South Korea: An expensive-looking golf bag emerges from the airport carousel -- shortly followed by 16 others. Welcome to South Korea, epicentre of the Asian golf craze.
While much of the continent is just waking up to the game, golf is already a religion in Korea with a playing population reckoned at four million, or one in 12.
Jeju island, venue for last week’s Ballantine’s Championship, has no fewer than 23 golf courses among about 180 nationwide. Golfers stare down from billboards, and TV schedules include golf tips and reality golf contests.
KJ Choi is Asia’s most successful player, while South Korea rules the women’s game with 15 players in the top 50, more than any other country. Meanwhile, Korean-American sensations Michelle Wie and Anthony Kim fly the flag abroad.
So while the Championship, surprisingly Korea’s first European-sanctioned event, is tipped to boost golf in the country, it’s hard to see how it could be any more popular.
Some 14,000 fans flooded Pinx Golf Club to follow Choi, the world number five, with many flying in from the mainland and staying in expensive hotels. Although Choi disappointed, the tournament was an important step.
“Most Korean professional golfers don’t really have an opportunity to compete with world-class players,” said Korean PGA general manager Park Ho-Yoon.
Golf no longer preserve of the elite in Korea
Golf, long regarded as the preserve of the elite, suddenly took off in the late 1990s with the exploits of Pak Se Ri, who won two majors in her debut US LPGA season, and Choi, who joined the prestigious men’s tour in 2000.
The KPGA today counts 800 full-time professionals, 3,000 semi-professionals and 500 teaching professionals. With 20-plus events on the domestic tour, it was only a matter of time before a top tournament came calling.
But scheduling problems prevented the European Tour, which has already visited China, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong, from venturing here earlier.
“We’ve been talking about going to Korea for many years,” said Keith Waters, the tour’s international policy director.
“We all took a bit of a risk going to Korea doing this tournament at this time of the year. Ideally any tournament in Korea should be between May and October.”
Koreans are widely held as driven and hard-working but according to Choi, golfers need to be plain “crazy” about the game to succeed.
Youth and North Koreans taking to the sport
“What I really want to tell the young Koreans coming up is they need to be crazy about golf,” he said. “They need to work harder than their competitors. It’s about will, it’s mental.
“For me, I was totally focused for two years. I think that’s what helped me. I had to stop smoking. I had to stop eating the things I liked because I wanted to be on a good diet. “If my competitors practised 10 balls, I would hit 30 balls.”
The boom has also touched communist North Korea, where legend has it that reclusive leader Kim Jong-Il aced 11 holes in his first game. A South Korean tour company is now planning golf trips to the hermit state.
But Korean golf has not been without controversy, with several scandals reinforcing lingering stereotypes.
In 2006, Prime Minister Lee Hae-Chan stepped down over a golf outing during a rail strike which enraged the public and sparked a cash-for-influence probe.
Government officials were later banned from playing with unsavoury partners, while the Supreme Court had to issue guidelines urging judges not to tee off with people involved in court cases.