Teeing Off:
Korea’s Obsession with Golf
THERE IS VERY LITTLE that is natural about building golf courses in
Korea. The country is smallslightly larger than the size of Indiana.
The terrain is mountainousless than a third of the land is fl at. And,
unlike archery and martial arts, there is no ancient historical tie to
the sport on the peninsula.
Nevertheless, Koreans are obsessed with the game and golf
courses are being built across the peninsula at breakneck rates.
They love its high- society image, and they love the fact that their
countrymenor, shall we say, countrywomenare excelling at
the highest levels of the game. Young Korean women practically
dominate the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), the top
women’s tour in the world. And there is every reason to believe that
that level of success will continue for years, as young girls take
up the sport in droves and have the money to get the best train-
ing. The sport is also popular among wealthy middle- aged house-
wives. Women make up roughly a third of the players in the country.
For these women, golf solidifi es their status and networks in high
194 The New Korea
society. It also gets them out of their homes and immersed in a peace-
ful environment that offers health benefi ts.
But beyond the status and success in competition, golf is a busi-
nessperson’s game. It has become a necessary part of forging rela-
tionships with clients and new partners and sealing business deals.
As one president of a semiconductor company put it, he had to learn
how to play golf for the sake of his business.
On any given day across Korea, tens of thousands of men and
women, dressed in ultraexpensive golf outfi ts, pack the driving
ranges and the hundreds of golf courses across the country. The de-
mand far exceeds the supply of golf courses, so new ones are be-
ing planned wherever they are feasible. Often that means on land
that can’t be cultivated for crops. Accordingly, developers are blast-
ing away mountainsidesand drawing the ire of villagers. As of
early 2009, dozens of construction projects were in various stages
of development. But the recession has put most of those projects
on hold. Still, there’s no doubt the thirst for golf will continue for
years to come.
On March 1, 2006, Lee Hae- chan, the prime minister of South Ko-
rea, was seen in Busan playing golf with wealthy businessmen,
including one with a criminal record. It was a national holiday,
marking the day in 1919 when Koreans declared their indepen-
dence during protests against Japanese colonial rule. But while
Lee was rounding the greens, 17,000 railway workers across the
country had gone on strike, causing massive disruptions to the
transportation system. News of Lee’s golf outing created a public
uproar. Two weeks later, President Roh Moo- hyun accepted
Lee’s resignation.

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