Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Y.E. Yang: The Se Ri Pak or Hisako Higuchi of the PGA?

My opinion of Karen Crouse just went up a thousandfold: she points out that Y.E. Yang himself gives credit to Se Ri Pak, whose 1998 U.S. Women's Open victory actually sparked the golf boom in Korea. But it's worth pointing out that Pak was only the 1st Korean-born player to win a major. In fact, the 1st Asian-born player to win a major was Hisako Higuchi, who won the LPGA Championship in 1977. As I noted last summer, Ayako Okamoto followed in Higuchi's footsteps and became one of the elite players on the LPGA in the '80s, but despite wins here and there by Japanese golfers on tour during and after Okamoto's prime (most notably the 4 by Hiromi Kobayashi), there has been been no "Higuchi effect" or "Okamoto effect" at all comparable to the "Pak effect" that Crouse rightly credits.

So the question arises: by 2020, will the "Yang effect" be more Higuchi-like or more Pak-like?

[Update 1 (8:57 am): Doug Ferguson also mentions Pak in his article on the significance of Yang's win for Asian golf, but like Crouse seems completely unaware of Higuchi.]

[Update 2 (1:51 pm): Here's Stephanie Wei's take, which is closer to Ferguson's than mine. Here's why I think it's going to take a lot for Asian men to match the accomplishments of Asian women in the world of golf in the next decade. In the current Rolex Rankings, there are 3 female golfers of Asian descent in the top 10, 8 in the top 20, 16 in the top 30, 24 in the top 40, 31 in the top 50, 48 in the top 75, and 66 in the top 100. By contrast, there are 13 male golfers of Asian descent in the top 100 in the Official World Golf Ranking (and that's including Tiger, Vijay, Anthony Kim, and Kevin Na). There are several reasons why it's going to be very difficult for the guys to catch up to the girls over the next decade.

First, fields are stronger for the men in Europe than the women, so there will not only be a larger number of American players to pass but also Europeans for Asian/-American men. Just getting cards and making cuts on the PGA and Euro tours will be such a challenge that it may pose a financial disincentive to leave Asian tours for all but the very best golfers on them, but given the way the OWGR works, taking that risk will be the only way to break into the top 100. Prodigies like Ryo Ishikawa and Danny Lee have 2 made cuts between them in over 15 tries (1 each) in their testing of the waters on the PGA this season. Lee has stated he wants to play in Europe and Ryo-kun has no plans to leave Japan just yet. They're young still--very young--but there have been plenty of similarly-amazingly-talented youngsters who never made it on the PGA over the years.

With so many more world-class male golfers than female, and the number and ability of guys good enough to stay at the top into their 40s showing no signs of diminishing, it's tough on everyone coming up, but especially tough when the top men's tours put such a premium on the power game. The LPGA has never felt the need to lengthen courses or grow the rough (both of which are supposed to rein in the big hitters but actually benefit them). As a result, players of all styles can win just about any given week on the LPGA. Not all the Asian/-American female golfers are precision players, of course--Ya Ni Tseng, Vicky Hurst, Michelle Wie, Jee Young Lee, and Pat Hurst are bombers, while many of the younger Asian players are averaging over 255 (top 40 on tour)--but probably the majority still are. You don't see too many precision players left on the PGA these days. This power barrier will sort for taller and stronger players, which will cut into the population advantage that Asia has over Europe and North America.

So will comparative lack of access to golf courses in Asia. And compulsory military service for men only in Korea. And the fact that men have more professional sports options than women, in Asia as everywhere else.

For these reasons, color me skeptical that we'll see even 33 male golfers of Asian descent in the OWGR top 100 by 2020.]


Hound Dog said...

Thanks for pointing out the possibility that Yang's win could have no effect at all. When dozens of people start predicting a cultural revolution based on one prior incident, I naturally start drifting towards the dissenting opinion.

The Constructivist said...

Stephanie Wei and I have been emailing on this early this morning. Can't wait to read her final take!

The Constructivist said...

Oh, and I wouldn't say "no effect at all" is the likeliest outcome. Could just be relatively modest, like Higuchi's. As I pointed out to Stephanie (building on a point you made about the KLPGA awhile back), money on the European Tour and JGTO is pretty good, so just like the JLPGA being closest to the LPGA in purse sizes led to fewer Japanese (and Korean) players from there coming over, we're probably more likely to see Asian males playing those tours regularly than the PGA, especially given how tough it is just to get a card and make cuts there, not to mention how much more power matters there than on the LPGA.

Anonymous said...

Did Dougie Ferguson at least spell Pak right ? :-)

Korean men definitely have it harder to excell in a sport like golf than the women. Korean men are forced into military service during a few years that are very important in a professional golfer's life.

I doubt we'll see the same level of explosion from Korean men that we saw from the women - but there will be growth.

The Constructivist said...

Yeah, that military service requirement is a big deal. But in my experience it wasn't until my mid-20s that I really matured as a golfer. Wonder if that golf maturation comes later for guys than gals?

Stephanie Wei said...

Thanks for the mention, Bruce.

I was talking about the age factor with Ryan Moore. A while ago, he made a comment about how all the guys in junior golf who dominated in the AJGA and then fell off the map -- he wondered why that was. I think it's a matter of genetics -- or what I meant, which Bruce clarified via email, is the height factor. On average, Asians are shorter than Westerners.

Then, on Sunday, Ryan mentioned that like Yang, KJ Choi didn't take up golf until he was older. Maybe golf just wasn't as popular when they were younger. But it's interesting that the guys I played with back in the day have seemingly disappeared from the competitive ranks with the exception of AK and Na. I remember Na being a phenom, but there were at least a handful of other guys who were just as good.

Anyway, in China, I'm pretty sure military service is a requirement as well. I don't think that will really get in the way of the golf boom, though. Knowing the Asian culture, they LOVE it when they have stars who can compete on the international level. So, if they discover a phenom, they'll be more than happy to waive the mandatory military service. And, the Tours in the US are the ultimate goal -- mostly because of the prestige.

Also, I think it's easier to excel at golf as a woman in general.

The Constructivist said...

I guess the question, then, is how many phenoms can we legitimately expect? Given the difficulties of playing a global schedule or moving to another country, the language and cultural differences to acclimate to, and all that, I really think it's going to take a critical mass of phenoms to spark a mass migration. How many? Let's be optimistic and say we have 2 already--Lee and Ishikawa--I'd say we need 5 more Asian-born top-30-caliber players to get us close to 30 by 2020.

IceCat said...

It is true that China has a compulsory military service requirement, but the People's Liberation Army (the umbrella name for all of the nation's military, be they land, sea or air) has so many willing volunteers that a draft has never been implemented. What China does have is their version of a Soviet-style sports development system, in which officials scour the country for youngsters who exhibit certain traits and recruit them for various sports, in which they train nearly full-time. Whether it has extended to golf yet is unknown, but most of the top athletes China has produced have been products of this system.
Golf courses are springing up all over the PRC not because of state support for the sport but because of its traditional cachet as a sport for the well-off. To be well-off is a goal of many Chinese and many have become so since Deng Xiaoping first encouraged Chinese capitalism in 1978. The state system is a latecomer to tennis as well, but look how much China has accomplished in such a short period of time. With golf soon to be an Olympic sport again China will want to be in on the fun in a big way.


The Constructivist said...

I don't see much reason to change my assessment of golf in China from last July:


Na Zhang had a great rookie season on the JLPGA but hasn't recovered from back problems and is basically MIA. Li-Ying Ye is having a great rookie season, but we'll have to see how she develops. Shanshan Feng got hot the 2nd half of last season after a horrific start; no indications yet that she';ll get that hot in the 2nd half of this season. I haven't heard of any other women doing well outside China, have you?

If it's that hard for the top Chinese women, how much harder will it be for Chinese men?

Anonymous said...

Give them a little time, TC. Golf in China is still in its infancy. A few names like Feng who have a little success around the world will be a big help to the people learning the game in China.

And we know that the "People's Republic" (yeah right) will start funnelling children into the national program for some intensive training like they do for all their sports.