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.