Kohler, Wis. – It was Se Ri Pak who started this 14 years ago, right here at this venue. So it was only appropriate that when the 67th U.S. Women’s Open was over, and Na Yeon Choi had dropped the last putt to complete her four-shot victory, Pak was there on the 18th green at Blackwolf Run to share a warm embrace with her young compatriot.
Choi, 24, was 10 years old when Pak captured this championship at Blackwolf Run, and she is among the large contingent of Korean players who were inspired by that victory and have come to America to chase similar dreams of success.
The pursuit is going better than anyone could have imagined.
Korean players have come to start dominating this championship – and majors in general. Choi and fellow Korean Amy Yang were the only two players to finish under par, the second year in a row that the final-round showdown in the U.S. Women’s Open came down to a duel among Koreans. So Yeon Ryu defeated compatriot Hee Kyung Seo in a three-hole playoff in 2011 at The Broadmoor.
Four of the last five champions have hailed from that tiny country, their run interrupted in 2010 by American Paula Creamer.
In the last 10 years, in fact, 15 different Koreans have won a major title.
“There's a lot of Korean girls, so obviously we're going against numbers in a sense,” said Creamer, who finished as low American with her tie for seventh. “It's tough. Obviously, it's our national championship and you want an American there and you want red, white and blue, but at the same time they're elevating the game just as much as we are, and it is becoming a global sport, but at the same time we still have to give back to our junior golf programs. I think it shows a lot with what Korea does just as a country and their juniors.”
America has its own junior initiatives, including The First Tee, LPGA-USGA Girls Golf and the American Junior Golf Association. So something more is at work here. Inspiration has been married to perspiration, an idea Herb Kohler, the bathroom magnate and owner of Blackwolf Run, put forth during a pre-championship interview.
“These Asians have done so well because they know the meaning of work,” said Kohler, who has become a significant supporter of golf both in America and abroad. “They work and they work. And that is starting to have an impact on the Americans. The Americans have now seen what the Asians can do, and they’re starting to work.”
Well, it’s not like Americans haven’t been working. But maybe they just need to work smarter. Or differently.
“Maybe I should spend a week with one of them and kind of figure out what they do,” Brittany Lincicome, 26, of St. Petersburg, Fla., said with a laugh. “Obviously they practice unbelievably hard. They're not fishing on their weeks off like I am. Probably just work ethic. They practice a little bit harder than we do, I guess. Their short games are so good. I'm not sure why their short games are different than ours. But maybe they practice it more, maybe that's just why they're better.”
That might be a factor.
But it says something that Koreans are getting the better of women’s golf at the amateur level, too. Korean-born Lydia Ko, a precocious 15-year-old who lives in New Zealand, was the low amateur among the 28 in the field, three of whom made the cut. The world’s top-ranked female amateur and winner of the 2011 Mark H. McCormack Medal, Ko tied for 39th in her first U.S. Women’s Open, and it could have been a more handsome showing had she not played her final three holes in six over par.
Danielle Kang, meanwhile, has won the last two U.S. Women’s Amateur titles. Kang, whose parents were born in Korea but grew up in the Los Angeles suburb of Thousand Oaks, competed in this week’s Open as a professional and ended up joint 14th.
“I would say we're doing our best. They're just outplaying us. They're good,” said Nicole Castrale, 33, of Palm Desert, Calif., who finished joint ninth in a group of five players that included Pak. “They just seem to shoot the lowest score after 72 holes. Our Americans are very strong, so, you know, I'm not sure what it is.”
Perhaps look back again to Pak’s performance in ’98, when she was 20 years old and full of skill as well as charisma. Choi recalls watching on television as Pak beat amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn in a 20-hole playoff.
“I don’t think any major in the last 40 years has had the impact of that particular tournament, in terms of inspiring a great number of people,” Kohler said. “And in this case, it’s now inspired a region of the world. Just remarkable.”
“It's nice to hear from all those young players in my country,” the 34-year-old Pak added. “I really am proud to be a part of it, and as Na Yeon said, I was one of the days watching TV [before]. I was a kid watching men's tour and the LPGA events and exactly as Na Yeon said, I dreamed about it. I wanted to go over there and be the best in the world. And I am here and I guess I am the leader and they follow me.”
And Pak is reciprocating. She waited nearly two hours for Choi to finish. She looked genuinely happy for the youngster, who joins Birdie Kim (2005), Inbee Park (2008), Eun-Hee Ji (2009) and Ryu (2011) in this amazing Korean run.
“I’m just really happy to see what happened,” Pak said.
Choi was touched by the gesture. “That was really appreciated what she did,” Choi said. “And she say like, ‘Hey, Na Yeon, I'm really proud of you. You did a really good job, and you was really calm out there.’ She talked to me a lot. And she was hugging me. That was – like 14 years ago I was only  years old, and like when I was watching TV, my goal was like – my dream was like I just want to be there. And 14 years later I'm here right now, and I made it. My dreams come true. It's an amazing day today, and like I really appreciate what Se Ri did and all the Korean players, they did. It's really no way like I can be here without them.”
“You know what, I think I couldn't believe this right now,” Choi added. “Maybe tomorrow in Korea I can feel something.”
She’ll feel like that kid from 14 years ago who dreamed big and made the dreams come true. And she won’t feel alone doing it, either, just one more offspring of Se Ri Pak.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.