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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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Sergio Garcia out; Olympic men’s golf field announced

Golf - Olympics: Day 7
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The Tokyo Olympic men’s golf field was announced Tuesday, drawn from the Official World Golf Ranking after the U.S. Open finished Sunday.

The U.S. qualifying race was still in play going into the U.S. Open, but the results didn’t change the four qualifiers — Justin Thomas, Collin MorikawaXander Schauffele and Bryson DeChambeau.

Dustin Johnson, the highest-ranked American at No. 2 behind Spaniard Jon Rahm, said in March that he would decline an Olympic spot. Fellow major champions Sergio Garcia of Spain, Adam Scott of Australia and Martin Kaymer of Germany also withdrew. As did world No. 11 Tyrrell Hatton of Great Britain.

Schauffele said after the U.S. Open on Sunday that he was undecided, but his name is in the field for now. Patrick Cantlay would get in if Schauffele withdraws.

Garcia’s withdrawal was the most recent of the big stars. The 2017 Masters champion pulled out citing a focus on trying to qualify for the Ryder Cup, according to his social media. Garcia, 41, tied for eighth at the 2016 Olympics.

The U.S. is so deep that it’s forced to leave home golfers ranked Nos. 7-9 in the world — Cantlay, Brooks Koepka (who was bearish on accepting a spot if he qualified) and Patrick Reed. A nation can qualify no more than four golfers, and no more than two if any are ranked outside the top 15.

To fill the field of 60, the International Golf Federation had to dip down to the world’s 356th-ranked male golfer, Udayan Mane of India.

Golf returned to the Olympics in 2016 for the first time since 1904. All three Rio Olympic men’s medalists failed to qualify for Tokyo.

The Olympic women’s golf field will be drawn from the Rolex Rankings after the Women’s PGA Championship next week.

Olympic men’s golf field (most recent update July 6):

Jon Rahm (ESP)
Justin Thomas (USA)
Collin Morikawa (USA)
Xander Schauffele (USA)
Bryson DeChambeau (USA)
Rory McIlroy (IRL)
Viktor Hovland (NOR)
Hideki Matsuyama (JPN)
Paul Casey (GBR)
Abraham Ancer (MEX)
Sungjae Im (KOR)
Cameron Smith (AUS)
Joaquin Niemann (CHI)
Tommy Fleetwood (GBR)
Corey Conners (CAN)
Garrick Higgo (RSA)
Shane Lowry (IRL)
Marc Leishman (AUS)
Christiaan Bezuidenhout (RSA)
Siwoo Kim (KOR)
Carlos Ortiz (MEX)
Mackenzie Hughes (CAN)
Sebastian Munoz (COL)
Guido Migliozzi (ITA)
Rikuya Hoshino (JPN)
Antoine Rozner (FRA)
Thomas Detry (BEL)
Alex Noren (SWE)
Thomas Pieters (BEL)
Kalle Samooja (FIN)
Matthias Schwab (AUT)
Rasmus Hojgaard (DEN)
Sami Valimaki (FIN)
Jazz Janewattananond (THA)
Jhonattan Vegas (VEN)
Francesco Molinari (ITA)
Henrik Norlander (SWE)
Guillermo Mito Pereira (CHI)
Adri Arnaus (ESP)
Joachim Hansen (DEN)
Rory Sabbatini (SVK)
Sepp Straka (AUT)
Ryan Fox (NZL)
C.T. Pan (TPE)
Romain Langasque (FRA)
Adrian Meronk (POL)
Maximilian Kieffer (GER)
Juvic Pagunsan (PHI)
Ondrej Lieser (CZE)
Scott Vincent (ZIM)
Gunn Charoenkul (THA)
Hurly Long (GER)
Fabrizio Zanotti (PAR)
Rafael Campos (PUR)
Gavin Green (MAS)
Carl Yuan (CHN)
Kristian Krogh Johannessen (NOR)
Wu Ashun (CHN)
Anirban Lahiri (IND)
Udayan Mane (IND)

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Three siblings. One Olympics; Nelly, Jessica, Sebastian Korda set for Tokyo

2021 KPMG Women's PGA Championship
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The Kordas may be the first family of the Tokyo Olympics.

Nelly Korda won the Women’s PGA Championship on Sunday and became the first U.S. female golfer to be ranked No. 1 in the world since Stacy Lewis in 2014. She leads qualifiers for the U.S. Olympic women’s golf team in Tokyo.

Older sister Jessica also qualified, confirmed by the Rolex Rankings update on Monday morning keeping her in the world top 15 and among the top four Americans.

Younger brother Sebastian is also in line to qualify for the Tokyo Games in tennis. Four U.S. men can qualify in singles, and though he was the fifth American at the cutoff two weeks ago, at least two of the men above him said they will decline their spots.

The Kordas’ dad, Petr, won the 1998 Australian Open tennis tournament. Their mom, Regina Rajchrtova, played tennis at the 1988 Seoul Olympics for Czechoslovakia.

The U.S. Olympic golf and tennis teams for Tokyo have not been announced, so it’s still possible any of the Kordas decline spots.

If Sebastian and either sister accept their spots, they will become the first U.S. brother and sister to compete in the same Olympics in different sports. If all three go, it will be the fifth time in U.S. history that three siblings compete in the same Olympics together, according to Olympic historian Bill Mallon of the OlyMADMen and Olympedia.org.

The other U.S. female golfers to qualify for Tokyo are Danielle Kang and Lexi Thompson. Thompson is the only one of the eight U.S. Olympic golf qualifiers who competed in 2016, when the sport returned to the Games for the first time in 112 years.

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