Those two LPGA wins in 2004, one in the spring and the other in late autumn, were the perfect bookends that framed a Vare Trophy winning season for Grace. They were also symbolic of what Grace represented, a player who walks easily, dare I say gracefully, between two worlds; the Kraft Nabisco, played in Rancho Mirage, California in front of passionate American golf loyalists and the CJ Nine Bridges Championship, played on Jejudo, South Korea before patriotic Hangukin trying to will their hometown ladies to victory. Although played on the same golf tour, the LPGA, what separated these events was more than just the Pacific Ocean. It is the same schism that divides the LPGA a half-decade later, the perception that the American based tour is becoming a Korean tour. Some critics will take that even farther and say the American based LPGA is being ruined by Asian players, which is not to say the complaints are focused primarily on pan-Asian targets. Don’t be fooled. Those pundits are not speaking of players like Ai Miyazato and Yani Tseng. The term “Asian players” in most pejorative contexts when addressing the LPGA is shorthand for the Korean contingent. The Seoul Sisters, as they are often referred to, are robotic and unemotional the detractors say. They can’t speak English or tournaments aren’t interesting when their names are at the top of the leaderboard are two other popular accusations. The grievances voiced by the Korean denouncers are all variations of the same theme, we Americans cannot relate to this group of foreigners dominating our tour.
This is why the loss of Grace for extended periods of time in recent years has been so tragic. A former speed skating national champion for her age group in South Korea and, after moving to the United States to train as a pre-teen eventually attending high school and college in the USA, a Dial Award winner as the best American high school athlete, she has lived and assimilated the culture of both South Korea and the United States. The two time Rolex Junior Player of the Year speaks perfect English. She is anything but robotic, her name of Grace being very apt, although the background of that name is that she was named after a brand of minivan when she needed a name easier for Americans than her birth name of Pak Ji-Eun. And as for unemotional, almost all Grace fans are familiar with her nickname Hurricane Grace. Although it should not matter to sports, she is considered to be quite attractive and very stylish. She has appeared in several Korean commercials, including those for Pantene, and American commercials for Nike and Michelob. Most of all, she won. Not only did she win, she won big wherever she played; a US Women’s Amateur winner, NCAA winner, five time Futures Tour winner and an LPGA Major winner with a career high #2 ranking. She was everything critics say Korean players are not. She was the perfect player to market as a bridge to bring fans from both sides of the Pacific together. I have always believed more Americans besides die-hard Seoul Sister fans could be encouraged to get to know and cheer for Korean players if they had a crossover star to be that conduit to bring the two cultures together. It would need to be one that spoke both languages fluently to break through that stereotype. She would need to be somebody who had a demonstratively emotional style of playing but still showed accepted golf etiquette and decorum. I also thought it wouldn’t hurt if she was attractive to the sponsors who like to put photogenic people in their ads to sell their product. Crossover appeal lifts sports. Wang Zhizhi was the first Chinese player in the NBA, but Yao Ming was the crossover star. There are lots of Yao jerseys being sported by NBA fans. Wang Zhizhi? Not so much. But the door is more open for Chinese basketball players now in terms of acceptance from American NBA fans. I wonder now, who can be that crossover Korean born superstar for the LPGA.
Michelle Wie and Christina Kim are hugely popular and are both Korean-American. But that’s the rub. They are American. Although of Korean heritage, they are born and raised Solheim Cup American flag waiving Americans. Both have a following in Korea so one could say they bridge the gap, but the question I am posing is who, as a native Korean, will pull Americans to view the vast Korean invasion of the LPGA tour in a more favorable light. Also, Michelle Wie, for all her popularity, also attracts a large amount of unfavorable press, particularly from those who feel she has often been given opportunities she has not earned. Whether that criticism is actually true or not, Grace has been through the amateur system, collegiate golf, the Futures tour and finally the LPGA, along the way winning her way to the next level.
Se Ri Pak, the Korean trailblazer, Mi Hyun Kim, Ji Yai Shin, Jeong Jang and others are all wonderful personalities with a loyal group of American fans who follow them, thanks in large part to the website www.seoulsisters.com as well as their charitable contributions to such causes as the Ronald McDonald House, United States Veterans of the Korean War and Kansas tornado victims. If given the opportunity by more fans and media, they might find these ladies to be just as delightful as their American counterparts. They speak English to varying degrees but none as fluently as Grace. And none have the crossover marketing savvy of Nike behind them, although with all of her injuries, one wonders how long Nike will hold on to Grace. I hope they realize Grace is still young and has a good prognosis for recovery from surgery.
Grace fans will certainly never give up on her.