He made history and as if nothing. Hideki Matsuyama put the putt That made him a winner of the Augusta Masters and he didn’t raise an eyebrow. Not a cry or arms in the air. Not a crumb of celebration. Nothing. The man had just become the first Japanese to achieve a great, and the first Asian to wear the green jacket, and he behaved as if he had just finished a training round. Soon after, his caddy walked slowly to the hole, put the flag in place, and removed his cap as a sign of respect amid pandemic silence. Compared to Tiger Woods’ explosion of happiness two years earlier, it was a huge culture shock.
Matsuyama’s triumph broke the pools. Asian golfers are a minority in the elite of the men’s circuit. There are only six among the 100 best players in the world (four Japanese and two Koreans). But what in men is the exception, among women is the norm. Among the 100 best golfers in the world ranking, more than half (52) are Asian, with South Korea as the undisputed power: 32 representatives, including the top three in the ranking, by 12 Japanese, four Thai, three Chinese and a Filipina. What explains this big difference according to gender? What is the secret of Asian golfers?
Marta Figueras-Dotti was the first Spanish athlete to receive a sports scholarship from the USA, competed against the best and is currently president of the European women’s circuit. This is how he explains this phenomenon: “There is a genetic reason and a cultural reason. Genetically, Asian women have a sensitivity in their hands that is incredible. It is amazing how they kick and attack. His ability is brutal. I think that tradition of manual work that is done in their countries influences. The other reason has to do with the discipline they follow from girls and the family, social and even national pressure they endure. These girls are pushed, pushed and pushed by the family. I remember being in Japan and a group of people going to dinner and that the Japanese woman had to go in a taxi separate from the rest, or just go home. It was servitude, total surrender. In many cases, families beat them more than them, who also have compulsory military service and that cuts their careers. Women assume that pressure from a young age, they carry everything, and sometimes they burn out very quickly. I have known several cases of attempted suicide because they cannot bear it, ”says Dotti. Korea and Japan are two of the countries with the highest youth suicide rate.
The empire devours almost everything. An Asian golfer has won 36 of the last 60 majors, eight of the last 10, the last four in a row. Of those eight, six have ended up in Korean hands, and five are different players. The competition is colossal. It is make or break. And that fight for success has a price. “They have been enduring severe discipline since they were six years old. And at 22, when you go to America and if you don’t win, you have failed, it takes its toll. You burn. There are girls who quit because of depression, ”says Figueras-Dotti.
10 days ago, Lydia Ko, a Korean with a New Zealand passport, won again on the women’s circuit (LPGA) after almost three years in the dark. In 2012, at just 15, he debuted with the Canadian Open. In 2015 she was the youngest golfer in history to be number one in the world (17 years and nine months). In the Rio 2016 Games he was a silver medal…. And it was gone. “His parents have a lot to do with it,” explained David Leadbetter, his coach; “They told him when to go to sleep, what to eat, how to dress, when to train. And they pressured her to win all the tournaments. They should have left her alone. ” Now she has just turned 24 and, freed from old ghosts, begins a new life with another environment.
“You tell an Asian player to train 10 hours a day and she says, ‘Yes, sir.’ You tell him that until he hits 100 putts in a row he won’t go home and reply, ‘Yes, sir.’ They obey because they believe it is the best, “adds Spanish coach Jorge Parada, who has worked with several Korean golfers, such as Lydia Ko.” From a very young age, for them it is not a sport, it is their career, “he completes.
Lydia Ko, as the world number one Jin Young Ko, and as the number two, In Bee Park, winner of six majors, is one of those examples that Asian girls admire almost from the cradle. “It’s like soccer in Spain. Here all the children want to be footballers and only some reach the elite. It’s the same with girls and golf there. That is her dream. Women’s golf there is our football, and since there are many who play, by percentage they succeed more ”, analyzes Azahara Muñoz, the second best-ranked Spanish woman (position 79), behind Carlota Ciganda (24). The 33-year-old from Malaga also focuses on this almost military discipline: “They are the first to get to training and the last to leave. I also train a lot on the tour, but they have been like this since they were very young ”.
Azahara knows the toughness of surviving in the elite and of moving from the European circuit, much more familiar in terms of the relationship between the players, to the wild American circuit, a jungle in which, according to Figueras-Dotti, everything is “work and money”. There are no friends, but competitors. It is a natural selection in which the strongest survive. Although sometimes it costs too much.
Hideki Matsuyama’s triumph at the last Augusta Masters was hailed as big news for the business. In times of pandemic, golf survives because its great source of income is television. And although the accident and indefinite loss of Tiger Woods leave the sport without one of its greatest attractions, the first great conquered by a Japanese allows to expand the market in the other part of the world.
Golf is growing in Asia with giant steps. In Japan, there are 2,000 fields and 35,000 practice fields, and it is estimated that one ball is hit every 2.5 seconds. An army of journalists follows their heroes in each tournament. 10% of the population affirm that they watch golf on television and 2.5% of women practice it.
In South Korea, the eighth country with the most golf courses in the world, 15% of its inhabitants consider it one of their favorite sports to follow on the screen, and it is the fourth in popularity after baseball, soccer and basketball . In China, the number of young people who play it has multiplied by 100 since 2013. “In Asia, women’s golf is bigger than men’s,” says Spanish coach Jorge Parada; “On the Korean circuit, women even earn more money. That doesn’t happen anywhere ”.
With that rush of practitioners, followers and successes like Matsuyama’s, the Tokyo Games are a great battle for power especially in women’s golf. Qualifying will already be tough – the top 15 in the Olympic world rankings are present, a maximum of four per country, and from there a maximum of two golfers per country until reaching 60-. Winning the gold is eternal glory.