Monday, February 21, 2011

Tim Maitland on the Dragon Ladies

Dragon Ladies on Fire
Tim Maitland

One of the most remarkable group of athletes the world has ever seen are back in Singapore this week for the HSBC Women's Champions. Led by Jiyai Shin, until a few days ago the world number one and a winner here in 2009, they are the Dragon Ladies and they are the dominant force in the world of women's golf despite being only 22 or 23 years old.

"We're the girls who were born in 1988, in the year of the dragon; that's pretty much it," explains Inbee Park, 2008 US Women's Open winner, in a massive understatement.

"The Dragon Ladies are unique," states Giles Morgan, HSBC's Group Head of Sponsorship far more emphatically.

"Personally I'm surprised the world hasn't sat up and taken more notice, but we're fully aware of them because they bring so much to the HSBC Women's Champions. We brought the tournament to Singapore because we knew Asia and Korea in particular was about to produce some remarkable players and the emergence of such talent from countries that are relatively new to golf is close to our hearts as a business. I honestly cannot think of anyone to compare with them," he adds.

There are now four Dragon Ladies in the top 12 of the Rolex Rankings. Jiyai, with eight LPGA wins, is ranked second in the world and is on course to secure her place in the LPGA's Hall of Fame faster than any other player in history. Ignoring Na Yeon Choi, rated fifth, but four months too old to be a Dragon Lady, next comes In-Kyung Kim, who is number seven worldwide. Song-Hee Kim currently rates eleventh on the planet, just below Sun Ju Ahn, another Korean born a few months before the 1998 Year of the Dragon. Meanwhile Inbee Park rates 12th, due partly to the fact that, like Ahn she plays significantly more events in Japan. Throw in Ji Young Oh, whose 2010 season was disrupted by hip problems but who has two LPGA wins to her name, and you start to understand how great their year group already is.

They're part of a slightly broader generation of women, dubbed Se Ri's kids, who as young girls were inspired by Se Ri Pak winning two majors in her rookie season in 1998 on the LPGA, headed straight to Korea's multi-story urban driving ranges.

When the HSBC Women's Champions first arrived in Singapore in 2008 the Dragon Ladies were only just emerging onto the world stage. Jiyai showed her potential by finishing as the leading Korean in seventh place. A year later, in 2009, she won at Tanah Merah, and last year became only the fifth woman to top the world rankings. The Dragon Ladies return to Singapore with their careers, in normal golf terms, still in their infancy--most players their age are happy to have their tour card and would be delighted to have a first win under their belt--but Jiyai is adamant that they are long out of their golfing nappies.

"Still babies? No!" she insists.

"We're 23; we're grown up already, aren't we? I'm not getting taller anymore," she jokes, showing the same humour that she often uses to explain the secret of her success as being from "kimchee power."

But Jiyai admits to being amazed at how fast the Dragon Ladies have raced into the superstar echelon of the women's game, something, she admits, none of them could have imagined when they first started playing against each other in Korean junior tournaments around 10 years ago.

"We had a dream. We had a dream, but coming through so quickly? All the time we were dreaming of playing on the LPGA tour or being the number one, but it has come so quickly. I'm really surprised about that. We talk as friends and rivals too. A couple of years ago we were saying 'Wow, we're playing on the LPGA tour, we're 21...we can drink!'" she explains, once again dissolving into a mischievous giggle.

The combination of being both friends and rivals is what the Dragon Ladies say has driven them all to such a remarkably high level; spurring each other on with their success and yet, at the same time, supporting each other, too.

"I think all the friends of the '88 girls have practiced harder than the previous generations. I'm really happy for that. We've tried our hardest and done our best to get better. It's been important having those friends, because all the travelling is lonely and you need a lot of people around you to travel together and eat together and spend time together," says Song-Hee, who, in sharp contrast to Shin's outgoing demeanour, stands out for two reasons. Firstly, she's remarkably shy around relative strangers and secondly, unlike the other Dragon Ladies and most of Se-Ri's kids, she hasn't yet won on the LPGA.

For that reason, with the exception of a fully-fit Ji Young Oh, Song-Hee might be the one with the most potential to rise further up the world rankings. She's steadily increased the number of top 10 finishes each year, from eight in 2008 to 12 in 2009 and 16 last year, including no missed cuts, two second-places and three 'bronze medals.' That 2010 success rate equates to almost 70 per cent. How good that is can be understood by considering the fact that Jiyai's conversion rate of top 10 finishes in 2009 tournaments, when she came within one shot of winning every single award for the LPGA season, was 48 per cent.

"I wanted to become more consistent. That was my target. Not just at golf, but in everyday life," Song-Hee explains.

"In my rookie year I wanted to so much, I wanted it too badly. I had too many things in my mind and it became a challenge for me. Now I know what I need and it's helping me be more consistent. I'm going to keep to that strategy and keep it simple, but eventually I'm going to win...soon."

While Song-Hee might still have scope to surprise the golf world, there's no doubt among the Dragon Ladies who the biggest surprise has been.

"Me! Myself!" exclaims Jiyai, who lagged behind the others, particularly IK Kim, when the girls were around 13 years old, only to discover the mental strength needed to win after her mother was tragically killed in a car crash in 2003.

"When we were young, I wasn't really that good and suddenly I changed and I played really well on the KLPGA and LPGA tours, so I've surprised myself. The other girls; they were all really good playing as juniors. I was a little bit on the outside, a little bit, growing up," says Jiyai, who is cutting a more glamorous figure this year since laser surgery allowed her to shed her trademark thick glasses.

In the golfing sense, Jiyai was the ugly duckling that turned into a beautiful swan. She thinks about it briefly: "The ugly duckling? I think so.... I was not THAT ugly, though!"

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