Enter The Dragon Ladies

By Tim Maitland

The Dragon: The most potent sign of the Chinese zodiac; a sign that invariably is described with words like power, strength, bravery and good fortune.

1988 was one such year and it produced a generation of female golfers that in Korea are being called The Dragon Ladies. Now the rest of the world is starting to take notice.

"It's not suddenly; it's more that suddenly people noticed. It's been gradual, then everybody starts winning, winning, winning and you see the younger generation coming up," explains Jimin Kang, a six-year veteran when asked about the LPGA Tour of the 20-year-olds who are starting to swarm around the top end of the world rankings.

"They learned more than my generation and Se Ri's generation at the same age. I think we opened the door and showed the way so they could go straight through. Now the society is open for anyone who is talented enough to do whatever they want to do, pretty much. My generation you needed to get an education first. Now everybody's like "you're getting the better education to get a great job, but you already know you have a job. What's the point wasting time in school getting an education?" That's what I think they think."

Having used the driving range as the classroom, and done their internship everywhere from the Korean LPGA tour to the American junior circuit, these girls graduated in 2008.

"They're extremely hard-working, extremely talented and extremely dedicated young Asian women and it's exciting to see them mature, especially for us as the HSBC Women's Champions is Asia's leading women's golf tournament," said Giles Morgan, HSBC Group Head of Sponsorship.

"The first edition of our tournament was just a few months too early for them, although most of them were lurking on the leaderboard just behind the elite names like Ochoa, Sorenstam and Creamer. We'll see how far they've come this March. We know it can't be long before we're crowning one of them champion! It's a key moment in the sport's history - the emergence of a generation with the potential to be truly great."

The Dragon Ladies will arrive in Singapore for the first big test of the 2009 season with a drastically altered "palmares" after Inbee Park won the 2008 US Women's Open, Ji-Yai Shin took both the Ricoh Women's British Open and the million-dollar jackpot at the ADT Championship, while In-Kyung Kim and Ji-Young Oh both recorded their maiden LPGA victories.

"Our junior teams were very strong. We were a very strong group, when I was in middle school and high school. We were all in the national teams," recalls Shin, who started the year ranked fifth in the world and leading Korean.

"We had a points system for each tournaments and the top three would get in the team. Normally anyone with 50 points would be in the national team or the second national team. When I was around 15 I had about 130 points, but I missed the national team. Na-Yeon Choi and, I think, In-Kyung. There were many, many players and we were always strong. We won almost every tournament. We all watched Se Ri and started golf. Before there weren't that many juniors - after Se Ri everyone came. We're good friends and good rivals."

"All my friends the same age as me had a really good year. I've known them for a long time. I've been playing with them and knew they were really talented. It was always going to happen some time and it happened last year," says Inbee, whose arrival in the big time was perhaps the least surprising to the Americans as she had worked her way up through the system there since moving to the States at the age of 12.

On the other side of the coin are players like Na-Yeon Choi, who pushed Yani Tseng all the way for the LPGA's Rookie of the Year honours in 2008, and Ji-Yai Shin who has broken every conceivable record on the KLPGA - including becoming the first woman to do the Grand Slam of Korea's Majors - before earning her 2009 LPGA card by winning the British Open.

"I think it's great that Na-Yeon and Ji-Yai turned pro really young and did a couple of years in Korea. We all went in different directions, but we're finally all on the LPGA, competing on the world's best tour," says In-Kyung Kim, who, in contrast to the others, stayed amateur, playing mainly in Korea, right up until the point that she earned her card in the States for the 2007 season.

As if these girls weren't enough, the rest of the so-called "Se Ri's kids" generations are also hitting their stride. These are girls like Seon-Hwa Lee and Eun-Hi Ji, a year or two older, who like the Dragon Ladies were inspired as children by Se Ri Pak's sensational rookie season,

"I do feel a little bit that I'm part of something exciting. Just look at the number of events Koreans have won last year and how young they were," says Inbee.

"I hope one of us will be dominant. I'm working on my game to go to that level. That's what I'm looking to do and that's what I'm hoping to do. I think I'm getting there, but step-by-step. It doesn't have to be this year. I'm not in a hurry. We're going to play golf for a long time and we'll get there eventually. It's going to be more fun this year. There's more to come. I'm looking forward to it."

The rest of the world's top women golfers are looking forward to it too, although, with Ji-Yai Shin already ranked in the world's top six having earned enough in just 10 events in 2008 to have been in the top five of the money list, it's fair to say it's with a degree of trepidation.

"She's only going to be a rookie this year… yeah, it's a scary thought considering the amount of experience she's bringing to the table," said Australian Katherine Hull, who finished last year with a win and six other top 10s in the last 11 events, and will start 2009 aiming to be a regular contender.

"She's worked hard and had a great start over in Korea and has been able to get a feel for the LPGA over the past few years and has won tournaments already without being part of the tour. I'm sure multiple wins will be in her plans too. The amount of winning that she's done and the number of times she's been in contention she's obviously got the whole package. I can't pinpoint anything going too wrong for her. She's obviously a great player and she's obviously got it figured out. She's got a ton of talent and she keeps it simple. I think that's one of the best things she has going for her. It's not complicated. She just gets the ball in the hole. She keeps it simple. It's not rocket science. It's not rocket science at all."

Nor is the reason for Korea's success much of a secret. These girls are this good this young because they've worked far harder than most of their counterparts around the world could begin to imagine.

Coupled with that dedication comes a serenity that could be said to typify most of the Korean players; an attribute that is perfect for the emotional turmoil that the sport of golf inflicts, particularly in the closing stages of tournaments.

"Their culture is a very docile kind of people, to a certain degree, as women. They have a certain calmness about them that serves them pretty well on the golf course," explains Shaun Clews, the long-term caddie of another of the veterans Hee-Won Han.

"Working for Hee-Won, whether she's good or bad, she doesn't have those huge peaks and valleys. She can keep it pretty level. A lot of these girls have the ability to do that which allows them to be consistent week in and week out. If you've got someone that gets overly excited, whether it's too excited from playing well or too down from playing bad, you just can't do that. With Suzann (Pettersen) she's probably as competitive as anyone on the tour and for a while she got her own way. She's proved to herself that she can win and that she's a great player but you can see that at times she's going to want something so bad it's going to work against her. You don't get Koreans who show that much emotion, not like Suzann and Helen (Alfredsson)."

This calmness is one of the factors that has without a doubt contributed to the early success of the Dragon Ladies. For most younger players learning to control the emotions in the heat of the battle, when trophies are on the line, is often one of the last pieces of the jigsaw to fall into place; a skill that usually comes only with maturity.

"They're coming out younger and hotter and a lot more experienced than a lot of us were at that age. It's great for the game and it's certainly raising the bar for everyone else and pushing us to work a lot harder," says Hull.

"It's exciting the new heights that women's golf is getting to. It's such a huge deal in South Korea and that's great for the game!"

Topics: Player Feature, Kang, Jimin, Oh, Ji Young, Shin, Jiyai, Choi, Na Yeon, Lee, Seon Hwa, Park, Inbee, HSBC Women's Champions [+]

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