International players have always been welcomed at the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard, and a potentially strong contingent from South Korea is just the latest example
When PGA TOUR Commissioner Tim Finchem announced in November that South Korea would host the 2015 Presidents Cup, three players from that country joined him on the dais at Royal Melbourne. The trio represented the largest contingent ever to compete from that tiny republic.
K.J. Choi, Y.E. Yang and K.T. Kim made up one-fourth of that Presidents Cup team, which should not have been a surprise, considering that players from South Korea have been a growing force in the women's game for quite some time. But now the men's game is showing a similar strengthening trend, and it's likely that such talent will be on display in the upcoming Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard.
"You look at the quality of the players now coming out of South Korea, it's impressive, and it's another example of how much the game is growing, which is something I think is important," host Arnold Palmer says. "We've always had a great tradition here of inviting top players, wherever they're from, and recognizing that makes our tournament that much stronger."
Martin Laird of Scotland is the defending champion of the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard. The 34th edition of the premier tournament held annually at Palmer's Bay Hill Club & Lodge is scheduled for March 19-25.
Finchem said the selection of South Korea as host of the Presidents Cup "comes with the recognition of the development of elite players in Korea and in Asia generally. It also comes after an extensive period of time of the PGA TOUR being very active in Korea in business. ... I think when we look at the Asia Pacific region generally, it is almost entirely an area where the game of golf is growing, the game of golf is robust, and the game of golf is enjoying the emergence of new, young players."
Choi, 41, has led that emergence, at least on the men's side, becoming the first Korean-born player to win a PGA TOUR event. Yang in 2009 set another milestone by winning the PGA Championship to register the first major victory by an Asian-born golfer.
Choi, who captured The Players last year for his biggest win among eight TOUR titles, said he is motivated by the push of younger players from his country. He helps that push by annually bringing to the U.S. a handful of junior golfers from Korea to practice with him during the offseason. They are selected from the K.J. Choi Foundation in Korea. "I train with them. I teach them, but I learn a lot too," Choi says. "It's a great challenge for me actually. I do feed off of them. And I enjoy the competitiveness. We have a lot of great up and coming players.
"The women players (from Korea) are very good, but on the men's tour, the level of competitiveness is so much deeper and the amount of practice, the amount of training that you have to survive out on the PGA TOUR is so much different."
Kim and Yang agreed that Korea's turn as Presidents Cup host was going to be a boon to golf in their country.
"It's a great honor, not just on a national level, but as a Korean to host a prestigious event like this in our country," Kim said. "I undoubtedly think that a lot of my peers, a lot of younger generation Korean golfers, are also eyeing to increase their World Rankings, get better and hopefully have a few more Koreans on the International Team by 2015."
In the meantime, it's up to the current stars from Asia to play well. Laird became the first European winner at Bay Hill last year with his one-stroke victory over Steve Marino. Another corner of the globe could be next, just as international players of recent vintage like Ernie Els of South Africa, Vijay Singh of Fiji, and Rod Pampling of Australia were able to notch their own wins at Arnold Palmer's tournament.
"The current players have done pretty well and hopefully we will give the younger players (from Korea) a lot more that they can build on," says Choi, who joined the PGA TOUR in 2000. "Yeah, I do feed off of them. It's very challenging for me. I enjoy the competitiveness. There's a lot of players on the TOUR over 40 who are still having a prime time in their career. I actually feed off of them, as well - not only the young, upcoming players, but also the veterans.
"So it goes to show that out on the PGA TOUR, there's a very fair level of competitiveness, and for me to be able to play on the TOUR in the same era as all of the upcoming players, and also the veterans who are here performing, it's a very honoring experience for me."
For tickets to the 2012 Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard or for more information, visit the tournament website, www.arnoldpalmerinvitational.com, or call the Bay Hill Club ticket office at 407-876-7774 or toll free at 1-866-764-4843. Proceeds from the tournament benefit Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies.