But it’s more than just a military obligation. There was a time when golf was considered only a game for the very rich, not a career path. Korean families invest heavily into their children’s future, with a big emphasis on education. Pak’s win at the Women’s Open paved the way for women. It was still another four years before Choi won in New Orleans for his first PGA Tour win.
“Golf wasn’t considered a good job for men,” Choi said. “You didn’t have a guaranteed income. No one knew you could make a living. Nowadays, as soon as you’re born, parents stick a golf club in the baby’s hands.”
Choi learned that when he met his future wife and her parents didn’t approve. Golf? How could someone provide for his family playing golf? Choi struck a deal that if he were to win a tournament, “I’m coming back and I’m going to take your daughter.”
“They wanted me to prove I could support her,” Choi said through his agent and translator, Michael Yim. “This only took a year to prove. I got my teaching license. I got on the Korean Tour. And I won.”
More than $27 million later, do they approve? Choi smiled and said in English, “Big time.”
Ty Votaw, the executive vice president of international affairs on the PGA Tour, became the LPGA commissioner the year after Pak’s watershed moment at Blackwolf Run, and he saw the initial surge from South Korea. Votaw prefers to look at the development of Korea in a timeline that dates to the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, when it opened its markets. Among the Korean golf companies that invested in golf were LG, Samsung and Hyundai. Ten years later, Pak won the Women’s Open. Now, two television networks are devoted to golf. The sport is no longer viewed as elitist. In some corners, it’s hip.
“With golf on TV as much as it is there, golf is much more than a fashion backdrop than in this country,” Votaw said. “You go to golf shops, and it’s not your standard plaid plants. It’s high-end fashion on the men’s and women’s side of things. It has captured the imagination of the youth. Even if they don’t play golf, they see it as high fashion, and high achievement.”
At the professional level, Votaw points to a changing landscape of opportunity in that corner of the world. Along with the Korean Tour, the men can make a living and aspire to reach the PGA Tour by playing in Japan (26 Korean players), the Asian Tour (13 players) and the fledgling OneAsia circuit (24 players).
Eight players are on the PGA Tour, a group that does not include John Huh, who was born in New York but grew up in Korea. He made it through Q-school and already has won this year at the Mayakoba Classic in Mexico. Huh will be making his major championship debut next week at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in the British Open.
One reason the men are not arriving to America in greater numbers is the competition.
“The worldwide pipeline of really good male players is much bigger,” Votaw said. “There’s a heck of a lot more competition on the men’s side for a player to stand out.”
Even so, the numbers are impossible to ignore. Only five years ago, 22 players from Korea signed up for Q-school on the PGA Tour. That number more than doubled to 52 a year ago. One of them was Bae, who was introduced to golf by his mother. He won 10 times on the Korean, Asian and Japan tours before he made it through Q-school last year.
“There’s so many good players on the PGA Tour,” he said. “I couldn’t try PGA Tour Q-school because it was such a long trip to Korea. And Q-school is crazy hard. Only 25 people get their PGA Tour cards.”
Korea, meanwhile, has kept up with its growing demand for golf.
With 3 million golfers, the country has 500 golf courses, 4,000 driving ranges and now has some 9,000 certified instructors. Even so, the story behind its success lies with the overwhelming support from the Korea Golf Association, which has 3,600 players _ 2,000 of them men _ registered in its national program from ages 8 to 20.