What the 17-year-old golfer encountered upon her arrival in Orlando during her first U.S. tournament blew away her expectations. The expansive size and convenience not easily found in South Korea— short-game practice facilities and driving ranges in the same complex — wowed her and left her hungry for more international exposure. The relaxed manner and casual friendliness of players even amid stiff competition left a deep impression.
"It was a great learning experience," Lee says. "Korean players were really tense. I saw foreign players socialize when they want to, and focus when they need to. They seemed more relaxed. I'd like to adopt that style."
She will get plenty of opportunity. As a former junior national representative, Lee is among a highly-skilled group of Korean female golfers who are setting their sights beyond their native land.
Se Ri Pak ignited a golf explosion in her native Korea by winning four LPGA tour events in 1998, including the LPGA Championship and U.S. Women's Open. Now, Koreans dominate the sport and are primed to continue their supremacy when the LPGA season begins in February.
Koreans have won the U.S. Women's Open three of the last five years. Of the top 50 players in the LPGA's Rolex World Ranking, 19 are Korean — including two Kims, three Lees and three Parks/Paks. It's by far the largest contingent representing one nation.
In 2009, Koreans won 11 of 28 official events on the LPGA tour. The winners list of other pro, amateur and junior tournaments are similarly dotted with Korean names.
While generations of Koreans competed abroad to test their mettle, many now deem the level of domestic competition just as fierce, if not more. The KLPGA — independent of the LPGA — ran 20 events this year.
"I think women in our country, even more so than men, are very competitive," says In-Chon Yu, Korea's Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism. "If you're a pro golfer in Korea, that means you're a serious player. They believe they can compete well in the U.S."
Such success has come at a price. Maintaining friendships and spending quality time with family are luxuries few can afford. Some golf parents have exhausted savings in trying to raise a star. Practicing 10 hours a day, many players find normal schooling impossible, leaving them unprepared for a real job in a hyper-competitive society.
Korean male players have had success, but not to the degree seen in the female ranks. Korean parents generally discourage their sons from athletic careers and steer them to traditional, academic pursuits, says Baikyou Sung, an executive at SBS Medianet, a Korean sports network.
The mandatory two-year military service for young men also is a detriment in player development. That didn't stop self-taught Y.E. Yang from beating world No. 1 Tiger Woods in the 2009 PGA Championship in August, a development that stirred newfound hopes of success on the PGA Tour.
Fueled by family support and work ethic, Korean golfers are the products of a uniquely productive — and some say rigid and pressure-cooked — system.
Korea is an unlikely exporter of golfers. The government discouraged it well into the 1970s, deeming it an elite sport. The small, mountainous country of 48 million people has about 200 18-hole golf courses. Greens fees typically cost $150 to $200. It has brutal winters.
But once the sport caught on with the public, there was no turning back. About 3 million Koreans play golf regularly, the Korea Golf Association estimates.
Early success in golf has bred intense domestic competition and encouraged newcomers. In the mid-1980s, Korea had fewer than 200 junior golfers — ages 15 to 18 — who were good enough to shoot even par, according to Dong-Wook Kim, executive director of KGA. Now, there are about 3,000.
Se Ri Pak, K.J. Choi and Yang are legends in Korea. Pak's influence in particular can't be underestimated, Minister Yu says. Youngsters inspired to play by Pak in 1998 are called "Seri kids" in Korea.
"It was a struggle when I first started," says Pak, who has 24 LPGA wins and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2007. "But now I see younger Korean players doing well in the U.S. I'm proud of them. Their presence here actually energizes me."
Many Korean amateurs start by following their dads to golf courses. When they show interest or potential, parents typically hire local tutors in one of about 3,000 neighborhood driving ranges.
Once a player decides to pursue a professional career, she withdraws from her regular school curriculum and practices full time with a coach or in an academy. There are about 50 golf academies with at least 10 students, estimates Douglas Koh, director of instruction at Paradise Golf Academy.
The success rate is minuscule. Only about 10% of amateurs pass qualifying school tests to become semipros, according to KLPGA. About 10% of semipros go on to qualify as KLPGA pro members. Of those pros, 108 competed in its tournaments this year, while its membership totals more than 1,400, according to the KLPGA.
Despite second-rate facilities, Korean golfers have thrived on old-fashioned virtues — lots of hours on the job and sheer stick-to-itiveness that fueled the country's development. But that certain cultural factors are at play can't be denied, Yu says.
•Parental fervor: Parents' zealous pursuit of their children's success is the primary driver of Korea's competitiveness, Yu says. Parents think nothing of spending thousands of dollars monthly on "hagwon" — or tutoring centers that teach everything from algebra and English to guitar and golf.
Children's schedules are tightly packed in pursuit of learning, and this fervor spills over to sports. Most golfers are constantly accompanied by a parent who serves as manager-chauffeur-gopher.
Korean parents typically spend $3,000 to $5,000 a month in rearing a golfer, which includes lessons, travel to tournaments and academic tutors. The average Korean household income is about $35,000 a year, and many families have gone into deep debt to finance their children's training. "A lot of Korean parents are passionate about it. They do it with the all-in approach," KGA's Kim says. And they want results fast.
Ha-Na Jang first picked up a club when she was 9, trailing her dad. After seeing his daughter display unusual physical strength for her age, Chang Ho Jang abandoned his furnishing business to train her full-time. Two years later, she was competing in her first tournament even though she had played on a full course fewer than 10 times.
Now 17, Jang emerged as a budding star when she shot 11 under at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, Calif., to win the Junior World Golf Championship in July. She is one of 12 national team representatives who will compete in the 2010 Asian Games.
But the pressure to turn pro weighs on her. Jang's family is supported by income from a restaurant it owns. Jang's father estimates he's spent nearly $1 million in training her. "I knew one of us had to sacrifice," he says. "My wife didn't want her playing. We had her fairly late and my wife wanted us to enjoy our life together."
Parents' win-at-all-costs mindset can be stressful for golfers, coaches say. "It's common to see them weep on the course if they don't do well, and the first thing they talk about is their parents," says Sung-Man Bae, director of Golf Digest Academy in Incheon.
Jang says she appreciates her father's push. But when asked if he is a tough teacher, she smiles, furtively glances at him and responds, "yes."
Following news media reports of golfers' early burnout and stress, many Korean parents have backed off, says Koh of Paradise Academy. They are starting to realize the consequences of raising one-dimensional, dependent kids, he says. "They're pushing them to study at least a few hours a night."
•Filial piety: Su-Jin Jang, editor of Golf Digest Korea, says parental push wouldn't work without the reciprocal "hyo-nyo complex," or the desire to be a "good, dutiful daughter."
Confucian philosophy emphasizes "hyo" — or filial piety — as a virtue above all else. And with it comes young golfers' burden of ensuring a return on their parents' investment and willingness to endure "almost militaristic" training, Jang says.
Anna Lee, 22, a pro player who practices at Paradise Academy, says her parents' sacrifice is her chief motivator. She turned pro four years ago, but hasn't qualified for the KLPGA Tour. She's starting to feel old compared to her teen-age competitors.
"I want to repay back my parents as much as they've supported me," Lee says. "What lies ahead can seem like a daunting prospect. A lot of my friends are asking me why they don't see me on TV."
Korean players' discipline has been noted in international tournaments, with sightings of putting practices in the dark. But their singular focus — mixed with limited English and the discomfort of traveling abroad — have led to grumbling. A comment by Australian LPGA veteran Jan Stephenson in 2003 that Korean players' lack of English is hurting the game's popularity still stings here.
Korean players and coaches acknowledge their serious game face can be misunderstood. "You can almost see laser coming out of their eyes," Jang says of her competitors.
Players take English lessons seriously, if not always successfully. Anna Lee pays for a phone service that allows her to converse 10 minutes a day in English. Jung Min Lee gathers with other golfers for weekly lessons.
Jung Min Lee didn't let her limited English or international exposure affect her performance. Competing in the Polo Junior Golf Classic in Orlando, Lee shot 3 under in championship match play to win the title in 2008.
After the event, Lee fielded NCAA scholarship inquiries from the University of Southern California and Duke. But unwilling to leave her parents, Lee turned pro in Korea. She hopes to join the LPGA someday.