August 17, 2009

What's Next?

Y.E. Yang's milestone win will attract -- and inspire -- South Korean golfers

CHANGE IS IN THE WIND: Yang's major-championship triumph could have the same effect on Korean men golfers that Pak's 1998 twin LPGA major successes had in inspiring women to greater heights.

CHANGE IS IN THE WIND: Yang's major-championship triumph could have the same effect on Korean men golfers that Pak's 1998 twin LPGA major successes had in inspiring women to greater heights.

In sports, psychological barriers can be as daunting as physical ones -- and just as important to clear. If history is an accurate measuring stick, Yong-Eun Yang's stunning victory in a head-to-head duel with Tiger Woods at the PGA Championship may well be a major milestone that will have a far-reaching impact on the development of world-class golfers in his native South Korea, and possibly throughout Asia. On a week in which golf was recommended for inclusion in the 2016 Olympics, Yang's triumph was further proof of golf's global nature and bodes well for its future.

Several years ago, when asked why none of the very talented Japanese male players had yet to win a major championship -- Jumbo Ozaki, Shigeki Maruyama and Shingo Katayama among them -- Sadao Iwata, a veteran sportswriter and TV commentator from Japan, pointed to his heart and said, "They don't believe it here." Sometimes it is as simple as that. Yang's victory may well be one of those paradigm shifts that heightens both belief and participation.

When Roger Bannister became the first person to break the "unbreakable" four-minute mile on May 6, 1954, the record lasted just 46 days. On Aug. 7 both Bannister and John Landy shattered four minutes in the same race. When Ichiro Suzuki signed with the Seattle Mariners before the 2001 season, the prevailing myth was Japanese hitters were not good enough to play at the major-league level. Ichiro went on to win both the MVP and Rookie-of-the-Year awards his first season, and a slew of hitters from his homeland have since followed him to the U.S.

Golf has witnessed this transformation, too. When Se Ri Pak won both the LPGA Championship and the U.S. Women's Open in 1998, she was not the first South Korean to win on the LPGA Tour -- Ok-Hee Ku (1988) and Woo-Soon Ko (1994 and '95) had already done that -- but she was the first from her country to win a major. The impact was both immediate and far-reaching. Those already playing believed they could emulate her, and those dreaming about playing expanded their horizons.

Mi Hyun Kim, Grace Park and Gloria Park soon became LPGA winners, and Pak (who now has five LPGA majors to her credit) was joined as a major winner by Grace Park in '04 and Birdie Kim and Jeong Jang in '05. Then the Class of 1988 arrived -- those Korean women who were born in 1988 and, as 10-year-olds, were inspired by Pak's double-major season. Inbee Park won the '08 U.S. Women's Open. Jiyai Shin won the Women's British Open the following month, and Eun-Hee Ji won the U.S. Women's Open this year. All credit Pak as their inspiration.

"This victory by Yang can and will collectively boost the confidence of Korean male players," says Lynn Marriott, who with Pia Nilsson teaches the VISION54 peak-performance approach to the game. One of the reasons Nilsson helped develop the concept in the 1980s when she was coach of the Swedish National Team was to help her players believe world-class golfers could come from a small country with a short playing season.

"Think of all the young Korean guys who now know their countryman took Tiger down," says Marriott. "Remember, it was Lotta Neumann [winner of the 1988 U.S. Women's Open] who inspired Annika that a Swedish woman could win in the United States. And now Anna Nordqvist [winner of this year's McDonald's LPGA Championship] says Annika is an inspiration for her in the same way."

There will be obstacles for Korean men seeking to emulate Yang. One of those is the mandatory military service that comes at about age 20, imposing a two-year interruption at a crucial time in the development of a golfer. And if the LPGA experience is any indication, there could also be a backlash among non-Korean players and fans, especially those who support an English-only policy for the U.S.-based tours.

One former major championship winner, writing on Facebook, posted this just hours after the PGA Championship ended: "The Grand Slam of Golf, the PGA of America's made-for-tv event in November in Bermuda, pitting the year's major champions of men's golf will have two non-English speaking members -- Angel Cabrera and now Y.E. Yang. Bet those press conferences will be fun!!!"

The sight of Yang conducting his post-championship interview through an interpreter was both familiar and unsettling to observers of the LPGA over the last decade. It recalled Ji's victory and a similar interpreter-aided press conference afterward when she won last year's Wegman's tournament near Rochester, which led then-commissioner Carolyn Bivens to suggest an English proficiency policy with the revocation of playing privileges for those who fail. The policy was widely criticized and never implemented.

But as the vote by the International Olympic Committee Aug. 13 in Berlin demonstrated, the world is shrinking for golf. Earlier this year, the Seoul Broadcasting System, one of the largest TV networks in Korea, signed a 10-year deal to sponsor what had been the Mercedes Championship. Fifteen years ago, SBS gambled and purchased the Korean TV rights for the LPGA, which now has 47 players from Korea.

When the LPGA ended its relationship with SBS and sold the Korean TV rights to J-Golf, a cable outlet, SBS began talks with the PGA Tour. Next January, the first SBS Championship, a winners-only tournament, will have Y.E. Yang in the field. And there is every reason to think he will not be the last Korean to appear in the event over the 10 years on the contract. As with Pak in 1998, a wall likely tumbled at Hazeltine, and its impact was felt halfway around the world.