Golf in Korea is a different game, yet the same

Nothing could have prepared me for this. Nothing.

Traveling on Korean Air from Los Angeles to Seoul, a 13-hour flight, I was mesmerized by a video selection on my in-seat television. Children from Korean mountain villages were being introduced to golf, and, over and over, they kept saying the same thing: When they grow up, they want to be a “pro golf player.”

What I would see in the next nine days was a country gone nuts over golf. It wasn’t the number of golfers – about 3 million of the 48.3 million Korean residents are golfers, according to the Korea Golf Association – as much as it was the intensity of those who play.

Korean golfers make Vijay Singh look like a slacker. They are indefatigable. They hit balls into the night on lighted ranges. They play in the rain and the snow. They will not be stopped.

In downtown Seoul, I followed the vice president of the Korea Golf Association, Young-Sun Lim, as he walked down a flight of stairs and, at the same time, flailed his arms in a mock golf swing.

“Everybody is golf crazy,” he said in perfect English, “including myself.”

The building that houses the KGA offices also houses an indoor practice range, providing a constant opportunity to get crazy.

I have stayed in hotels all over the world, but here in Seoul, a car-clogged city with 12.2 million residents, I stayed in my first hotel with an indoor range. Here, there, everywhere – indoors and outdoors – South Koreans are cuckoo over golf.

The United States is not the only country with a golf-only cable channel. Korea’s SBS Golf Channel features news, instruction and interviews similar to The Golf Channel.

The Korean people are obsessed with the game in a way I have never seen. The Scottish people, for example, are justifiably proud of their golf history and heritage, but they treat the game with a dignified reserve and restraint.

In Korea, it’s whack-whack-whack. At Korean golf ranges, nonmembers pay by the hour and not by the bucket. Whack-whack-whack, no time to waste, hit as many balls as you can.

Despite a severe shortage of golf courses in Korea and an equally severe shortage of land in Seoul, the Koreans have created a new national pastime: hitting golf balls.

These balls may end up on the green grass of a golf course. More likely, though, they will end up in the green net of a practice range. Multi-level ranges in Seoul are shoehorned into spaces that hardly seem big enough for a decent parking lot.

These monstrous nets often stretch above the parking area like a low green ceiling with holes. Exit your car and duck, because golf balls are flying like bullets right above your head. These balls, looking like so many ants returning to the colony, roll down the slanted nets and into a collection area.

Many Koreans rarely play golf on a course.

Instead they play golf on a range. Whack-whack-whack. If it sounds like golf, it must be golf.

South Koreans also love their idols who play the game. When Se Ri Park (called Se Ri Pak in the United States because of an immigration typo) won the U.S. Women’s Open in 1998, she achieved a status just short of goddess.

She remains so today, the most popular and influential golfer in South Korea. Despite the victory by Grace Park (no relation) in the Kraft Nabisco Championship this year, there is no question who is No. 1 here.

Grace Park’s family owns a lavish and famous restaurant in Seoul. Its name is Samwon Garden. When I went there, I was seated beside a great rock waterfall in a spectacular natural setting that includes trees, bushes, flowers and ponds. The food is traditional Korean.

However, the postcards at Samwon Garden are traditional American. On one, an elegant Grace is walking down a Seoul street. In another, a smiling Grace is hoisting the Kraft Nabisco trophy.

Yes, less than a month after her victory, the autographed postcard was in circulation at Samwon Garden. Call her the touring pro for Korean barbecue.

I could talk all day about the differences between American golf and Korean golf. When I played at Vision Hills Golf Club, we had one female caddie who drove a cart with all our bags attached. We walked. She supplied yardages, cleaned golf balls on the green, read putts and bowed magnificently to the golf gods each time we finished a hole.

And that wasn’t all. On one diabolically sloped green, I hit an uphill chip shot that got within 8 feet of the hole. It stopped briefly, then began its retreat down the hill. After it rolled backward some 40 feet, the caddie could stand it no longer. She reached down and stopped the ball with her hand. She smiled broadly, as if she had captured a mouse who was raiding the pantry.

As different as cultures may be, people around the world are much the same.

We are linked by our emotions and our sensitivities and, in some cases, our insecurities.

So it shouldn’t have surprised me that so many Koreans brought up the infamous Jan Stephenson comment about foreign golfers dominating the LPGA in the United States. This is what they wanted to know: Do Americans like us? Are Koreans still welcomed on the LPGA?

The answer to both is yes. At the same time, the Koreans have been at the forefront of complaints over rules and etiquette abuse.

Exceptionally close ties between Korean parents and their children have brought accusations in U.S. junior tournaments of on-course parental interference or advice – a violation of the rules.

Hyunjee Chun, coach of the Korean national team for girls, says Korean golfers are schooled in the rules and etiquette. She adds that educating parents in any culture is more difficult.

We should not be quick to criticize young golfers from Korea or any other country. My experience tells me that all tournament players want to follow the rules.

Parents, on the other hand, feel it is their inherent right to be involved with their children. Yes, it is, but not in a golf tournament. There are plenty of examples of American parents who have annoyed players and spectators with their belligerent behavior.

The Koreans are unfailingly polite, and I am leaving this country with a renewed respect for the human element that links all golfers.

We are all part of a big global family, and a birdie is a birdie in any language.

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