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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 [email protected], 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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Club Junkie

Club Junkie: The softest forged irons you’ve never heard of and the Cobra RadSpeed hybrid!

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Ever heard of New Level Golf? If you are looking for wildly soft players irons, then you should check them out. The PF-1 blades and the PF-2 cavity backs are as soft as anything on the market right now. Great irons for skilled players.

The Cobra RadSpeed hybrid is a solid mid/high launching hybrid with a solid Cobra feel and sound. Pretty neutral-bias ball flight with only a slight draw.

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Opinion & Analysis

The future of club fitting is going virtual

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Thanks to technology, you can buy everything from custom-made suits to orthotics online without ever walking into a store or working in person with an expert.

Now, with the help of video and launch monitors, along with a deeper understanding of dynamics than ever before, club fitting is quickly going virtual too, and it’s helping golfers find better equipment faster!

What really took so long?

The real advancements started in the coaching world around a decade ago. What used to require heavy cameras and tripods now simply requires a phone and you have a high-definition slow-motion video that can be sent around the world in a matter of seconds.

Beyond video, modern launch monitors and their ability to capture data have quickly turned a guessing game of “maybe this will work” into a precision step-by-step process of elimination to optimize. When you combine video and launch monitor elements with an understanding of club fitting principles and basic biomechanics, you have the ability to quickly evaluate a golfer’s equipment and make recommendations to help them play better golf.

The benefits of virtual fitting

  • Any golfer with a phone and access to a launch monitor can get high-level recommendations from a qualified fitter.
  • Time and cost-saving to and from a fitter. (This seems obvious, but one of the reasons I personally receive so many questions about club fitting is because those reaching out don’t have access to fitting facilities within a reasonable drive)
  • It’s an opportunity to get a better understanding our your equipment from an expert.

How virtual fittings really work

The key element of a virtual fitting is the deep understanding of the available products to the consumer. On an OEM level, line segmentation makes this fairly straightforward, but it becomes slightly more difficult for brand-agnostic fitters that have so many brands to work with, but it also shows their depth of knowledge and experience.

It’s from this depth of knowledge and through an interview that a fitter can help analyze strengths and weaknesses in a player’s game and use their current clubs as a starting point for building a new set—then the video and launch monitor data comes in.

But it can quickly go very high level…

One of the fastest emerging advancements in this whole process is personalized round tracking data from companies like Arccos, which gives golfers the ability to look at their data without personal bias. This allows the golfer along with any member of their “team” to get an honest assessment of where improvements can be found. The reason this is so helpful is that golfers of all skill levels often have a difficult time being critical about their own games or don’t even really understand where they are losing shots.

It’s like having a club-fitter or coach follow you around for 10 rounds of golf or more—what was once only something available to the super-elite is now sitting in your pocket. All of this comes together and boom, you have recommendations for your new clubs.

Current limitations

We can’t talk about all the benefits without pointing out some of the potential limitations of virtual club fittings, the biggest being the human element that is almost impossible to replicate by phone or through video chat.

The other key factor is how a player interprets feel, and when speaking with an experienced fitter recently while conducting a “trial fitting” the biggest discussion point was how to communicate with golfers about what they feel in their current clubs. Video and data can help draw some quick conclusions but what a player perceives is still important and this is where the conversation and interview process is vital.

Who is offering virtual club fittings?

There are a lot of companies offering virtual fittings or fitting consultations over the phone. One of the biggest programs is from Ping and their Tele-Fitting process, but other companies like TaylorMade and PXG also have this service available to golfers looking for new equipment.

Smaller direct-to-consumer brands like New level, Sub 70, and Haywood Golf have offered these services since their inception as a way to work with consumers who had limited experience with their products but wanted to opportunity to get the most out of their gear and their growth has proven this model to work.

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Opinion & Analysis

The Wedge Guy: Why wedge mastery is so elusive

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I have conducted numerous surveys of golfers over my 40-year golf industry career, because I have always believed that if you want to know what people are thinking, you simply have to ask them.

As a gearhead for wedges and a wedge designer over the past 30 years, most of my research and analysis is focused on these short-range scoring clubs and how golfers use them. What this research continually tells me is that most golfers—regardless of handicap–consider the wedges the hardest clubs in the bag to master. That’s because they are. I would even go so far as to say that the difficulty of attaining mastery even extends to the best players in the world.

Watching the Genesis Open this past weekend, for example, it seemed like these guys were hitting wedge approaches on nearly every hole. And while there were certainly many shots that covered the flag—like Max Homa’s approach on 18–there were also a great number that came up woefully short. Not what you would expect when a top-tier tour professional has a sand or gap wedge in their hands.

The simple fact is that wedges are the most difficult clubs in our bags with which to attain consistent shotmaking mastery, and that is because of the sheer design of the clubhead itself. For clarity of this article, I’m talking about those full- or near full-swing wedge shots, not the vast variety of short greenside shots we all face every round. To get mastery of those shots (like the tour pros exhibit every week), you simply have to spend lots of time hitting lots of shots, experimenting and exploring different techniques. There are no shortcuts to a deadly short game.

But today I’m talking about those prime opportunities to score, when you have a full- or near-full swing wedge into a par-five or short par four. We should live for those moments, but all too often we find ourselves disappointed in the outcome.

The good news is that’s not always all your fault.

First of all, you must understand that every wedge shot is, in effect, a glancing blow to the ball because of the loft involved. With 50 to 60 degrees of loft—or even 45 to 48 degrees with a pitching wedge—the loft of the club is such that the ball is given somewhat of a glancing blow. That demands a golf swing with a much higher degree of precision in the strike than say, an 8-iron shot.

I have always believed that most golfers can improve their wedge play by making a slower-paced swing than you might with a longer iron. This allows you to be more precise in making sure that your hands lead the clubhead through impact, which is a must when you have a wedge in your hands. Without getting into too much detail, the heavier, stiffer shaft in most wedges does not allow this club to load and unload in the downswing, so the most common error is for the clubhead to get ahead of the hands before impact, thereby adding loft and aggravating this glancing blow. I hope that makes sense.
The other aspect of wedge design that makes consistent wedge distance so elusive is the distribution of the mass around the clubhead. This illustration of a typical tour design wedge allows me to show you something I have seen time and again in robotic testing of various wedges.

Because all the mass is along the bottom of the clubhead, the ideal impact point is low in the face (A), so that most of the mass is behind the ball. Tour players are good at this, but most recreational golfers whose wedges I’ve examined have a wear pattern at least 2-4 grooves higher on the club than I see on tour players’ wedges.

So, why is this so important?

Understand that every golf club has a single “sweet spot”–that pinpoint place where the smash factor is optimized—where clubhead speed translates to ball speed at the highest efficiency. On almost all wedges, that spot is very low on the clubhead, as indicated by the “A” arrow here, and robotic testing reveals that smash factor to be in the range of 1.16-1.18, meaning the ball speed is 16-18% higher than the clubhead speed.

To put that in perspective, smash factor on drivers can be as high as 1.55 or even a bit more, and it’s barely below that in your modern game improvement 7-iron. The fact is—wedges are just not as efficient in this measure, primarily because of the glancing blow I mentioned earlier.

But–and here’s the kicker–if you move impact up the face of a wedge just half to five-eights of an inch from the typical recreational golfer’s impact point, as indicated by the “B” arrow, smash factor on ‘tour design’ wedges can be reduced to as low as 0.92 to 0.95. That costs you 40 to 60 feet on a 90-yard wedge shot . . . because you missed “perfect” by a half-inch or less!

So, that shot you know all too well—the ball sitting up and caught a bit high in the face—is going fall in the front bunker or worse. That result is not all your fault. The reduced distance is a function of the diminished smash factor of the wedge head itself.

That same half-inch miss with your driver or even your game-improvement 7-iron is hardly noticeable.

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