee Lee, are more interested in playing in Japan.  There were two Korean stars, however, who did play the Futures Tour in 2010, and both have qualified for the LPGA tour in 2011.  Jennifer Song, a player with dual Korean-American citizenship, finished second on the Futures Tour money list, while teenager Jenny Shin finished third.  But a third star wavered, like so many others, between Japan and America.  Hee Kyung Seo, who has won 11 times on the Korean tour in the past few years, won the LPGA’s Kia Classic earlier this year to earn her tour membership.  But like Song and Ahn, Seo continued to hesitate in committing to America, vocally expressing that her desire before the win had been to play in Japan.  And this despite the fact Seo speaks English quite well.  Just last week, Seo finally committed to playing on the LPGA tour next season, but that she did not immediately leap at the opportunity shows how the stock of that tour has fallen in recent times.

Hee Kyung Seo won the 2010 Kia Classic to earn LPGA status next year

In addition to the marked decrease in Korean players coming over here, several of the Korean stars on the LPGA hedged their bets by acquiring JLPGA membership at the end of last year.  It was a very unusual development to see established stars like US Women’s Open winner Inbee Park, LPGA tour winner Young Kim, and 2006 Rookie of the Year Seon Hwa Lee all get their cards at Japanese Q School.  Young Kim, indeed, essentially abandoned the LPGA for Japan this year, and she will be joined, provided she makes it through Q School this year, by Soo Yun Kang, a former KLPGA Player of the Year who will be leaving the LPGA after multiple years and one tour win.  Seon Hwa Lee and Inbee Park do not intend to leave America, though, and both have played frequently on both sides of the Pacific this year.  Park in particular has had a stellar ‘rookie’ Japanese campaign: she has won one tournament and finished second seven additional times.  Were it not for Sun Ju Ahn’s amazing season, Park might very well have won the JLPGA Rookie of the Year as a part time player.

Inbee Park kisses the 2008 US Women's Open trophy

Still other Koreans have announced that, as their cards lapse at the end of this year, they intend to return to Korea rather than try to maintain status in the US.  Among the players who will be leaving us are Aree Song, the half Thai half Korean who has never played full time on the KLPGA; Il Mi Chung and Joo Mi Kim, two former top KLPGA stars; and Sarah Lee.  They will be joining several other Koreans who made this move in the last couple of years, including Jin Joo Hong and Sung Ah Yim, both winners on the LPGA.

So, what gives?  Why this sudden attrition of star Korean players?  Well, there are several reasons.  Firstly, the economic downturn of late-2008 hit the LPGA tour particularly hard.  It did not help that they had an inflexible leader who insisted on playing hardball with struggling sponsors, forcing those tournaments to go belly up.  But the JLPGA and KLPGA, while also hit, seemed to get through the bad weather much better.  It is now possible to make a living on the JLPGA comparable to what a player could once make on the LPGA, with not nearly the level of competition or the sheer amount of travel required for an LPGA career.  It just makes sense for the moment for Koreans to stick to Japan.  And because Japan is so much closer to Korea than the States, it also gives these players much more of a chance to return home during the season. In addition, transitioning from Korea to Japan would not nearly be the culture shock as coming to America would be.  Many of the younger Koreans have never lived out of Asia in their lives, and might want to spare themselves the homesickness such a change might engender.

Many of the Koreans also have personal reasons for wanting to play in Japan.  Some are sponsored by Japanese companies.  Some have relatives in Japan.  Jin Joo Hong considered playing in Japan and passing up the LPGA card she earned by winning the 2006 Hana Bank Championship because her mother lives in Japan and she wanted to be able to see her frequently.  Jiyai Shin also considered the JLPGA in part to be nearer to her father and siblings, who live in Korea.  She knew it would be tougher to see them often if she were playing full time in the States.

Jiyai Shin in 2009

For some, it was simply a way to make more money.  The LPGA has a rule stating that a member is only allowed a couple of times a year to play events on other tours if they occur at the same time as an LPGA event.  But since the LPGA schedule is so sparse currently, it’s now possible to play a lot on the JLPGA and not violate that rule.  If the LPGA shores up its schedule soon, this little window of opportunity might close, forcing some of these players like Inbee Park to choose which tour they prefer.

Although I’ve not heard it said out loud, I wonder if many of the Korean players don’t feel as welcome on the LPGA as they once did.  What with former Commissioner Bivens’ attempt to mandate English speaking ‘or else’; the constant media drumbeat in this country against the ‘boring’ Korean golfers and the need for an American star to ‘save’ the tour (but somehow non-Americans like Ochoa or Pettersen are never seen as a threat by these writers, hmmm….); the barely concealed hostility,  as expressed on message boards and comments for news articles,  of some golf fans towards Asian players ‘taking over’; and ill considered comments from players and caddies on blogs; I’m betting at least a few young Koreans might have felt it was not worth the hassle coming over here.

The LPGA for its part has made an effort to embrace the Korean and other Asian golfers, perhaps realizing that the largest source of revenue for the moment lies in Asia and Asian sponsors.  I’m guessing new Commissioner Michael Whan is at least a little happy to hear that Seo and Jennifer Song, two very attractive and marketable players, will be joining the tour next year.  If they live up to their promise, they could be the kind of complete package players that combine great skill, looks, flare and charisma, with the added bonus of appeal on two sides of the ocean. 

Hee Kyung Seo is a player who combines looks, style and great talent

But it will be interesting to see what happens in a couple of years, when the next wave of superstar amateur Koreans turn pro and start to select where they will play.  And will the current Korean superstars like Na Yeon Choi, Shin and Song Hee Kim, who look poised to gain dominant status on tour in the next few years, stick around, or will they be tempted to play elsewhere?  Whan has managed to stop the league’s freefall, but he still has a lot of work to get it back to where it was.  Until then, expect that the JLPGA (and perhaps even the LET and KLPGA) will continue to be enticing options for star Korean players for some time to come.

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Responses

  1. Great read HF… I think I can add clarity for you 🙂
    In late 08 a Korean Agent/Manager predicted this shift towards Japan… his logic was simple: if you’re travelling with a parent or parents and playing a full or near-full LPGA schedule as a Korean, your break-even figure is around US$0.25M for the year.

  2. Excellent article with perspective not easily found on this side of the Pacific. Can’t blame any young ladies wanting to stay closer to friends and family. I attend the Canadian Women’s Open every year and greatly appreciate the Korean contribution. The xenophobia in the US exists but I do not get it.

  3. thats would be great topic


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