SEOUL (Reuters) - The road to U.S. LPGA Tour riches is one well traveled by South Korean golfers but the domestic KLPGA circuit is looking to stem the annual exodus by boosting prize money and world ranking points on its increasingly lucrative schedule.
A host of major winners, not to mention Park In-bee’s Rio Olympic triumph, have cemented Korea’s status as the gold standard of women’s golf, but there is no doubt the local tour loses a little sparkle when top players set off for the LPGA.
The last couple of seasons have been particularly rough on the KLPGA with the loss of several top drawcards including Chun In-gee, the most popular player on the tour for years.
Should current Korean number one Park Sung-hyun decide to switch at the end of the season, it would be another huge blow.
Park’s popularity has rocketed this year, much like her world ranking — to ninth from 54th a year ago — and her fans make up the lion’s share of the galleries at KLPGA events.
Kang Choon-ja, KLPGA senior vice president, told Reuters the Korean tour had increased the number of tournaments to 33 and boosted prize money to some $20 million for 2016, the third biggest purse fund behind the U.S. and Japanese tours.
“And we are going to keep increasing prize money and rankings points on the KLPGA Tour so that local athletes are happy just playing at home,” she added.
“A lot of people were worried when Kim Hyo-joo decided to go to the LPGA after 2014, but the following year another star emerged by the name of Chun In-gee, who had huge crowds following her at each event.
“Again a lot of people worried when Chun left but Park Sung-hyun took her place. I am confident there will be a new star to take Park’s place.”
Playing on the Korean tour is already a viable option.
Park has amassed prize money of around $1.1 million this season from Korea alone, a figure that would put her in the top 10 earners on the U.S. circuit.
Caddie Dean Herden, who carries the bag for Ko Jin-young, the KLPGA’s second-ranked money earner for 2016 on almost $900,000, told Reuters the local tour’s strengthening finances, coupled with the hardships of playing abroad, could make players think twice about leaving Korea.
“I think you will start seeing quite a few of the young Korean players enjoying the benefits of staying in their home country,” he told Reuters.
“The beautiful thing about the KLPGA Tour is the administrators really do push to the sponsors that it’s important to get as many players in the field as possible, and that’s key for its survival,” he added.
U.S. LPGA Tour Commissioner Mike Whan said he understood the disappointment when top players left for America but believes the depth of talent in Korea means there will always be someone waiting in the wings.
“History has shown that when one great player leaves the KLPGA to come to America, the next great Korean superstar soon steps into her place,” he told Reuters in an interview.
“Superstars always rise to the top.”
Whan said it would be a mark of progress for women’s golf if Korean players were able to remain in the KLPGA and make money.
“Men have always had that option, they can stay home or go to Europe or the United States and they make money either way,” he added. “If the Korean Tour gets to the point where a woman can make that choice, then that’s something to celebrate.”
At this month’s KEB Hana Bank Championship, an LPGA/KLPGA co-sanctioned event, fans of Chun and Park swelled the Incheon galleries.
Kwon Soon-chul, a loyal member of Chun’s ‘Flying Dumbos’ fan club, told Reuters he stopped coming to Korean tournaments when she left for the LPGA.
“I used to travel everywhere to see her, up and down the country, everywhere, anywhere,” said Kwon, sporting the fan club’s trademark yellow hat with the big-eared Disney elephant emblazoned on the front.
“Now I watch her on television when she plays in America.
“I don’t bother coming to see Korean tournaments, some members of the fan club do, but not many. We’re loyal to Chun.”
Additional reporting by Chae Yun-hwan; Editing by Nick Mulvenney