SEOUL (Reuters) - Hur In-hoi’s freewheeling lifestyle came to a crashing halt the day his mandatory military service began but the South Korean golfer says the switch to a life of discipline and deprivation has been good for his game.
Hur is one of the lucky few to be chosen for the army’s golf team, which was reformed earlier this year to take part in the Military World Games being hosted by Korea in October.
South Korea requires all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 35 to complete at least 21 months in the military as a deterrent to North Korean aggression, though top athletes can spend that time in the “Sangmu” sports teams.
But while Hur has been afforded the opportunity to continue playing, even to the extent of competing on the domestic pro tour, his life is no longer his own.
The army has him now.
“Everyone in Sangmu lives according to extremely strict schedules, regardless of which sport they play,” Hur told Reuters by telephone.
“We have to report our every move, even going to the bathroom during training. We do morning and afternoon roll call... if there’s a military event we take part, like 500 Sangmu soldiers all marching together following orders.
“It’s really hard to get used to, especially for me since I was living a freewheeling lifestyle before coming into the military.
“But I’m incredibly stronger now, both physically and mentally. I used to be very emotional and someone who gave up too quickly, but that all changed after I came here,” he added.
Hur’s new-found focus was on full display in the Korean PGA Tour opener where he beat Park Hyo-won in a playoff to win the Dongbu Insurance Promi Open, his third career victory on the domestic tour.
While ‘Civilian Hur’ would have been grinning ear-to-ear, dishing out high fives and lapping up the attention, ‘Soldier Hur’ was a model of restraint and discipline, saluting stiffly with one hand and holding the trophy in the other.
“The biggest difference from when I was just a pro golfer is that I have to control what I say and what I do.
“Even the way I walk. If I walk without discipline I’ll be in trouble. So I feel sorry for the people who come to see me at the tournaments because I can’t smile and say ‘Hi’ or be friendly with them.
“I’m not the professional golfer they once knew. I’m a soldier now,” he said, adding that one of the biggest no-no’s for the army was smiling on duty.
“A soldier playing in a tournament, smiling and showing his teeth? That would get you shot,” he joked.
Hur was unable to keep any of the prize money from his Promi Open win but said just being allowed to compete on the KPGA Tour as a soldier was “glorious”.
Park, who finished runner-up, pocketed a cool 80 million won ($74,000).
As a private in the army, Hur earns around $130 per month.
“Many people have asked me if I’m sore at not being able to keep the prize money but I don’t have a single thing to complain about,” Hur added.
It is clear how much Hur appreciates being able to continue his golfing career in the military. Trying to regain top form after a complete two-year break from the sport would have been extremely tough.
“All the Sangmu players are just so thankful to be here,” Hur said. “We are training hard for the Military World Games and we are so grateful that we get the chance to play in the KPGA tournaments even though we are soldiers.”
Additional reporting by Oh Seung-yun; Editing by John O'Brien