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.
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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