In early February 2020, South Korea boasted 14 of the top 30 female golfers in the world. Of the 32 LGPA tournaments to take place in 2019, 15 were won by South Koreans, including three of the five major titles.
The country’s dominance has not always been welcomed. In 2008 LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens had to swiftly backtrack after announcing that the body would require golfers to speak English “well enough to please their sponsors at Pro-Am events”.
Such concerns are in the past according to Paul Park, director of sports marketing at Hana Financial Group, a South Korean firm with deep involvement in the sponsorship of LPGA events and players.
“It is not a problem anymore,” Park tells SportBusiness. “They wanted players to do interviews in English but now the girls coming up are well prepared and now they are not just from Korea but Japan, Thailand and Malaysia.”
But especially Korea, where Se-ri Pak’s twin victories in the 1998 US Women’s Open and LPGA Championship gave the game a kick start from which it never looked back.
South Korean companies have been a driving force behind the success of the female golfers. Part of this is down to the traditional expectation of government that the conglomerates and major corporations would fund teams in sports such as basketball, football, baseball and volleyball almost as a public welfare service.
“In the past, prize money in tournaments held in South Korea, as well as neighbouring Japan, was relatively small,” said Seoul-based sports consultant Kim Hyun-ki. “This helped companies to put more money into sponsorship so they can support more players who are then able to compete and succeed at the highest levels, so it became a virtuous circle.”
“Korean women golfers can be a bargain for sponsors and if they do well, and many do, then international companies which focus on the Asian market can become interested,” adds Dr Kwon Ki-sung, senior researcher at the Centre for Sport Industry at Seoul National University. “Television ratings are high, and the market is affluent.”
Other companies are catching on to young Korean talent. In December, IMG agency signed 17-year-old Yae Eun Hong, a promising young talent who won the 2019 Australian Amateur Championship and finished fourth at the 2019 Women’s Amateur Asia Pacific Championship.
From Korea to Asia
Korean companies are taking the women’s game to other parts of Asia to help the game grow there. Hana Financial Group has a stable of nine golfers and is the title sponsor of the inaugural Singapore Women’s Open 2020 with a KRW1bn ($821,000/€749,000) purse. This is co-sanctioned by the Singapore Golf Association (SGA) and the Korean Ladies Professional Golf Association (KLPGA).
“The Asian market is important to us,” Park explains. “We are extending in China, Indonesia, Vietnam and we see more opportunities in Thailand and Myanmar. Golf is a great communication tool to meet high-ranked government officials and others in the finance business, and Singapore is a financial hub.”
While Korean players are on top now, that won’t always be the case. “This dominance will not last forever and Asian players will have to come home someday and at the moment, there are not enough tournaments. We will provide a series of tournaments to be held in Asia. We are in discussions in Thailand for next year and are also talking to companies in Indonesia. There is a lot of potential.”
To the world
The rise of South Korean and Asian golfers has also helped to give the US-based LPGA a new lease of life.
For individual golfers, the LPGA has grown from 23 events in 2011 to 32 in 2019. Last year, six tournaments, including some held in the US, had Asian sponsors such as South Korean and Japanese car makers Kia and Honda, as well as Japanese airline ANA. Seven tournaments were scheduled to take place in Asia in 2020, in Thailand, Japan, China, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan.
While the LPGA does not disclose specific numbers, revenue has roughly doubled since 2012 and the prize money on offer in 2020, before the Covid-19 pandemic started causing the cancellation of events, was a record $75.1m.
LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan visited South Korea in September and paid tribute to the local game, adding that it had contributed much to the LPGA.
“The reality of it is our sponsors from virtually all over the world, their primary goal is that we deliver the best in the world from all over the world. They know if we do that, it will not only create a great event wherever we host the event but it will garner worldwide attention,” says Whan, who in 2009 admitted that there were sponsors with misgivings about Korea’s dominance.
Whan has played his part as Asia has become a bigger part of the LPGA, according to Megan McGuire, a spokesperson for the organisation.
“Commissioner Mike Whan has helped change the mindset and attitude in embracing the global game and the benefits it had to the LPGA Tour,” McGuire says. “Since his arrival, global companies with similar mindsets have come on board – KPMG, BMW, DOW and AIG to name a few – that have helped lead the Tour to exponential growth.
“The success of our Asian players has contributed to the expansion of business opportunities overseas, and we’ve seen the impact. LPGA Tour ratings in Korea and Japan are higher than any other professional golf organisation. The Tour now has seven events in Asia during the season and is televised in over 170 countries, reaching 550 million households around the world with 475-plus hours of broadcast coverage.”