- Associated Press - Saturday, July 14, 2012

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLA. (AP) - To chase his dream, K.J. Choi had to climb a mountain.

His arms were too long for a future in powerlifting, and baseball was just starting to take off in South Korea when he was a teenager. Without money to buy a baseball and a bat, Choi went to the nearest mountain, cut down a pine tree and fashioned his own bat. He played with a tennis ball, but it just wasn’t the same. So imagine how he felt when he went to a driving range for a golf demonstration.

“Getting to hit a golf ball for the first time with an actual iron, I couldn’t forget that solid feeling,” Choi said. “It felt much better hitting a golf ball with a real club than hitting a tennis ball with my bat. And that’s when I fell in love with it. I told myself, `Just start golfing, and let’s see how far it will take me.’ And I kept with it.”

It has carried him to 17 wins around the world, including The Players Championship, and more than $27 million in career earnings on the PGA Tour. He was the first South Korean to join the PGA Tour when he made it through Q-school in 1999. Now, finally, he has company.

And more are on the way.

These days, it is much easier for the likes of Seung-yul Noh, Sang-Moon Bae and Sunghoon Kang, who are among eight Korean-born players on the PGA Tour. Beyond American shores, only Australia has more PGA Tour players. They also have role models in Choi and Y.E. Yang, the first Asian man to win a major when he took down Tiger Woods in the 2009 PGA Championship. Most of them are products of the Korea Golf Association, which is pouring resources into golf and has produced a national team that could be the model for other developing golf nations.

How strong is the national team?

Korea won the gold medal in the prestigious Asian Games in 2006 in Qatar with a team that featured Kang and Presidents Cup player K.T. Kim. Noh, who was 18 when he defeated Choi in the 2010 Malaysian Open, was an alternate. Bae, who started this year at No. 30 in the world and lost in the quarterfinals to Rory McIlroy at the Match Play Championship, wasn’t good enough to make the team.

“I tried,” Bae said with a laugh. “But there were too many good amateurs in Korea, so I couldn’t.”

A year ago, Bae became the second straight Korean to win the money title on the Japan Golf Tour. Kim won the Japan money title in 2010, while Noh topped the Order of Merit that year on the Asian Tour. The ultimate stop is the PGA Tour, and the numbers are growing.

Korean success in America starts with the women. Another reminder came last week when Na Yeon Choi won the U.S. Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run, where Se Ri Pak won the U.S. Women’s Open in 1998 and became a pioneer for women’s golf in her country. Korean membership on the LPGA Tour is approaching 50 players. More than 30 of them have won close to 100 times, and 10 have won majors.

For years after he became a PGA Tour winner, Choi rarely made it through an interview without being asked why there weren’t as many Korean men.

The simple answer was the mandatory military service, which comes at a critical development stage for young golfers. Choi had to put in his two years at age 22. He was a rifleman, worked on a radar base and even spent time in the kitchen. His shift was to work two days and have two days off, during which time he could hit balls.

Some players have avoided military service by moving from Korea (U.S. Amateur champion Danny Lee to New Zealand, Kevin Na to America). Others have deferred until their 30s, and now there is a major incentive. Kang, for example, is exempt from his military service because he won a gold medal from the Asian Games. Players like Noh and Bae are hopeful of an Olympic medal in 2016.

“That was a big deal for me,” Kang said.

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