For South Korean golfers, Presidents Cup and Asian Games could be life-changing

Presidents Cup South Korea Golf
Presidents Cup International team assistant captain K.J. Choi (left to right), Si Woo Kim and Sungjae Im/Getty
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CHARLOTTE — A record four South Korean men are competing at this week’s Presidents Cup, where the International team eyes its second title in 14 editions (and first since 1998). It will be a historic week if the plucky underdogs can unseat the Americans, but for half of the South Korean contingent, what happens around this time next year could be even more life-changing.

Back in February, while the international sports world focused on the Beijing Winter Olympics, news circulated that the Asian Games (held in Winter Olympic years) would allow professional golfers for the first time later in 2022.

South Korea’s golf federation decided to use two of its four men’s golf team spots on professionals — its two highest men in the Official World Golf Ranking — and the other two on amateurs.

Why this is important: the Asian Games carry added significance for South Koreans, given a gold medal at the event can largely exempt them from the nation’s 18-month military service requirement for men. Athletes who win an Asian Games gold medal, or an Olympic medal of any color, can have their service reduced to a few weeks of basic training.

Before February’s news, South Korea’s top male pro golfers who had yet to serve had to win an Olympic medal to be eligible for the exemption: a quadrennial individual tournament with many of the world’s top players. A South Korean man didn’t finish in the top 10 of the last two Olympics, after the sport returned to the program following a 112-year break.

With February’s news, those pros are now eligible for the Asian Games — where the field is continental and, perhaps more importantly, there is a second gold-medal opportunity: a team event for each gender.

South Korea won the Asian Games men’s team event in 2006 and 2010, was second as host in 2002 and 2014 and third in 2018. Those were all amateur competitions. With pros, South Korea could be in a stronger position.

South Korea has passed Japan as the deepest Asian nation in men’s professional golf, evidenced by the quartet on the 12-man Presidents Cup team, all ranked in the top 76 in the world. Japan has one at the Presidents Cup, 2021 Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama, its lone man in the top 79 in the world.

MORE: Presidents Cup broadcast schedule on Golf Channel, NBC, Peacock

The South Korean foursome at the Presidents Cup includes K.H. Lee, who was on the 2010 Asian Games champion team to earn his military exemption. Plus Sungjae Im, Tom Kim and Si Woo Kim, three PGA Tour winners who have not yet fulfilled their service.

But no more than two of them can be on the Asian Games team, should the South Korean federation selection procedures remain the same.

Back in April, South Korean media reported that Im and Si Woo Kim were chosen for the Asian Games team as the nation’s highest-ranked men. Days later, the Asian Games, scheduled to be held this month in Hangzhou, China, were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. They have been rescheduled for next September and October.

In the time since, the 20-year-old Tom Kim became the second-youngest PGA Tour winner since World War II. He passed Si Woo Kim in the world rankings and now sits at No. 22, which is 21 spots ahead of Lee and 54 spots ahead of Si Woo Kim. Im is No. 19.

A contact from South Korea’s golf federation said in an email Wednesday that the federation has not decided who will be on the team now that the Games have been pushed back a year.

Tom Kim, speaking Tuesday at the Presidents Cup, believed that qualifying will be reopened and that the two highest-ranked men come next spring will be in line to be on the team.

“It kind of worked well for me, but for some guys it didn’t really work well,” Tom Kim said of the Asian Games postponement. “Whoever plays the best golf ends up on that team. I’m focused on getting my job done this week and keeping my world ranking up there. I’ve never had a chance to play for my country. So if I could make my start at the Asian Games, it would be an honor.”

Lee was asked Wednesday his thoughts on possibly playing another Asian Games. “Because I played previously, and I’m a professional now, I’m going to stick to the PGA Tour,” he said through a translator.

That leaves Im, Tom Kim and Si Woo Kim, barring a breakthrough from somebody currently outside the top 100. South Korean men must enlist by age 28. Im, 24, and Tom Kim will still be young enough at the 2024 Paris Games to qualify for the exemption. Si Woo Kim turns 28 next June, possibly making the Asian Games his last chance.

“We’re all really close,” Tom Kim said. “We’re good friends and want the best for each other and support each other. So we spend a lot of time [together] outside the golf course, too. Obviously, there is a good, healthy rivalry. But all we do is just focus on how can we play the best golf and, you know, good golf kind of takes care of everything.”

A similarity between the Presidents Cup and the Asian Games, given how rarely they are played and the limited fields, is that a golfer’s first appearance could also be his last.

“So there’s a little bit more pressure behind it,” Im, through a translator, said of the Presidents Cup before being asked to compare the Asian Games. “There’s several reasons why the Asian Games is important to the Korean players. But most of it is, as a Korean, to win the gold medal for the country and to be one of the best Asian players would be very, very meaningful.”

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Oleksandr Abramenko, Ukraine’s top Winter Olympian, tears knee, career in question

Oleksandr Abramenko
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Aerials skier Oleksandr Abramenko, who won both of Ukraine’s medals over the last two Winter Olympics, is out for the season after a knee ligament tear and said he might not return to competition at all, according to Ukrainian media.

Abramenko, 34, won gold at the 2018 Olympics — Ukraine’s second-ever individual Winter Olympic title after figure skater Oksana Baiul in 1994 — and silver last year.

He competed once this season, placing 10th at a World Cup in Finland on Dec. 4, and then flew with the Ukrainian national team to stay in Utah ahead of World Cups in Canada in January and at the 2002 Olympic venue in Park City this weekend. The area also hosted many Ukraine winter sports athletes this past summer.

Abramenko missed the competition in Canada two weeks ago due to injury and then wasn’t on the start list for today’s aerials event in Park City. He is set to miss the world championships later this month in Georgia (the country, not the state).

Abramenko said he needs surgery, followed by a nine-month rehabilitation process, similar to an operation on his other knee six years ago, according to Ukraine’s public broadcaster. He said he will see how the recovery goes and determine whether to return to the sport at age 35, according to the report.

Abramenko is already the oldest Olympic men’s aerials medalist and come the 2026 Milan-Cortina Winter Games will be older than all but one male aerialist in Olympic history, according to Olympedia.org.

At last year’s Olympics, Abramenko, Ukraine’s flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony, was hugged after the aerials final by Russian Ilya Burov, who finished one spot behind Abramenko for a bronze medal. A week later, Russia invaded Ukraine.

A week after that, Abramenko posed for a photo sitting on a mattress in a Kyiv parking garage with his wife and 2-year-old son published by The New York Times.

“We spend the night in the underground parking in the car, because the air attack siren is constantly on,” Abramenko texted, according to the newspaper. “It’s scary to sleep in the apartment, I myself saw from the window how the air defense systems worked on enemy missiles, and strong explosions were heard.”

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Freestyle skiers in World Cup action on NBC Sports, Peacock

Ski Halfpipe
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Olympic gold medalists David Wise and Alex Hall headline World Cup freestyle skiing and snowboarding stops in the U.S. this weekend, airing on NBC Sports and Peacock.

Wise, who last Sunday won his fifth X Games Aspen ski halfpipe title, led the qualifiers into the final at the Mammoth Mountain Grand Prix in California.

He’s joined in the 10-man final by U.S. Olympic teammates Aaron Blunck and Birk Irving. The women’s ski halfpipe final includes the top three from last week’s X Games — Brit Zoe Atkin, Canadian Rachael Karker and American Svea Irving. Olympic champion Eileen Gu of China is out after suffering a knee injury in an X Games training crash.

The ski slopestyle finals include the reigning men’s and women’s Olympic gold medalists — Hall, plus Mathilde Gremaud of Switzerland.

The marquee snowboarders in Mammoth finals are Olympic big air silver medalist Julia Marino (slopestyle) and X Games silver medalist Maddie Mastro (halfpipe). Two-time Olympic champion Chloe Kim is taking the season off, and another double Olympic champion, Jamie Anderson, is pregnant.

Aerials and moguls skiers are competing in their lone U.S. World Cup stop in Park City, Utah.

The moguls fields including Olympic gold medalists Walter Wallberg of Sweden, Mikael Kingsbury of the U.S., Perrine Laffont of France and Jakara Anthony of Australia. Olympic silver medalist Jaelin Kauf is the standout American.

The aerials include every member of the U.S. team that took gold at last year’s Olympics — Ashley Caldwell, Chris Lillis and Justin Schoenefeld.

Freestyle Skiing and Snowboarding World Cup Broadcast Schedule

Day Event Time (ET) Platform
Saturday Moguls 11 a.m. CNBC, Peacock
Ski Halfpipe 3 p.m. NBC, Peacock
Sunday Ski Slopestyle 12 p.m. CNBC, Peacock
Sun., Feb. 12 Aerials, Dual Moguls 2 p.m. NBC, Peacock
Snowboard Halfpipe 2 p.m. CNBC, Peacock

All NBC and CNBC coverage also streams on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app for subscribers.

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