The Dragon Ladies on Fire
One of the most remarkable group of athletes the world has ever seen is growing up fast. Led by Jiyai Shin, until mid-February the world number one, 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, perhaps because the bank's decision to move their LPGA event out of New York State to Singapore four years ago was based, along with more pure business decisions, on an awareness that their generation was about to emerge.
"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 or around the top 12 of the Rolex Rankings. Jiyai, with eight LPGA wins, was ranked number one in the world, until Yani Tseng made her fast start to the 2011 season, 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, who is four months too old to be a Dragon Lady, next comes In Kyung Kim who has won on the LPGA in each of the last three seasons. Sun Ju Ahn is another Korean born a few months before the 1998 year of the dragon, but Inbee Park and Song-Hee Kim are both up there among the world's elite, too. Throw in Ji Young Oh, whose 2010 season was disrupted by hip problems, but who has two LPGA wins to her name, and Na On Min, who finished third in the 2007 LPGA Championship at the age of 18, 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-storey 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 women to top the world rankings. The 2011 season sees the Dragon Ladies 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 due to "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 we all have had some jealousies; we're all girls. So we kind of pushed each other a little bit harder. I think that's what made us. What interests me is I don't think I'm the one that practiced hardest. I wish I knew how all of us got here because I'd make a fortune!" says In Kyung, who is also known as IK and Inky.
"We didn't come in the same direction, after middle school or high school, but we all ended up here. I think we came from playing against the best. Since the age of 11, 12, 13 we all played against each other. I think rivalry is really important in sports and we made each other better. Sometimes it wasn't easy."
Those different routes included Inbee moving to the US at the age of 12 and In Kyung going to the States on her own at the age of 16 and getting her LPGA Tour card at the age of 18, while Jiyai spent three years winning on the KLPGA, re-writing their record books.
All of this proves that beyond having an exceptionally high level of competition and rivalry at an early age, the other ingredients were probably in place before they reached their teens. Fundamentally, the Korean War from 1950-53 and the fact that it theoretically never ended, play a role. The conflict brought the west, in particular the American military, into South Korea, and the fact that it ended in a ceasefire kept them in the country to create the initial demand for golf.
At the other end of the scale is Se Ri Pak, because without her bursting onto the global stage The Dragon Ladies would not have dived into the driving ranges.
"There were a number of other key cultural factors; like the fact that most of the girls have fathers or families that own their own businesses and are relatively wealthy and well-educated, which economically gave the girls access to golf. The fact that many of these businesses are the kind that need knowledge and expertise but not necessarily the kind of vocational training universities provide, may also have played a role," explains Morgan.
"At the same time, it's accepted in Korean culture that if a child shows talent, whether it's baseball, golf, playing the piano or dancing, that they should dedicate their childhood to making the most of that ability. Then the Korean work ethic--the 'work-hard-and-if-it-isn't-helping-work-harder' attitude--played a huge part," he adds.
"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 from among the different Dragon Ladies' characters for being remarkably shy around relative strangers.
"I think I was the immature one; I was just walking around seeing the flowers! Inbee was so much more mature than us. She's different; more calm than all of us. She came to the US after elementary school. She's always been quieter when she's talking and mature, even when we were talking about boys," says In Kyung, who as an adult has developed a love of reading, voraciously devours new information and has perhaps understood how to jump across the cultural divide better than anyone.
IK's experiences when she first arrived in the States may also help why the Dragon Ladies haven't been as widely reported or appreciated worldwide as one might expect for such an incredible year group.
The stoic, expressionless face that Koreans have is a very thin shell; underneath is a race that is arguably the most fun-loving and, most Koreans will admit, craziest in Asia. To many westerners and Americans in particular, the stern exterior looks rock-like; the lack of apparent emotion saying 'go away' to western eyes.
"Right! And I didn't know!" IK exclaims.
"Those two months were a little bit horrible. It was hard for them to approach me and I didn't know why they weren’t saying anything. The funny thing is I thought Americans were supposed to be friendly. I thought I'd have no problem making friends, but after two months I didn't have any friends. Then I started to say hi and get to know people a little bit through playing golf and they were saying, 'I thought you were, like, really mean!' because I wasn't talking. We [Koreans] don't say hi if we don't know each other. In the West you can go into a grocery store and talk to other people. So, I think I'm more open now and more sociable now. I'm open and I'll talk to strangers. The first year I travelled by myself. It helped me so much. I trust more people now."
So what does the future hold for the Dragon Ladies? Well, one could be glib and say that it is onward and upward. The truth is many of the earlier generations of Korean women golfers have struggled to make the transition into womanhood, especially going from being driven to succeed by their parents to finding their own motivations to work and win.
At the moment, the greatest upside might be with Song-Hee Kim. Unlike the other Dragon Ladies and most of Se-Ri's kids, she hasn't won on the LPGA yet. 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!"
The Ultimate Dragon Lady
For a bit of fun Song-Hee Kim and Inbee Park sat down to create a Frankenstein's monster, using the strongest bits of each of the 1988 year group's games to create the ultimate Dragon Lady.
Song-Hee: "Either Jiyai or Inbee."
Both: "Ji Young!"
Inbee: "Physically Song-Hee; she's tall and has long arms."
Inbee: "Song-Hee's straight; straight and long."
Both: "In-Kyung's putter!"
How long would the ultimate Dragon Lady stay world number one?