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Se-ri Pak, right, hugs compatriot So-yeon Ryu after her win in the US Women’s Open on Monday.
Se-ri Pak, right, hugs compatriot So-yeon Ryu after her win in the US Women’s Open on Monday.

South Korea's golfing generation of transformation

In the 13 years since Se-ri Pak's victory in the US Women's Open, South Korea has grown to be the dominant power in golf.

It aired in the wee hours, in the dead of summer of 1998, 14 time zones from the live events it transmitted.

It would not seem primed to become anybody's phenomenon. It would not seem a candidate to cause audacious statements 13 long years after it signed off from some impossibly distant golf tournament on an opposite edge of a planet.

It would not seem - here goes the audacity - surely one of the most influential sport programmes in the brief history of television.

In the top 10, certainly. In the top five, probably.

While we speak often of television and its enormous monetary impact on sport, we speak less often about its effects on parents and on children who saw programmes and got big ideas.

Surely few remember the 1978 French Open tennis tournament, but supposedly, when a Richard Williams with zilch of a tennis background saw the champion Virginia Ruzici win US$40,000 (Dh146,920), he determined that if he had future daughters, he might steer them into tennis.

Well, take Venus Williams and Serena Williams and their collective 20 grand slam singles titles and, in terms of width of effect, multiply them by multitudes in the case of that golf tournament from 1998, and the television show that keeps yielding fruit even 13 years after it aired, its most recent major effect coming just this week.

On Monday in Colorado, the South Korean golfers So-yeon Ryu and Hee-kyung Seo went into a three-hole play-off for the US Women's Open title, which the 21-year-old Ryu won masterfully in order to receive traditional congratulations from Se-ri Pak.

Thirteen years before that in Wisconsin, Pak and the American Jenny Chausiriporn went into an 18-hole play-off for the US Women's Open title that turned into a sudden-death, 20-hole play-off, which the 20-year-old rookie Pak won grittily in order to …

Well, in order to win a second straight major and become the youngest US Open title-holder at the time.

And in order to thrill the millions of groggy South Koreans watching in the wee hours during a horrendous economic period that cried out for some good news.

And in order, as it happened, to alter the entire landscape of a sport.

When Pak won the LPGA Championship in May 1998 and then the US Open in July to more galvanised noise back home — plus a government-issued medal — the number of South Korean professionals and South Koreans who had won major tournaments totalled one (Pak). Well, look now.

As of Monday, Ryu became the seventh different South Korean player to win a major since Pak, counting Eun-hee Ji in the 2009 US Open, Inbee Park in the 2008 US Open, Ji-yai Shin in the 2008 British Open, Birdie Kim in the 2005 US Open, Jeong Jang in the 2005 British Open and Grace Park in the 2004 Kraft Nabisco.

In the rankings of Monday, July 11, four South Koreans grace the top 10, seven dot the top 20, 11 occupy the top 30, 16 the top 40, 19 the top 50 and 36 the top 100.

Those statistics would qualify as astounding if they had not grown routine. It is a continuation of one of the most profound - and, so often, charming - takeovers ever. It's stunning when you think about it even if nobody much thinks about it anymore.

That 1998 Pak-Chausiriporn play-off proved compelling even to some American men who never bothered much with women's golf.

Pak trailed by four shots after five holes but won.

She had to remove her shoes and hit out of the water on No 18 but won.

Her opponent, Chausiriporn, was an amateur who won admirers with her decency after her runner-up finish.

The whole thing in the dregs of summer compelled the galleries watching in Wisconsin beside Lake Michigan, and watching on television in smallish numbers in sensible hours.

It just did not compel them nearly so voluminously as the sleep-deprived sorts back in Seoul and thereabout.

As a Washington Post article of the time detailed, a golf craze hit South Korea right that summer.

Department store sales of golf gear shot upwards. Parents and children watched both live and on replays, and by a decade on, it became almost funny, this player and that player and the other player citing Pak as a hero and that show as an inspiration.

Shin has said it. Park has said it. And when did this latest champion, Ryu, begin playing golf?

Oh, that week in 1998. Now she plays her final rugged holes of a major title with Pak, still just 33 and finished with her round, following.

Pak is an exceedingly rare woman who dwells smack amid the phenomenon she unwittingly but skilfully created.

She appeared on television in 1998, and pretty soon the earth moved. Considerably.

 

ccupepper@thenational.ae

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