It’s an indisputable fact the KLPGA Tour is the best structured of any professional golf circuit in the world.
I’m often asked the question, “Why are Korean players dominating the ladies professional golf scene?” It’s a multi-faceted answer, but the fundamental reason became very clear to me after working in Korea and seeing it first-hand.
Firstly, there are some cultural forces at play. The work ethic of Koreans is a starting explanation for their success. Secondly, females growing up in Korea develop a very tough mental strength and desire to prove themselves in society. Thirdly, strong parental support is a key factor in many Korean golfers. When combined, this is a formidable system to build strong, motivated sportswomen. However, it doesn’t completely justify why Korean women have dominated professional golf.
The fundamental reason is linked to playing opportunities. We know that no golfer has the ability to turn pro after just taking up the sport. They must have some foundation in amateur competition. If a Korean girl wishes to become a golfer, there is a strong junior tour with competitive age brackets (10-16 years) offering nearly 20 tournaments each year. This competition is a good indicator of a girl’s chance at a career in professional golf.
But how does all this translate into a large contingent of outstanding Korean female professionals dominating the world stage? Well, it’s basically the setup of the domestic KLPGA Tour.
I was one of the first foreign caddies to work full-time on the KLPGA Tour when Jiyai Shin invited me to work for her in 2008. At the time, I was really motivated to discover the origins of this assembly line of top young female players. Why it had grown so quickly? And how does it keep producing world-class golfers? It’s an undisputable fact the KLPGA Tour is the best structured of any professional golf circuit in the world. You can’t argue with the great players it produces – capable of winning majors at a very young age. Survey the Rolex Rankings and you’ll usually find 20 Koreans in the world’s top 50 players.
The reason for this is there are three levels of competition for a female golfer in Korea. All are controlled by, and run out of, the KLPGA office.
- Stage 1: KLPGA Jump Tour (16 events)
- Stage 2: KLPGA Dream Tour (22 events)
- Stage 3: KLPGA Tour (31 events)
Jump Tour: If a female wants to play professional golf in Korea, she is able to go through a proficiency test and then enter events on the Jump Tour. It consists of at least 16 tournaments where amateur and professionals compete against each other (with no prizemoney given to amateurs). The events are often played mid-week over two or three rounds. The broadcast is televised on delay via national cable TV, showing just the last few holes.
Dream Tour: With a minimum of 22 events, it’s comprised of professionals that have risen from the Jump Tour and players that have dropped down from the KLPGA Tour. The events are televised on delay on national cable TV.
KLPGA Tour: A young player who has progressed through the Jump and Dream tours is then able to compete on the main KLPGA Tour. With at least 31 events, the KLPGA Tour is televised live on SBS or JGolf networks.The ‘KLPGA structure’ gives a young player every opportunity to challenge herself and prove she can:
- Make a living competing as a professional.
- Gain more experience as a professional.
- Develop mental toughness to compete as a professional.
- Acquire the social skills needed to handle sponsor commitments and media demands, as well as learning to behave in a professional manner.
- Gather tournament experience to compete worldwide and make the ultimate step to the US on the LPGA Tour.
Jiyai Shin (2008 Women’s British Open winner), So Yeon Ryu (2011 US Women’s Open), Hyo-Joo Kim (2014 Evian Championship) and In Gee Chun’s recent win at the US Open in July is undeniable proof of this structure.
These women winning these tournaments are by no means any one-off fluke and it demonstrates how the KLPGA structure produces tough seasoned professional golfers. At the time of their Major championship victories, they were still competing on the KLPGA Tour and were yet to reach the LPGA Tour. It would be the equivalent of an Australian winning a men’s Major while playing domestically on the PGA Tour of Australasia.
Among other remarkable performances by KLPGA players, Eun-Hee Ji almost won the 2009 US Women’s Open as a rookie. Hee Kyung Seo won the 2010 KIA Classic on the LPGA Tour as an invited player straight from the KLPGA Tour.
And just this year, Sei Young Kim won LPGA events in The Bahamas and Hawaii as a rookie fresh from three years on the KLPGA Tour. This shows that the KLPGA Tour system is the way all tours should operate if they wish to produce top-class professionals ready to win Majors. It provides a smooth transition to compete against the professionals and find out if one is good enough to make a living as a tour player.
Potential disasters are also being addressed in Korea. Many parents have been concerned their teenage daughter was spending too much time at the driving range and on the golf course, thus ignoring academic study.
To counter this problem, some driving ranges are setting up schools or forming associations with educational institutions close by.
With this current structure in place, I predict many more Koreans will be dominating the sport for years to come.
Two players currently on the KLPGA Tour who are almost certain to succeed internationally are Jung Min Lee and So Young Lee. This doesn’t include Ha-Na Jang, a rookie on this year’s LPGA Tour, who is capable of Major victories.
Since playing on the PGA Tour of Australasia, Dean Herden has caddied on every professional tour in the world during the past 20 years. He was on the bag for Jiyai Shin’s victory at the 2008 Women’s British Open, So Yeon Ryu’s triumph at the 2011 US Women’s Open and In Gee Chun’s win at this year’s US Women’s Open.