ATLANTA — Players of Asian descent have won eight of the past 10 Women’s P.G.A. Championships, but there is nothing cookie cutter about the winners. They include Shanshan Feng of China, who has worn tailored cow pants to reflect her fun-loving personality, and Sung Hyun Park of South Korea, who had a Korean word on her bag that translated to “I am different.”
More than five dozen Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are L.P.G.A. members, more than any league or tour in North American professional sports. Several other members have Asian roots, and their convergence on the Atlanta Athletic Club this week for the third major of the season throws into stark relief both their ascendancy and ancestry.
The golf course is roughly 15 minutes from two of the three massage businesses where eight people, six of them Asian women, were fatally shot in March in a crime that encapsulates the escalating violence against Asians in America during the pandemic.
The rise of anti-Asian hatred and bias has jolted the players out of their silence. For years, these women have endured microaggressions about their names, their appearance, even their success. At a time when Asians have been scapegoated in American communities for the spread of the coronavirus, players of Asian descent who show no fear on the golf course have grown uneasy, and outraged, enough that they are speaking out about what it means, and how it feels, to be Asian in the United States right now.
“I’m scared every time I see the news that it could happen to me,” said Yani Tseng, a two-time Women’s P.G.A. champion and the first player from Taiwan to become the world No. 1.
Tseng, 32, was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2012, but in 2021 she feels helpless. Tseng, who said she fell in love with America during her first visit in 2007 because everyone “was so nice,” was incredulous when a friend who lives in Irvine, Calif., relayed a terrifying experience she had while seated in her car in a grocery store parking lot. A group of strangers approached her automobile and attempted to open its locked doors, pounding on the car with so much force the vehicle oscillated. After hearing that, Tseng, who has a residence in San Diego, about a 90-minute drive south of Irvine, said, “I was really worried about myself.”
At home in Taiwan, her family also frets. “Every time they see the news they say, ‘Are you OK there?’” she said.
The nine-time L.P.G.A. tour winner Na Yeon Choi, one of 25 L.P.G.A. members from South Korea, has traveled to events in America in the past accompanied by her mother. But she advised her not to bother coming to the United States for her tournaments this year, even if, or as, travel restrictions are loosened.
“I was thinking it’s not safe for her to be alone when I’m focusing on practice,” Choi said. “She can’t speak English, so she’d be stuck in the hotel because I wouldn’t want her going out.”
According to a national report released by Stop AAPI Hate, 6,603 incidents of anti-Asian violence, harassment and discrimination were reported to the organization in the previous 12 months ending March 31. Verbal harassment (65.2 percent), shunning (18.1 percent) and physical assault (12.6 percent) led the recorded incidents.
After a white male gunman allegedly opened fire at the three Atlanta-area spas, the L.P.G.A. released a statement in support of the A.A.P.I. community and Choi received an internal email, which she said was sent to all the players, advising them to be careful when venturing outside the tour bubble at all tournaments.
In March, Mike Whan, the departing L.P.G.A. commissioner, said there had been isolated incidents involving Asian players away from tournament venues over the years, including some in which the tour’s security detail had to get involved.
The Covid-19 protocols in place during the past year have provided a protective membrane. Players have been prohibited from dining or socializing outside the tournament grounds or their accommodations. And tournaments have had few, if any, spectators. But their environments aren’t airtight, and pandemic protocols are easing, increasing interaction between the players and the public.
The players find themselves distracted by worries about the safety of their loved ones — and of themselves.
Mina Harigae, 31, a four-time California Women’s Amateur champion from Monterey whose parents are Japanese, said: “I’ll be honest. I got so scared I went online and bought a self-defense stick.”
At the year’s first women’s major, which was held outside Palm Springs, Calif., Michelle Wie West said she ran an errand at a strip mall near the course, one of thousands of such pit stops she has made for one forgotten item or another during her nearly two decades of competing in L.P.G.A. events. This time, though, was different.
“It was the first time I was truly afraid,” she said, adding, “We’re a target now, unfortunately.”
Lydia Ko, 24, a Korean-born New Zealander with 16 L.P.G.A. victories, including two majors, acknowledged at the Los Angeles tour stop in April that she worried about her mother traveling on her own in the United States.
Tiffany Joh, a first-generation American, grew up in a nice neighborhood in San Diego. Her South Korean-born parents still live nearby. “It was kind of a sad day when my mom was like, ‘Should we start carrying around pepper spray?’” Joh said.
Joh, 34, is easy to place on the golf course. Just follow the laughter. With one-liners as crisp as her iron shots, she spent two years grinding on what is now the Symetra circuit, where she often stayed with families to save money before she joined the L.P.G.A. Tour in 2011.
At one stop, Joh recalled, her hosts remarked on her height, which is 5 feet 6 inches, and asked: “Are both your parents Oriental? Because you’re quite tall and built for an Oriental.”
“I said, ‘No, I’m not a rug and I’m not a chicken salad, so no, I’m not Oriental,’” Joh said. “And then I was joking around because for me, when I have a sense of discomfort, my defense mechanism is humor. So I said, ‘You know, no one has ever told me my parents are my real parents. Maybe I need to talk to the milkman.’ And they said: ‘Oh, no, sweetie. That would be the soy milk man.’ They were trying to be cute.”
Joh added, “It was kind of an example of how you can educate someone without being a jerk about it.”
A torrent of hate and violence against people of Asian descent around the United States began last spring, in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
- Background: Community leaders say the bigotry was fueled by President Donald J. Trump, who frequently used racist language like “Chinese virus” to refer to the coronavirus.
- Data: The New York Times, using media reports from across the country to capture a sense of the rising tide of anti-Asian bias, found more than 110 episodes since March 2020 in which there was clear evidence of race-based hate.
- Underreported Hate Crimes: The tally may be only a sliver of the violence and harassment given the general undercounting of hate crimes, but the broad survey captures the episodes of violence across the country that grew in number amid Mr. Trump’s comments.
- In New York: A wave of xenophobia and violence has been compounded by the economic fallout of the pandemic, which has dealt a severe blow to New York’s Asian-American communities. Many community leaders say racist assaults are being overlooked by the authorities.
- What Happened in Atlanta: Eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed in shootings at massage parlors in Atlanta on March 16. A Georgia prosecutor said that the Atlanta-area spa shootings were hate crimes, and that she would pursue the death penalty against the suspect, who has been charged with murder.
Jane Park has also used humor to deflect uncomfortable situations. Despite having won the U.S. Women’s Amateur while in high school and been on the L.P.G.A. Tour since 2007, Park, an American of Korean descent, could tell from her amateur playing partners’ initial lack of enthusiasm that they thought she was another indistinguishable — in their eyes — Asian player at a pro-am in Arizona several years ago.
So she decided to play a prank on them. At the first tee, she bowed formally and greeted them in Korean, then said nothing more for the rest of the hole. On the second hole, she asked in English if they were ready for beers, and her playing partners laughed and were animated for the rest of the round.
But not every indignity can be dismissed with laughs. Park, 34, lives with her husband and 11-month-old daughter roughly five miles from one of the three massage businesses targeted. She described the spa shootings as “jarring.”
They dredged up a memory from a few years ago, when she was waiting to pay for a pair of shoes at a nearby store. A woman behind her in line stage-whispered an anti-Asian pejorative directed at her. “My whole body started sweating,” said Park, who whirled around and said to the woman, “I understand English.”
The shootings in Atlanta rattled Inbee Park of South Korea, a three-time Women’s P.G.A. champion and former world No. 1, whose aunt operates a dry-cleaning business not far from where they occurred. “I called her straight away to make sure she was OK,” she said, adding, “It’s really unfortunate what’s happening.”
The rise in anti-Asian sentiment in American society has caused players to see experiences they’ve had on the golf course in a different light. Park wondered why broadcasters persisted in mispronouncing the names of Asian players even after she had corrected them on social media. Or why she was asked if she was related to “all the other Parks” on the tour.
Christina Kim, a Californian of Korean descent, is tired of hearing that Asians “talk funny” and really tired of the added pressure that Asian-born players on the tour feel to speak the Queen’s English to avoid being mocked or criticized. She is tired of people on social media directing comments to her about the “kung flu.”
Players of Asian descent are weary of the many microaggressions that they must deflect, ignore or swallow because competitive golf at the highest level presents enough obstacles without having to also maneuver around race and gender-related hazards.
Wie West, the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open champion, said: “I look back at a lot of the questions that reporters ask me. ‘Why are the South Koreans so good?’ That question always bothered me, but I answered it. I’d say, ‘Oh, because they practice really hard’ and by saying that I was playing into the microaggression. I never really put two and two together as to why that question, and certain other comments, bothered me until this year.”
The next person who asks Wie West the question will receive a different answer. She said, “I would say that’s a really inappropriate question.”