Korea's soldier-golfers fight to stay out of bunkers

Thu May 14, 2015 12:05am EDT
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By Peter Rutherford

SEOUL (Reuters) - While the lure of fame and fortune fires the imagination of most aspiring golfers, players on South Korea's armed forces team hope their talents will let them fulfill two years of military service on the fairways rather than the frontlines.

With North Korea and its million-strong army regularly hurling threats of nuclear annihilation across the border, the South requires all able bodied men between the ages of 18 and 35 to undertake at least 21 months in the military.

Most in the South agree conscription is necessary to deter North Korean aggression but it comes at a cost, curbing earnings potential, limiting everyday freedoms and, for sportsmen, denying them the chance to develop in the professional arena.

The Korea Armed Forces Athletics Corps was established in 1984 in a bid to boost South Korea's medal count at Asian and Olympic Games, allowing sportsmen to continue their careers by representing the military's "Sangmu" teams.

Spots on teams are limited, as are coaching resources, and athletes must live much like normal soldiers most of the time -- sleeping in barracks, getting up at the crack of dawn for roll call, eating from metal trays in the mess hall.

According to Sangmu golf team coach Kim Mu-young, however, players emerge mentally and physically stronger after learning how to cope with the demands of being a soldier-golfer.

"I've been working with Sangmu for 31 years and I think it has contributed tremendously to improving our country's sporting landscape," said Kim, one of several civilian coaches working with the corps.

"Regardless of which sport they play, all Sangmu members have the normal barracks life. They wake up at the same time as the other soldiers, lights out is the same time, they do roll call etc etc.   Continued...

Hur In-hoe salutes as he pose for photographs after won a golf tournament in Pocheon, South Korea, in this handout picture provided by KPGA and released by News1 on April 26, 2015.    REUTERS/KPGA/News1