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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Kenenisa Bekele still eyes Eliud Kipchoge’s marathon world record, but a duel must wait

Kenenisa Bekele
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LONDON — Kenenisa Bekele made headlines last week by declaring “of course I am the best” long distance runner ever. But the Ethiopian was fifth-best at Sunday’s London Marathon, finishing 74 seconds behind Kenya’s Amos Kipruto.

Bekele, 40, clocked 2:05:53, the fastest-ever marathon by a runner 40 years or older. He was with the lead pack until being dropped in the 21st mile.

But Bekele estimated he could have run 90 to 120 seconds faster had he not missed parts of six weeks of training with hip and joint injuries.

“I expect better even if the preparation is short,” he said. “I know my talent and I know my capacity, but really I couldn’t achieve what I expect.”

Bekele is the second-fastest marathoner in history behind Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge, who broke his own world record by clocking 2:01:09 at the Berlin Marathon last week.

“I am happy when I see Eliud Kipchoge run that time,” Bekele said. “It motivates all athletes who really expect to do the same thing.”

LONDON MARATHON: Results

Bekele’s best time was within two seconds of Kipchoge’s previous world record (2:01:39). He described breaking Kipchoge’s new mark as the “main goal” for the rest of his career.

“Yes, I hope, one day it will happen, of course,” Bekele said. “With good preparation, I don’t know when, but we will see one more time.”

Nobody has won more London Marathons than Kipchoge, a four-time champion who set the course record (2:02:37) in 2019. But the two-time Olympic marathon champion did not run this year in London, as elite marathoners typically choose to enter one race each spring and fall.

Bekele does not know which race he will enter in the spring. But it will not be against Kipchoge.

“I need to show something first,” Bekele said. “I need to run a fast time. I have to check myself. This is not enough.”

Kipchoge will try to become the first runner to win three Olympic marathon titles at the Paris Games. Bekele, who will be 42 in 2024, has not committed to trying to qualify for the Ethiopian team.

“There’s a long time to go before Paris,” Bekele said. “At this moment I am not decided. I have to show something.”

So who is the greatest long distance runner ever?

Bekele can make a strong case on the track:

Bekele
Four Olympic medals (three gold)
Six World Championship medals (five gold)
Former 5000m and 10,000m world-record holder

Kipchoge
Two Olympic medals
Two World Championship medals (one gold)

But Kipchoge can make a strong case on the pavement:

Bekele
Second-fastest marathoner in history
Two World Marathon Major victories

Kipchoge
Four of the five best marathon times in history
Two-time Olympic marathon champion
12 World Marathon Major victories

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Yalemzerf Yehualaw, Amos Kipruto win London Marathon

Yalemzerf Yehualaw
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Ethiopian Yalemzerf Yehualaw became the youngest female runner to win the London Marathon, while Kenyan Amos Kipruto earned the biggest victory of his career in the men’s race.

Yehualaw, 23, clocked 2:17:26, prevailing by 41 seconds over 2021 London champ Joyciline Jepkosgei of Kenya.

Yehualaw tripped and fell over a speed bump around the 20-mile mark. She quickly rejoined the lead pack, then pulled away from Jepkosgei by running the 24th mile in a reported 4:43, which converts to 2:03:30 marathon pace; the women’s world record is 2:14:04.

Yehualaw and Jepkosgei were pre-race favorites after world record holder Brigid Kosgei of Kenya withdrew Monday with a right hamstring injury.

On April 24, Yehualaw ran the fastest women’s debut marathon in history, a 2:17:23 to win in Hamburg, Germany.

She has joined the elite tier of female marathoners, a group led by Kenyan Peres Jepchirchir, the reigning Olympic, New York City and Boston champion. Another Ethiopian staked a claim last week when Tigist Assefa won Berlin in 2:15:37, shattering Yehualaw’s national record.

Joan Benoit Samuelson, the first Olympic women’s marathon champion in 1984, finished Sunday’s race in 3:20:20 at age 65.

LONDON MARATHON: Results

Kipruto, 30, won the men’s race in 2:04:39. He broke free from the leading group in the 25th mile and crossed the finish line 33 seconds ahead of Ethiopian Leul Gebresilase, who said he had hamstring problems.

Kipruto, one of the pre-race favorites, had never won a major marathon but did finish second behind world record holder Eliud Kipchoge in Tokyo (2022) and Berlin (2018) and third at the world championships (2019) and Tokyo (2018).

Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele, the second-fastest marathoner in history, was fifth after being dropped in the 21st mile. His 2:05:53 was the fastest-ever marathon by a runner 40 years or older. Bekele ran his personal best at the 2019 Berlin Marathon — 2:01:41 — and has not run within four minutes of that time since.

The major marathon season continues next Sunday with the Chicago Marathon, headlined by a women’s field that includes Kenyan Ruth Chepngetich and American Emily Sisson.

London returns next year to its traditional April place after being pushed to October the last three years due to the pandemic.

MORE: Bekele looks ahead to Kipchoge chase after London Marathon

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