What has over 6 million pairs of arms and legs and plays golf incessantly? If you guessed the South Korean golfers who make up the 3rd largest golf market in the world (behind only the USA and Japan), pat yourself on the back.
Although golf is played here under the same rules and the same 14 clubs, many aspects will seem different to the average golfer from the West. For example, would you believe me if I told you my humble handicap index of 8.2 is held in awe by most of my playing partners and acquaintances? No, I didn’t think so. But once you understand some of the facts about golf in Korea, perhaps you will know why I am a rockstar among mere mortals here.
KOREAN GOLF ROOTS
Golf is said to have been introduced to Korea in 1897 when, to pass the time, a group of Englishmen employed by Korea’s Maritime Affairs and Tourism Organization built a makeshift 6-hole course next to the Korean Customs Office. The game remained largely foreign to Koreans through both World Wars and the Korean War and remained a sport out of reach for most Koreans well into the late 1980’s.
I imagine most Koreans must have regarded golf as a privilege enjoyed by wealthy CEOs, executives, and high-level military or government officials, who leisurely stroll around private country clubs discussing important business and matters of state.
A significant turning point for the Korean golf came in 1998 when future LPGA Hall of Famer, Se-Ri Pak, then a rookie, won the US Open, her first of 5 Major Championship titles. South Korea was facing a financial crisis under the supervision of the IMF. The nationally televised victory and her hallmark shot from the water hazard (coincidentally mirrored by this year’s US Open winner Sung Hyun Park) inspired a nation desperately in need of a hero. They found one in Se-Ri, and a whole new generation of young female golfers, aptly called Seri-Kids, now dominate women’s golf.
Today, golf is one of the fastest growing sports with 3.06 million (2.72M male to 0.74M female) golfers, or about 5.94% of the total population of 51.5M, having swung a golf club. The number of golf courses also increased from just over 200 at the end of 1998 to about 450 at the end of 2017.
Still, most people here will tell you that playing the game, at least on a golf course, is for those with time and money. This point is illustrated by the fact that the largest demographic of Korean golfers is made up of men between the ages of 41~50, represents 44.5% of the entire golfing population.
KOREAN GOLF INDUSTRY AT A GLANCE
In 2016, the Korea Golf Industry White Paper showed the total golf market to be just under $10 Billion USD. The report broke down the figures as below.
Golf equipment can be found in abundance here including all the of familiar major US OEM brands and most JDM brands. The price of golf clubs compared to the US is slightly higher (10~15% on average), due to the shipping and tax required to get the OEM brands into Korea. Before 2006, Golf and related equipment were considered luxury items and were heavily taxed by customs.
Most equipment is sold off-the-rack, or more accurately, online, but over the past several years, the idea of being custom fitted for a set of clubs started to take hold among the more equipment-conscious gearheads. I would venture that most golfers (90%) still buy off the rack, but the number of new golfers looking to get fitted, usually for more expensive or exotic gear, is definitely on the rise.
Korea is also home to a small but thriving community of equipment collectors who go out of their way to own the latest and greatest clubs and brands before everyone else. It’s all about bragging rights for these guys. I have an acquaintance whose wall-hanger collection is literally worth enough to purchase a Lamborghini and still have enough left over for a Porsche.
There’s another interesting fact from the Equipment & Apparel segment. While the chart shows Koreans to spend over 3.6 billion dollars in this category, the fact is that apparel accounts for more than 60% of the total category, suggesting that Koreans like to look good while swinging a club.
SCREEN GOLF, ANYONE?
It may surprise you to learn that the golfing population is actually on the rise in Korea, despite declines in other major golfing countries like the US and Japan.
In the West, much like soccer or basketball, golf is often taken up at an early age. With the introduction of handheld video games and mobile phones, golf faces an uphill battle in getting youngsters away from the tiny screens and onto a golf course. In Korea, however, the game of golf is growing among people in their 20s and 30s, and more and more new duffers in their 40s take up the game each week. This growth in the unlikely age groups is credited to the burgeoning golf simulation game generally referred to as “Screen Golf.”
GOLFZON, the country’s leading screen golf establishment, can be found practically on every city block and many are open 24/7. For about $15-$25 per person, you and your foursome can enjoy a competitive round or leisurely practice in a private room with a selection of hundreds of virtual courses from all over the world. The system simulates most aspects of a typical round with visuals, scores, and audio, and can also analyze your swing and rank your skill level alongside millions of other golfers across the country. Don’t have golf clubs? No problem. Clubs, shoes, gloves and ball rentals are all included in the price.
Since the introduction of screen golf in 2006, people who were curious about golf but could not readily access it were eagerly lining up to see what the big deal was. Soon, millions of virtual rounds were being played across the country week in and week out. It lowered the hurdle for many to experience the game first-hand and motivated them to further invest in equipment and venture onto the golf course.
Screen golf is now firmly rooted in the Korean golf culture and even has a televised professional league complete with sponsors and hefty prize money. Best of all, it proved that one is never too old to learn the game and that golf can be enjoyed by almost everyone.
Before a golfer can cut his teeth on an actual golf course, they first need to learn the ropes. Natural grass practice areas are practically non-existent in Korea unless one lives well outside the major population centers. For this reason, Screen Golf is the most common form of Golf in Korea at all levels. For those that get tired of hitting balls into a screen, there are outdoor practice ranges similar to ones in the West.
Hitting bays are rented by the hour ($10~15/hr), so you can hit as many balls as you want. The golf balls come up automatically from a hole in the mat, so golfers never have to stoop over. The downside is that most facilities are very short in length (50~200 yards) and walled with nets on all sides. There’s little opportunity to take in the full flight of your beautiful 300-yard power fade.
A DAY AT THE COURSE
Playing actual golf in Korea is a labor of love. It literally requires a full day with careful planning. In years past, the number of golfers and available courses was unevenly matched, necessitating reservations nearly a month in advance. Nowadays, we open an app on our mobile device and can usually reserve a tee time 3-7 days in advance. Progress.
From my own experience, golf season is typically early March to late November for those willing to brave the cold weather. Outdoor rounds tend to drop off during late July and August when the heat and humidity can be excruciating, but otherwise, almost all of the courses in the country do robust business.
A spontaneous round of golf is near impossible as most courses do not accept less than a foursome and on-the-spot joining is not practiced. What if a fourth in your group happens to be a no-show? The remaining three has to foot the cost of the absent player, caddy fee and all.
From the capital city of Seoul where I reside, most courses are located approximately an hour’s drive away. Though some are closer, these tend to be more expensive or more exclusive, meaning tee times are harder to come by.
The clubhouses at most courses are enormous 5-star resort-like buildings with high ceilings and chandeliers. Expensive sculptures and artwork decorate the vast lobbies and dining halls, and receptionists wear tailored suits or uniforms. Locker rooms and bathing facilities are opulent and meticulously maintained, making it feel like you’re at a luxury hotel rather than a golf course.
I’ve often wondered why a clubhouse would need to look like the Waldorf Astoria, but I’ve been told it’s a status thing that lingers from the old days. But as I said, things are changing. I have been to several golf clubs where one is allowed to wear (proper length) shorts during the extremely hot summer months. At least a formal jacket is no longer required at most posh country clubs.
Most courses are carved on the sides of low mountains and hills. Holes tend to be far apart, and most courses require you to ride a 5-seater power cart with a caddy. A single caddy is mandatorily assigned to a foursome to help with the pace of play, and also help fetch clubs, clean your golf ball, and occasionally help line up your putts. The foursome typically splits the cost of the caddy fee after the round. Power carts are driven by the caddy and only on the cart path. The carts are also automated and can be controlled by a remote.
An average round here can last about 5 hours. It can be frustrating to be stuck behind a slow group as passing the foursome ahead is not allowed. Add to it an average of 2 hours to get to and from the course, along with time to shower and bathe (a social must!). If you are playing with friends or entertaining business guests, having dinner together at a nearby restaurant is almost a certainty.
All-in-all, if you spent less than $250 and managed to get back home within 8 hours of having left, you’ve had a very successful day of golf. Seriously.
Despite all the obstacles of time and expense to play this often frustrating game, it seems Koreans can’t get enough. In 2016, a report showed that over 33 million rounds of golf were played throughout the land of the morning calm and more potential golfers are waiting in the wings.
FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME?
Most of the above is from my personal experience. I play about 12~15 rounds per year, which is pretty good for an average guy like me. With my 8.2, I am a member of the noble single-digit class and the envy among those who struggle to break 90. Still hard to believe, right?
So have you figured out why my handicap is a much bigger deal than it should be?
I contend that Koreans equate handicap to status. Like a battle-worn sword and shield, a low handicap represents thousands of practice hours and hundreds of rounds on the golf course. It then follows that I must be a successful individual with the necessary time and the means; or how else could I have gotten so good at this difficult game in a country that requires so much time and money to play?
I’ve found that a low handicap serves as a symbol of success both on and off the field. It matters a great deal more beyond simple bragging rights. Some of my friends still think I was born with a silver spoon. This realization answered a lot of questions for me on why so many people are determined to play this game well here.
And just in case you’re curious, I am far from having any type of spoons and I sure as heck don’t have a lot of time.
So what’s my secret?
I grew up and Canada where I played many years of junior golf. The skills learned haven’t abandoned me completely, so I manage to get by with minimum practice. But I’m not about to let the secret out of the bag just yet.
Elizabeth4 years ago
Thanks so much for the insights!! I will be travelling to South Korea this coming 2020 in the spring for pleasure! i look forward to being able to play, but it looks like I may not. I am one single player, not a 4some. Would they mind matching me up with a group?
TERRY PARK4 years ago
Great article James! I’m assuming you are running mygolfspy in Korea. I graduated college in the states, and came back to Korea and attended medical school here. I really wish I had taken up golf back in college. My school even had its own golf course, and I believe the golf lessons and green fees back then were way cheaper than what they have here now. I don’t have any regrets looking back at my college years but one and it’s not taking up golf, haha. Anyways, great read James!
Andrew Han5 years ago
Great write up and thanks for the insight! I always heard of the how expensive golf was in Korea, but your breakdown of the cost doesn’t seem like it is unachievable. Still expensive, but seems like time is more of a constraint. If only GolfZone opened up in Ktown LA. There is Olympic Golf Zone in Buena Park, but that is 40 minutes from where I live.
Alex5 years ago
Explains why my relatives visiting from Korea keeps asking to play so many rounds at the local muni for $20 a round.. haha
BenSeattle5 years ago
This is a little late, James, but perhaps you can still provide an answer. We know that 1) Korean women pretty close to dominate the LPGA Tour and 2) Korean golf courses are few, they’re expensive and hard to get on. So how does Korea produce so many outstanding players? They can’t all learn to be world-class hitting at a driving range or in the family basement under the tutelage of Dad. Nor — I assume — are all these talented and determined girls from wealthy families. So what’s the answer… state-sponsored course access for those with the most potential or something else?
James5 years ago
As far as I can tell, junior programs and access to golf courses isn’t as easy as back in the US. But there are many specialized schools throughout Korea known for their specialized sports programs including golf. And they start from elementary to college, and up to athletic levels representing the country. Many youngsters I’ve seen practically are in it for the long-haul and focus on their chosen sport from a young age. Wealthy or not, parents are devoted to their child’s success, hoping it pays off one day. so it’s an investment of sorts.
My observation is that perhaps elsewhere, kids have a natural knack for a game they happen to like, have fun while getting good, later discovered and honed, and then decide to make it a career. Here, I think it’s more of a potential golf star being trained, moulded and “made” into a golf machine with a perfect swing, and see who rises to the top. More competitive, ruthless and expensive in my book, but it works to a degree. Though I bet there are hundreds of broken dreams for every successful tour pro here.
Dino Datu4 years ago
There are also golf academies in Southeast Asia. In the Philippines, for example, we have courses that cater to Korean junior golfers, a sort of “Golf Boarding School”.
DaeGunn Jei5 years ago
Yeah… golf in Korea is very interesting and unique. But, there are lots of room to improve.
Did the author say that most of Korean golf courses do not have the official course, slope ratings?
Although the club houses look so luxurious, (most of) the courses do not have such basic things (ratings).
You cannot use your GHIN number to update your handicap after your rounds in Korea.
Albert5 years ago
Been in Korea 10+ years and this is a great article. A few corrections though: getting tee times has become alot easier, same day bookings are very possible though not necessarily at the course of your choice. I also play most of my rounds under 150 USD total although it takes some searching. Although the gambling can make a big difference 🙂 Since the gambling culture here is so distinctive, would have loved to hear your thoughts!
JP5 years ago
Wow, a very well written article about golf in Korea!
I guess you could’ve mentioned about the night golf in Korea, where some of the golf courses have full stadium quality lighting for entire 18 holes. I enjoyed teeing off around sunset during hot humid Korean summer.
Mackdaddy5 years ago
I have played with several Korean friends here in Virginia. Our course is upscale and we’ll taken care of. The members are about 25% Korean. We often complain that when they play slowly they rarely let people play through. I did not know that it was not allowed on Korean courses. That explains a lot. Rumor has it that they don’t fix ball marks and divits because it is rude to show someone the top of your head. Is that true or are they just being lazy?
James5 years ago
MackDaddy, I haven’t heard of anything here about showing the top of your head being rude. But Korean courses usually hire people to fix divots and pitch marks throughout the day, so that caddies can keep golfers moving along (# of foursomes per day = revenue for the golf course). But I say, when in Rome… so yeah, they’re being just lazy over there.
HardcoreLooper5 years ago
Great article. Truly enlightening. I love learning about golf in other countries.
hari5 years ago
This was a very informative article. I enjoyed reading it immensely.
Thank you for the great article
Travis5 years ago
I agree! It is not cheap to play on an actual course here but they are all so nice and almost all worth the price!
Phil Geiger5 years ago
Great article! I did 21 years in the US Army and was stationed in South Korea for 2 of those years. My first year I played very little golf. However my second year I played at least twice a week on the two of the Army camp courses (which were 9 hole courses) and the 18 hole course that was for the military run by the MWR (morale, welfare and recreation). The nicest course I played there was their Military Academy (like our West Point). I didn’t realize how rare this is due to the fact that they only have one Military Academy as opposed to our 4. So a new graduating class gets added to the rolls every year and the only way you lose you membership is when someone dies/ I played with an Army 4 star, a 4 star Air Force General and a Rear Admiral. Absolutely top notch, four star facility! I enjoyed my stay in South Korea immensely!
James5 years ago
Holy cow. You played with 4-star generals?! That’s a huge deal. You must’ve also been top brass yourself, SIR!
justin5 years ago
great insights. grown up on states, permanent resident in korea. i agree with most points here. one thing why 8 handicap is considered really good. cuz most people start playing golf in 30s.
1. until starting working, no way possible for younger generations of general population to play any sports (including golf or any other sports) cuz too much studying. very unfortunate.
2.golf itself is relatively expensive due to scarcity of land. thus general population can only start to play once they have steady income
3. jdm equip are looked up upon due to status symbol. and people say sgi equip r horseshit. (which i disagree). theres saying only forged irons are best in korea.
4.no grass practices available. only turf golf ranges
5. screen golfs are probably closest thing indoor and less expensive. u c.and ur buddy can drink ur ass off in closed rooms, in some secluded spots u can also invite call girls (i mean sexual stuff).
808nation5 years ago
Great insight on the world of golf in Korea. Appreciate all of the interesting golf facts and letting us get a glimpse of this game we all love ?? #PowerToThePlayer
joro5 years ago
It would be interesting to see what happens if the Koreans, who make the most of our equipment and balls decide to cut us off.
Navinder5 years ago
Very nice article.Thanks James.Would love to visit South Korea to experience the beauty as well play golf.
Darrell5 years ago
James, thanks, very interesting read.
Justin Wheeler5 years ago
I live in Okinawa and your experience mirrors mine. I’ve noticed the locals don’t sign up for many early tee times, so if we get a 7 am time on a weekday we can usually move along pretty well. The onsen facilities after the round of golf make the waiting and slow play worth it though. Sauna, shower, hot bath, cold bath….it really hits the muscles nicely.
TxGolfJunkie5 years ago
GOLFZON is here in the states. In The Woodlands, TX (just north of Houston), there is a place called Swing Zone and they utilize that technology. It’s crazy…especially when the ground starts to shift when you’re on an uneven lie.
Ryebread5 years ago
I’ve played Golfzon as well. There is one in Cleveland, Ohio for those in the are who might be interested. They’re incredibly expensive setups.
Fozcycle5 years ago
Thanks James, the article was well writte; and provides an insight to Golf in Sout( Korea…..Best of luck to you on keeping your handicap down.
James5 years ago
Thanks Fozcycle. If you have any good training aids to spare, pass ‘em my way!
Deadeye5 years ago
I have never been to Korea but I know th US military has had a large presence there for many years. I am wondering if the military bases there have golf courses (betting they do) and if they are run like a typical American course. If I lived there that’s where I would try to get on.
James5 years ago
There are several courses especially for servicemen here and they are operated similarly to those in the US; more affordable and caddies are optional.
Vic5 years ago
Are they open for public?
MattF5 years ago
Thanks for the article James, it was a good read.
JJVas5 years ago
Thanks for a very insightful and well done article. With so much fluff out there, it’s nice to read something like this. A+
James5 years ago
Thanks for the kind words ??
Jmarkus5 years ago
“But I’m not about to let the secret out of the bag just yet.”
You just did.
James5 years ago
So I did! LoL. I’m hoping my regular foursome buddies don’t read this. ?
Simon5 years ago
Great write up
I knew it was expensive to golf in Asia, but damn that’s quite a bit.
At least there isn’t the mandatory luncheon between the front and back like Japan.
I love the Korean golfers here in BC, Canada. They’re courteous and get moving.
James5 years ago
I experienced the extended lunch break (about 45 min) in Japan last year between 9 holes. In Korea, it’s usually anywhere between 10-20 minites depending on how backed up it gets. We also don’t have beer cart girls, but a “house of shade” rest area around the 5th and 14th hole for quick snacks and washroom breaks.
JEFFU5 years ago
Outstanding insight. Having played a number of times in Japan, I can relate, it is very similar. I did laugh a little recently in Florida when two groups of Japanese visitors decided to sit down and take an extended lunch break between nines. The course marshal was about a blow a gasket trying to get them to speed up and make the turn more quickly. Old habits are hard to break.
Terry5 years ago
Lived in Seoul about 15 years ago and played a lot of golf there. As an avid player, there was so much uniqueness to how Koreans experience the game…
Passing a driving range on the way to the course and seeing all three tiers full of players hitting balls…
Caddies were all female with huge billed hats, polite and hard working as you’ll ever find. Marking your own ball seemed kind of like an insult to them as the one caddie would mark, clean and replace the balls of all in the foursome.
Men who bet would pay up after every hole, not after the round, and money was always passed through the caddies, never directly player to player.
Courses, mostly, were beautiful. Many courses were carved out of the mountains and visually stunning. And elevation changes? My regular course was cold in the winter and would often have snow only on the higher elevation holes.
Hard to maintain greens – Monsoon season hits and it’s 4-5 weeks of nonstop downpour. Then it ends and, because all the rain shallowed the roots, the August sun and heat roasts and kills the greens. Fall arrives and the greens come back and they remain in good shape until the following summer when the cycle starts over.
And yes, if you are a single handicap and can hit the ball over 250 yards, they react as if in awe of your shots.
The wealthy can be slow and sometimes not as fun to play with, but the average Koreans are wonderful; knowledgeable, polite – just wonderful people. It’s a great place to play golf!
James5 years ago
Thanks for the added info Terry! For a small country filled with mountains and hills, carving courses out of rocks is pretty much the only solution.
David Stockwell5 years ago
Having spent some time (6 months) in Korea in the 1990s, it would seem to me a good mash-up would be a Screen Golf facility with a built-in No-rae-bang for after game festivities…I’d go!
James5 years ago
You may be part Korean, my friend!
Matt5 years ago
Thank you for taking the time to report on your experiences. I find it fascinating how different cultures from around the world approach the same game. This is one of my favorite articles from MGS. Well done James.
James5 years ago
Thanks Matt. I appreciate it!
Tom Burns5 years ago
During my working days I spent a large amount of time in Asia, including South Korea. The passion for golf was/is amazing! As an exec from an American tech company I had the opportunity to play golf on many courses throughout Asia.
This article reinforces my experiences in that golf in South Korea and elsewhere in Asia is very expensive. That said, the facilities and the courses are top-notch!
Culturally, it’s very different from the States. I’ve played courses over there where I’ve had as many as 3 caddies per round – all female! One carried the bag, one as a fore-caddy, and one to hold an umbrella over me to protect me from the sun!
I much prefer the American approach to golf where we at least try to make it affordable to the youth. Tough to grow the game at Asian prices.
Very enjoyable article!
D.A.5 years ago
Tks for this read. Now I know why the Korean Women seem to dominate. Seri Kids!
Don5 years ago
Really good insight into Korean Golf. I have to say tho. If I was living in Korea, I doubt that I would be playing golf. I don’t know that I would have enough motivation to seek it out. Seem too rich for my blood.
James5 years ago
You’d actually get really into screen golf, I bet. It’s a lot of fun with friends and it can get really competitive. Plus, you can play it anytime in any type of weather for cheap!
Brandon5 years ago
A lot of the time when I play golf in the San Francisco Bay Area I feel like I’m playing in Korea.
LAGolf5 years ago
Come to L.A. It’s even more so, LA is the most populous city of Koreans outside of Korea.
Aaron Merritt5 years ago
Bill Gardner4 years ago
I want to recruit Korean golfers for the college where I am the coach which is Walters State. I have not been able to find a recruiting service for Korean Golfers. Help please