SEOUL — South Korean golfer Jang Ha Na knows what it takes to compete at the top level of international golf.
“Competition has been a plain fact of life in my 16-year-long golfing career,” says Jang, who currently holds the world number 13 ranking.
Like many of South Korea’s top female players, the 25-year-old’s career started at a young age. She says her rise was due to hard work, devoted support from her family and a highly competitive domestic tour environment.
“If you spend hours and hours of practicing golf every day, your body will spontaneously play it right,” she says.
In May, just over a year after finally winning her first LPGA tournament, she returned home to play in South Korean tournaments and to care for her sick mother.
It was the least she could do for the family that has helped her reach the top of the sport, she says.
Like many of South Korea’s women golfers, Jang will be watching with interest the performance of her countrywomen in the U.S. Women’s Open in New Jersey which started on Thursday.
South Korea’s Ryu So Yeon, the world number one, is one of the favourites at the tournament, taking place at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminister.
Ryu was tied for third after the first round at four under par, one stroke behind Amy Yang who was the best South Korean in second place, and two behind Chinese overnight leader Feng Shanshan.
Ryu is one of five South Koreans in the world ranking top 10. She’s joined in the elite circle by Kim Sei Yon, Jeon In Ji, Park In Bee and Yang Hee Young.
The current boom in women’s golf in South Korea has been a long time coming.
Arguably, it all started in 1998, when Park Se Ri became the first South Korean to win the U.S. Women’s Open. Park’s victory attracted many new fans to the sport, young girls who wanted to be a golf star and achieve the fame, wealth and, importantly, family honour that came with such success.
In the two decades since, a South Korean has won the tournament, the third women’s golf major of the year, seven times.
But before South Korea’s best players taste international success, they have already had long, tough junior golfing careers, says Jang’s father, Jang Chang Ho.
“I realized my daughter had talent when she was 10 years old,” recalls Jang Chang Ho. “I picked her up at the school gate and she would eat lunch in the car. Then I drove her to the golf course and she practiced an average of six hours a day.”
“In South Korea, it usually costs at least 500 million won (US$440,000) to up to 1 billion won for a family to financially support their child, moving from amateur status to a professional golf career,” Jang’s father says.
The learning environment was top notch, his daughter admits.
“Our home country, I would say, is the best playground to practice numerous shots and straight shots, even if it is more expensive than in other countries,” the golf pro says.
The domestic competition is also rigorous too. The Korean’ women’s golf association (KLPGA) has around 1,100 professional members, with about 50 added each year.
“Only one girl golfer out of ten amateur members can be admitted to the Korean Ladies Professional Golf Association as a new professional member,” says the KLPGA’s Ryu Yang Sung.
The selection process ensures only the very best South Korean players get to the top level U.S.-based LPGA tour.