SEOUL (Reuters) - Unswerving dedication to endless hours of practice has long been touted as the key to South Korean success on the LPGA Tour, but for the current crop dominating the U.S. women’s circuit the days of bashing balls until their hands bleed are long gone.
A string of early retirements, prompted by nagging injuries and mental burnout, has forced many Korean players and coaches to rethink their relentless, robotic training routines and implement a more holistic approach, says Jay Hahn.
Hahn has worked with some of the top women in the game, including six times major champion Park In-bee and former European Tour rookie of the year Kim In-kyung, and is now focusing on developing emerging talent back in South Korea.
He told Reuters in a recent interview that the new wave of players on the LPGA Tour had moved away from the traditional Korean approach to practice.
“Hitting a lot, and I mean a lot, of balls,” is how Hahn, Director of Golf Specialist at his JHGI clinic, describes conventional practice sessions in Korea.
“I don’t let my students hit 700 to 1,000 balls per day like Korean coaches used to do,” he added. “I don’t think many coaches let their players work that way any more.”
While Korean players are renowned for their dedication to practice, Hahn said training systems were now geared at fitting the golf swing to a player’s body-type, making them more efficient and reducing the risk of injury.
For players used to bashing balls all day, every day, the change can take a bit of getting used to.
“One of the players asked me, ‘Jay, am I not practicing enough now? Am I not hitting enough balls?'” Hahn said.
”At first they are afraid to change, but down the line they like it because we make them understand the game more.
”It’s not just hacking and whacking.
“There has to balance, flexibility, mobility, stability and strength. Trainers now have to think, ‘Which part is missing for this player?'”
‘WE ARE NOT ROBOTS’
Since Pak Se-ri’s groundbreaking triumph at the LPGA Championship in 1998, the U.S. women’s tour has become a happy hunting ground for the richly-talented South Koreans, and they appear only to be getting stronger.
Park In-bee’s win at the Women’s PGA Championship on Sunday, the year’s second major, marked the 10th victory in 15 events for South Korean-born players this season.
That tally rises to 11 wins with the inclusion of Korean-Australian Lee Min-ji, who won the Kingsmill Championship last month.
South Korean flags are peppered over the top rankings.
New Zealander Lydia Ko, born Ko Bo-kyung in Seoul, lost her world number one spot to Park on Sunday, while 22-year-old Kim Sei-young and Kim Hyo-joo, 19, are battling it out for top rookie honors after picking up wins in their debut season.
Park is the perfect example of a player who had adapted her swing to overcome physical limitations, Hahn said, while the rookie Kims spent the off-season focusing on fitness in order to compete on the grueling LPGA Tour.
For many Korean players, the lack of attention to the physical side of the game has proved career-ending.
Pint-sized ‘Super Peanut’ Kim Mi-hyun and the elegant Grace Park, who with Pak Se-ri formed the original “Seoul Sisters” on the U.S. Tour in the early 2000s, both retired well ahead of their time due to injury.
”It’s my own fault for not taking care of my body,” Park said after retiring in 2012.
At Hahn’s golf institute in Seoul’s Gangnam district, many young players arrive at his doorstep already showing signs of joint wear and tear from over-training, as well as problems associated with poor posture and swinging too hard.
He talks sadly of former students who stopped competing in their mid-20s.
“Many Korean players, the way they use their bodies, they grind out their joints, they are worn out mentally and physically,” he said.
“They have practiced so much since they were young and are so devoted and hard working, it’s like they reach their golfing capacity or limit too early, too young,” he added.
“We are not robots.”
Editing by Ian Ransom