LPGA Could Use A Touch Of Grace

It was a moment Grace Park fans have permanently etched into their hearts; elegantly donning a red, blue and gold traditional Korean hanbok, the 2004 CJ Nine Bridges trophy balanced in her right hand and her lips pressed against the reward for her tournament record 16-under victory. After traveling the world, leaving a trail of success wherever she teed it up, the 1999 NCAA Champion and one-time Little Miss Korea had come home to finally win on her native soil. The Sun Devil from Seoul was seven months removed from standing chest high in Poppy’s Pond, arms raised in triumph, baptized in the glory of her first Major victory, the 2004 Kraft Nabisco Championship.
In 2009, after five years fighting injury and burnout, that glorious day in South Korea seems like a lifetime ago. Still recovering from arthroscopic hip surgery this year, Grace has fallen from the lofty heights she once achieved. Her game has suffered as she has not been able to have seasons where she can consistently play a full schedule. Even when she has played, one wonders to what degree of pain has she had to play through. On the surface, it seems like another story of how injuries can derail a bright athletic career. However, if one takes a closer look, one might deduce that the LPGA lost more over the past five seasons than the bright career of a single player.

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.


4 thoughts on “LPGA Could Use A Touch Of Grace

    • I agree and disagree with some points. I agree that looks have long been a part of marketing women’s sports, but I strongly disagree that somehow Ashley Harklerod posing nude is good for women’s tennis. First of all, it’s apples and oranges…women’s tennis is in a much stronger place than women’s golf…honestly, Ashley is not enough of a force among the top players for anything she does to matter in enhancing the WTA. Likewise, most of the Wilhelmina 7 don’t make enough of a splash to really help the LPGA long term. They’re getting some press now, but what will that matter if when you turn on the Golf Channel for an event, you don’t see them on the broadcast because they’re outside the Top 30 or don’t even make the cut…Sandra Gal has played well lately…but I think it matters who does the marketing…the writer mentioned Danica Patrick…but Danica Patrick was already popular BEFORE any of her recent marketing moves…likewise, Anna Kournikova, despite never winning a singles event (but winning doubles events) was a legitimate Top 10 player who made it to the second week of Majors on several occassions…if Michelle Wie, Paula Creamer, Lorena Ochoa, Se Ri Pak or some other player the public knows and is legitimately a great player posed for Playboy or did GoDaddy, that would move the needle more because those are players who also make it to the broadcast on the merits of their play…even back when Jan Stephenson posed in the bathtub full of golf balls, it registered more than the Wilhelmina 7 will because Jan is truly an all-time great…if some of the Wilhelmina 7 lift their games and become consistent top players, that would change the equation…

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