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Opinion & Analysis

Golf in Korea, Gangnam Style

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Greetings from South Korea, a small country in terms of landmass but large in its unbridled enthusiasm for the game of golf.

Koreans’ love for the game is evident in the fact that six of the current top 10 players on the Rolex Women’s World Ranking (including the top two) are Korean born players, and Y.E. Yang remains the only Asian player to win a major championship. And we all know who he had to stare down over 18 excruciating holes…

Not only are Koreans obsessed about playing golf, but the numbers also show that we like to buy things. Lots of golf things.

For example, despite having a little over 3 million active golfers (less than 6% of the country’s population), Korea is the third-largest golf consumer market in the world, only after the USA and Japan. It means we spend more on golf and golf-related things than all of Europe combined.

What’s more surprising is that golf hasn’t even been around for very long in Korea. It was said to be first introduced in 1897 when, to pass the time, a group of Englishmen employed by Korea’s Maritime Affairs and Tourism Organization built a makeshift six-hole course next to the Korean Customs Office.

But until Se-ri Pak’s win at the 1996 U.S. Women’s Open almost a hundred years later, most Koreans had no time in their lives for what they considered a hobby for the rich and the powerful elite.

So just how did South Korea go from a disinterested third party observer to a golf world-superpower in a single generation? How is it that its golfing population is actually on the rise while those in the U.S., Japan, and Europe are declining?

Rise of the Machines

With the ever-increasing number of video games and mobile phones, golf faces an uphill battle in getting youngsters away from the tiny screens and onto a golf course. Korea is no exception to the digital peril.

But in Korea, another type of digital revolution has also been responsible for growing the game of golf among people in their 20s and 30s, and even in their 50s. This growth in the unlikely age groups is credited to the burgeoning golf simulation game generally referred to here as “screen golf.”

Many of you have probably heard about golf simulation systems or have even played a few rounds on them. There are a good variety of systems now available in the U.S., and most do a decent job of “simulating” playing golf by calculating ball speed, launch angle, rate of spin and direction.

But to make a long story short, the current Korean golf industry owes a lot to the rise of the Screen Golf culture, which was first introduced in the late 1990s. As I said earlier, not only was golf expensive back then (still is!), but access to golf courses was also extremely limited.

Although screen golf didn’t quite catch on until about 2005, golfers and non-golfers alike gradually realized that it was an acceptable substitute for the real thing, especially in bad weather and during winter months.

Also, it was easy to access and cheap. You didn’t have golf clubs or shoes? No problem. The rental fee is even included with the modest “green fee” of about $15-$25 per person.

Overall, this new way of golfing allowed more people to experience this great game. Soon, people who were curious but could not readily access golf were eagerly lining up to see what the big deal was.

Today, a screen golf facility be found practically on every city block and many are open 24/7. You or your foursome can enjoy a competitive round or leisurely practice in a private room with hundreds of virtual courses from all over the world.

With millions of virtual rounds being played across the country each week, it was only a matter of time before those who experienced the game first-hand were motivated to further invest in their own clubs and venture onto the golf course.

What began as a means of practice in foul weather and largely derided by serious golfers, screen golf is now firmly rooted as an integral part of the Korean golf culture.

Some simulation systems even utilize an AI-assisted voice recognition software as digital caddies, while others analyze your swing or rank your skill level alongside millions of other golfers across the country and keep track of all data.

The popularity of screen golf has also lead to the creation of its own television channel, along with professional men’s and women’s tour participating in weekly tournaments for hefty prize money and sponsors.

Best of all, it proved that one is never too old to learn the game and that golf can be enjoyed by almost everyone, as it was always meant to be.

Be sure to check out the videos below to see just what the big hubbub is all about.

 

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James is a golf gear-nut living and writing about all things golf in Korea. A fan of Tiger, Fred, and Seve, he is forever seeking the holy grail of golf clubs that will lower his score. He graduated from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC, Canada and has been in Korea to witness the explosive growth of golf since 1996. Despite playing golf for over 30 years and being a perpetual 10-handicapper, James steadfastly claims to be the embodiment of the Average Joe Korean golfer. He can be reached at jimmyinseoul@gmail.com, and often introduces cool new Asia-based golf gear on YouTube and Instagram.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Josh

    Jan 20, 2020 at 8:45 am

    Ummm, yah. Pretty sure Y.E. isn’t the only Asian born player to win a major. You even wrote about Se-ri Pak winning the U.S. Open in ‘96 a few paragraphs later. I know you meant to write “male Asian player” but come on. Not expecting perfect journalism on this site but if you’re posting an article here, maybe read it over a couple times? Just because spell check and grammar check don’t underline anything, doesn’t mean it’s factually accurate.

    • Jimmy

      Jan 22, 2020 at 1:30 pm

      Thanks for pointing it out, Josh. Glad you caught on to what was intended despite the missing word.

  2. Shallowbutdeadly

    Jan 19, 2020 at 11:11 pm

    Screen Golf in Korea blows ours away! We need to up our game in North America, winters are long here.

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Opinion & Analysis

A road trip to St. Andrews

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In 2017, my son Brian and his wife Lauren, proposed a family trip to Scotland. Both of them have traveled a surprising amount for a couple barely 30 years old, but for us it would be a huge trip. We couldn’t get it scheduled for 2018 but everything lined up for October, 2019, a trip that might even include playing the Old Course in St. Andrews, if we got lucky. The amazing Lauren made all the arrangements, beginning with multiple email exchanges with the staff at the Old Course, who were extremely gracious and encouraging in their communications.

Unlike most other courses, in order to play the Old Course, you have three options: One is to book a very expensive trip through a travel broker who will guarantee a tee time. This is the only way to make your arrangements in advance, but you’re paying thousands for the package, which would include at least three other days of golf. Sounds great but above our budget. Secondly, you can take a real gamble and just show up at the starter’s window the day you are hoping to play, and get in line as early as 3 a.m., put your name on the list and then wait, maybe all day, maybe hopelessly. It’s no way to budget an entire day on your vacation. The third way is to use what is called the “ballot system,” submitting your request for a tee time via email to standrews.com, 48 hours ahead and hopefully getting a spot.

Now, it’s not as grim a prospect as it may sound for planning to play golf in St. Andrews. The above only applies to getting onto the Old Course. We were able to make a tee time for the Jubilee Course, one of six other courses (Jubilee, Castle, New Course, Eden, Strathtyrum, and Balgove), all part of the St. Andrews Links complex, “The Home of Golf” as their brochure proclaims. Since we were scheduling our trip for the tail-end of the golf season, the gentleman from St. Andrews wrote that he was cautiously optimistic we would be successful using the ballot system.

This wasn’t just a golfing vacation, the five us had an outstanding time touring the west coast of Scotland, including the Oban Whisky distillery, the Harry Potter train in Glencoe, Ben Nevis—the highest peak in the UK, Fort William, and the spectacular Highlands, the town of St. Andrews, and finally the marvelous city of Edinburgh. We ended up spending one night in St. Andrews, at The Saint, a lovely four-room hotel, a 10-minute walk from the Old Course. That evening, walking down cobblestone streets, with the R&A clubhouse coming into view, was like walking in a dream.

Our day started out by driving directly to the new Links Clubhouse, which has wonderful views of the courses from the restaurant. We had lunch, and I must admit to being a bit nervous over my chicken bacon mayo sandwich. We’d parked our bags in the locker room down below, it’s just what you’d expect in terms of world-class accommodations and feel. I could just imagine the pros suiting up there as they prepare to play in The Open.

Our day of golf at the Jubilee Course was spectacular, although it got off to a rainy start, but the weather cleared by the fourth hole. Mary, Jill, and Lauren formed our gallery as we teed off, then they went for a walk around the lovely town. I parred the first hole and told Brian that made my entire trip to Scotland. I was on fire, shooting 42 on the front nine but hitting only three fairways and two greens in regulation. Brian shot 45. We’d decided on match play, and I was up by three on the 11th hole. Brian then said the fateful words, “You haven’t hit into a pot bunker all day!” Which I promptly did. My game immediately tanked while he proceeded to make a total of nine pars, shooting 42 on the back, and won the match 2 & 1. Our gallery re-appeared on the 17th hole, the sun was shining, and we were in golf heaven! We ended the day with a pint at the famous Dunvegan Pub by the R&A clubhouse.

Earlier in the day, Brian had received an email from St. Andrews, unfortunately stating that we had not been selected for the ballot to play on the Old Course the next day. He resubmitted our request for the following day with fingers crossed. We headed to our next stop, Edinburgh, looking forward to exploring this ancient yet cosmopolitan city. During our walking tour, Brian received the email notification that we’d scored an 11 a.m. tee time on the Old Course for Friday. He and I would be making a road trip back north while the ladies spent the day in Edinburgh.

It was about an hour ride back to St. Andrews but traffic was quite manageable and we arrived at 9:30, plenty of time for breakfast at the Links Clubhouse. I felt that anticipatory excitement I always have right before marshaling at a big event, like a U.S. Open, where the atmosphere of the place is nearly overwhelming. Not really nervousness, but we were about to play the Old Course! Isn’t that every golfer’s dream? To say Brian was wound up tight would be an understatement, he could barely choke down half a scone. The walk over toward the starters shack, where we would meet our caddies, with the R&A clubhouse right there at the first tee was unreal.

The clerk was so gracious, taking our 130 Scottish pounds green fee (about $160), and handing us a very nice valuables pouch complete with an amazingly detailed yardage book, tees, pencils, divot tool, and scorecard. We were then approached by our two caddies, who between them had nearly 30 years of caddying experience. I got John, whose personality was perfect for me, quiet, calm, not too chatty, yet personable. Brian’s guy, Steve was just right for him as well, right from central casting with a thick Scottish brogue. He instantly bonded with Brian to become his playing partner/coach, which was just what he needed to get over the first tee jitters.

The starter, Richard, approached us as we made our way over to the first tee, greeting us much like you see them do at the start of the Open Championship. He made our presence there seem extra special, despite the fact he’d probably done the same routine 10 thousand times. He even took our picture. We were then introduced to our two other playing partners, both former members of the course, so they didn’t need caddies to show them the way. These guys were hilarious, self-deprecating, with brogues so thick I could understand maybe one word in three, not the best golfers by any stretch, which was somehow quite reassuring and certainly less intimidating. Brian proved to be the best golfer in our foursome by far although he had a rough start, hitting his drive into the Swilcan Burn.

I was really calm on the tee, it helped that there were very few spectators as it was drizzling and maybe 50 degrees. John told me where to aim, (“at that gorse bush off in the distance”) and I was able to do exactly that. As we walked off the first tee Steve said “now you can all breathe again!” I found having a caddy to be such a wonderful added dimension to this whole experience—not just as a guide to point out where in the world I should be aiming on this alien golf layout, but also to set an expectation for me on each shot which I then tried my best to fulfill. The greens weren’t too scary as I felt used to the speeds having played Jubilee, but having John read the subtle breaks and provide aiming points was terrific.

I played bogey golf through the first 12 holes but the rain only intensified and despite John’s best effort to keep things dry, the final 6 holes were a mess. Brian was one up on our match at the turn, then went on to win decisively at 5 up, with a total for the day of 5 pars and a birdie, including par on 17, the famous Road Hole. As the day went on, we found ourselves saying over and over to each other, what a wonderful experience this was despite the conditions. Steve took the traditional picture of us on the Swilcan Bridge, on our way to finishing on 18, which Brian almost parred. He later said he had such a tremendous feeling of accomplishment, having conquered the Old Course.

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Podcasts

TG2: Brooks and Peter Kostis rip Patrick Reed

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Brooks Koepka and Peter Kostis both talk about Patrick Reed and his cheating allegations. Brooks was on SiriusXM and Kostis on No Laying Up don’t hold back their feelings on cheating. Kostis also has some PGA Tour beef, saying that they don’t care about the television broadcast.

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes or here to listen on Spotify.

Want more GolfWRX Radio? Check out our other shows (and the full archives for this show) below. 

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Opinion & Analysis

Watch for players lofting up at altitude at the WGC-Mexico Championship

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This week, at the PGA Tour’s WGC-Mexico Championship, we are going to watch some of the best and longest players on the planet play what will effectively be one of the shortest courses on tour.

Now, 7,341 yards is by no means a cakewalk, and there are shorter courses from a pure yardage perspective played on tour—Harbour Town, as an example, only plays at 7,099 yards from the very back. The difference is Harbour Town is played at sea level while Club de Golf Chapultepec is at over 7,500 feet of elevation, and when you factor in the altitude difference between the two courses, they play very differently—more on the math in a moment.

The altitude will also factor in how some players will be setting up their equipment and we could see some adjustments. The most obvious is lofting up the driver or fairways woods to increase carry, which is something Tiger Woods specifically mentioned last year.

The biggest misconception when talking about playing golf at altitude is that the ball doesn’t spin the same in thinner air and players “loft up” to maintain spin. Let’s get into the physics to bust this “spinning less” myth and simplify the science behind playing at altitude,

The golf ball is an inanimate object, and it has no idea it’s at altitude; the air will not have an impact on how much the ball will actually spin. Yes, increasing loft should, by almost every imaginable measure, increase spin but the air it travels through will not change the spin rate.

However, playing at altitude has an effect, Let’s break down what happens

  • Thinner air exerts less drag force (resistance/friction) on the ball. The ball moves more easily through this less dense air and won’t decelerate as quickly as it flies. But note that the faster an object moves the more drag force will occur
  • Less resistance also means that it is harder to shape shots. So you when you see Shot Tracer, the pros are going to be hitting it even straighter (this makes Tiger’s fairway bunker shot last year even more unbelievable)
  • Less force = less lift, the ball will fly lower and on a flatter trajectory

Time for some math from Steve Aoyama, a Principal Scientist at Titleist Golf Ball R&D (full piece here: The Effect of Altitude on Golf Ball Performance)

“You can calculate the distance gain you will experience (compared to sea level) by multiplying the elevation (in feet) by .00116. For example, if you’re playing in Reno, at 1 mile elevation (5,280 ft.) the increase is about 6% (5,280 x .00116 = 6.1248). If you normally drive the ball 250 yards at sea level, you will likely drive it 265 yards in Reno.”

Not every player will be making changes to their bag, and some will instead focus on the types of shots they are hitting instead. When speaking to Adam Scott earlier this week, I was able to ask if he planned on making any changes heading into Mexico the week after his win at the Genesis Invitational.

“It’s very rare for me to make club changes week-to-week beyond playing in the Open Championship and adding a longer iron. The one thing I focus on when playing at altitude is avoiding partial shots where I’m trying to reduce the spin because as spin goes down the ball doesn’t want to stay in the air. I’ve experienced partial shots with longer clubs that end up 25 yards short, and because of that I want to hit as many full shots as possible”

With Club de Golf Chapultepec sitting just over 7,800 feet above sea level, we’re looking at 9.048 or an increase of just over 9 percent. That makes this 7,341-yard course play 6,677 yards (+/- where the tees are placed).

 

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