If you look at the nationalities represented in the World Golf Hall of Fame, this is what you find: United States – 68, Great Britain – 26, Australia – 6, South Africa – 4. No other country boasts more than two. What do those four countries have in common? British colonialism.
No other sport basks more intensely in its heritage than golf. That hallowed history is now 500-plus years and counting, and from those origins in Scotland the game was exported into British territories around the world. And those roots run deep.
There were some accounts of golf being played in the American colonies, especially around Charleston, but once the Yanks booted the Brits out in 1783 golf went with it. However, 100 years later when the first golf clubs were forming in the United States it was believed necessary to import Scottish professionals to run them. It was assumed that if you were Scottish you knew how to teach golf and set up a course – which was often far from the case. Some golf professionals were hired based on their Scottish name alone.
Enter the Golf Hero
However, it takes more than grounding in the game for a country to breed great golfers. It takes a role model to inspire others to take up the game. Such a player arrived in America in 1913 when a 20-year old amateur named Francis Ouimet defeated two titans of British golf, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, to win the U.S. Open. One who took notice of the national headlines was 11-year old Bobby Jones. Seventeen years later Jones won the Amateur and Open championships of both the United States and Great Britain to complete the Grand Slam and was feted with a ticker tape parade in New York City. The United States has dominated world of golf ever since.
In South Africa, the golfing beacon was Bobby Locke who won four Open Championships between 1949 and 1957. In the United States, Locke won 15 times on the PGA Tour and notched five top-five finishes in the United States Open. Locke had only one shot – a massive sweeping hook – and perhaps the best putting touch that has ever been seen on a putting green. Locke’s success inspired Gary Player, whose subsequent success around the world has been unprecedented. Ernie Els and Nick Price were in the next wave of South African golfers and the latest generation has produced major winners in Rory Sabbatini, Charl Schwartzel, and Louis Oosthuizen.
Peter Thompson was the standard bearer for Australian golf. He won five Open Championships, including three in a row. While most of his victories came in the 1950s when travel by American pros overseas was a rarity, Thompson hoisted the Claret Jug in 1965 while Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Gary Player were packing their golf bags. Thompson was leading the money list on the Senior PGA Tour in 1985 when the generation of Australian golfers he inspired began winning major tournaments – Greg Norman, Ian Baker Finch, and Carrie Webb. For the last decade the top of a major leader board always seems haunted by an Australian – Geoff Ogilvy, Adam Scott, Jason Day, John Senden.
The Country that Truly Breeds Golfers
Nowhere has a golfing idol had more impact on a country than South Korea. A nation with 0.7% of the world population accounts for eight of the Top 15 women players in the world. During one stretch in 2014-2015, women of Korean heritage won ten straight LPGA tournaments. Many theories have been put forward for this domination – an especially strong support system among the players, a paucity of golf courses that forces players to practice more than play, a fierce streak of perfectionism in the culture.
There are many theories but all explanations eventually lead back to a single source: Se Ri Pak. When the unassuming 20-year old arrived in the United States to play professional golf in 1998, she was the only Korean player on tour. Pak broke through immediately with a three-stroke win in Wilmington, Delaware in the McDonald’s LPGA Championship and two months later won her second major, the U.S. Open, in a playoff. In the next event, the rookie shot a 61 – the lowest score ever recorded in an LPGA event. Her success earned her millions, as well as lucrative endorsements with companies like Volvik.
Almost immediately young South Korean girls started showing up at the country’s scant golf facilities in waves to learn to play like their new hero Se Ri. Ten years later, there were 45 South Koreans on the LPGA Tour. Se Ri still wasn’t through, however. She beat back her admiring counterwomen to record her 20th LPGA victory at the Bell Micro Classic in 2010.
So, tradition will provide a fertile breeding ground for star golfers, but nothing shakes up the petri dish like a superstar to emulate. Just ask Tiger Woods about all the young guns on Tour who credit watching him play on television for picking up clubs.