LPGA Tour's international flair abounds on annual Kingsmill stop

Contact Reporterkholtzman@vagazette.com

JAMES CITY – Standing between the Kingsmill clubhouse and the River Course's 18th hole grandstands following Wednesday's Pro-Am, Sakura Yokomine's caddy does some amateur translating.

Florian Rodriguez, the caddy, hesitates initially. He says his Japanese isn't great. He happens to be French, with a Spanish surname.

Yokomine will soon be paired with Californian Sydnee Michaels and Wei-Ling Hsu of Chinese Taipei.

Within 20 yards, three spectators sharing Filipino ancestry, soak in the scene the evening before the Championship tees off.

That's just a small taste of the international flavor the LPGA Tour offers on its annual trip to Williamsburg.

Kingsmill Championship director Matthew Schulze said, "It's just a neat perspective to see the different people coming from all over the world to Williamsburg, of all places, to play some golf."

Just glance at the giant leader board that overlooks 18, adorned with names of varying nationalities, a row of international flags waving above it.

This year, 24 countries are represented in the Kingsmill field, four fewer thank last year, making about 56 percent of the entrants non-American. With 22 entrants, Korea has the second-largest contingent behind the 62 Americans.

Even the official LPGA water manufacturer is Korean. Patrons can purchase a Jeju SamDaSoo bottle at any of the concession stands.

And that colorful "JTBC" signage on display around the course? That is the tournament's presenting sponsor, a Korean broadcasting company. The partnership ensures the tourney will air in the golf-mad nation although Japan claims the biggest foreign media contingent at each LPGA stop.

Schulze, and others, recited the comparison LPGA Commissioner Michael Whan sometimes makes: It's like bringing the Olympics to town every week.

Media following

Four media members from LPGA TV partner WOWOW of Japan, plus one Japanese print journalist, made the trip to Kingsmill this week to follow the five Japanese players in the field including Harukyo Nomura, No. 22 in the latest Rolex Rankings.

There are often 10 Japanese media members at each stop, and up to 30 at major events, according to an LPGA spokesperson.

There is far less of a traveling presence in America from the Korean media, despite its country boasting eight players in the Rolex Rankings top 15.

Jae Jun Chang is editor and publisher of the Korean Post, a Virginia Beach-based biweekly newspaper.

Chang, a Korea native who is covering Kingsmill, estimates thousands of Korean-Americans will flock to the tournament.

Chang said 21-year-old In Gee Chun has emerged as the country's new golf star.

That's just fine with Mirim Lee, who is 33rd in the Rolex Rankings and has two career wins since joining the LPGA in 2014. Just outside the top tier of Korean golfers, she manages to live in relative anonymity in the States and likes it that way.

Inclusivity

Sarah Jane Smith thinks her husband and caddy, Duane, is being interviewed about being voted "hottest husband on tour."

Or maybe she just hoped that was the case.

It was not, although that did happen, much to the apparent delight of Duane's mother.

The Smiths hail from Australia and met on the Sunshine Coast before coming to America.

Smith still has to pinch herself when she looks at her phone and sees a message from Aussie legend Karrie Webb, who very much looks after her fellow pro countrywomen.

Smith is a veteran, having debuted on tour in 2006, and calls Azahara Munoz of Spain her best pal on the circuit.

"It's a nice place out here, isn't it?" Duane Smith said. "It's such a good mix and everyone gets on well. Some of the Korean girls have the funniest sense of humor. The fact that we get to go to half a dozen events in Asia a year – we love it. We love traveling over there."

"I think people find people they have things in common with," Sarah Jane Smith said. "Our group – we hang out a lot with the Australians, the Australian caddies. But then my best friend is Spanish. We hang out with a Swedish girl a lot. I think it's just a really good mix and people find their way. Some of the Korean girls stick together at the beginning, but once they get comfortable, they branch out. We hang out with a lot of them, really."

Duane Smith jokes that Australians Minjee Lee and Suh Oh, of Korean descent, have thicker Aussie accents than he does.

About golf, in the end

As much as it might feel like the Olympics on tour week-to-week, it's not really. It is still very much an individual sport.

"It's really individual, for sure," said Joanna Klatten, one of four French players in the Kingsmill field. "We're really happy if our peers are winning, but …"

California native Christina Kim, one of the more popular players on tour, said she is a sponge for culture and that the LPGA Tour is a reflection of America and the world.

But for Kim, the names on the leaderboard matter more than dissecting, for example, what makes the Korean players so good, and why.

"I think the only thing that should matter is how we play and the scores we shoot," Kim said. "Everybody has an incredible story regardless of where they come from."

Williamsburg's Dale Cruz, a Kingsmill volunteer, and Yorktown's Ray Apolonio, two of those Philippines natives at the Pro-Am Wednesday, seem to share that philosophy.

The longtime buddies are here for golf.

While Apolonio answers a question, Cruz spots and points out Australian Sarah Kemp exiting 18.

"I watch the way they play because I'm a golfer, too," Apolonio said. "They all hit the ball long and putt good. We like the competition of the LPGA. That's why we're always here."

Holtzman can be reached by phone at 757-298-5830.

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