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.
“They also receive the same military training as regular soldiers such as firing weapons, ranger training and even training to stand guard in the demilitarized zone at the border with North Korea.
“So while it must be exhausting for the players to undergo military and golf training at the same time, in the end they will be much stronger mentally.”
Golf was selected as a sport to come under Sangmu’s management in 1987 and a team first came together nine years later. However, the golf program had been phased out by 2000.
Kim returned to coach the team when it was reformed earlier this year with a view to competing at the Military World Games, which Korea will host in October.
However, the team’s future beyond the Games is in doubt, despite pulling in sponsorship and receiving backing from the local golf community.
Should the plug be pulled, the players would have to return to regular soldier duties — defending the nation, perhaps even at the world’s most heavily armed border.
“My wish is that we get good results and that will be the turning point to convince people that Sangmu needs a golf team,” Kim added.
“That is one of the reasons why we are training hard, so that junior golfers will be able to continue to play when they go into the military.”
Private Hur In-hoi is doing all he can to keep the golf team from going out of bounds.
The 27-year-old professional’s “freewheeling” lifestyle came to a shuddering halt when he entered the military last year, but he told Reuters he was thriving in the army’s strict environment where discipline is the watchword.
Hur’s victory in the 2015 Korean Tour’s opening event, the Dongbu Insurance Promi Open, was met with a flurry of media attention, and photos of the stony-faced golfer saluting with one hand and holding the trophy in the other were plastered across sports pages.
Hur was unable to keep any of the prize money but said just being allowed to compete on the professional tour as a soldier was “glorious”.
“All the Sangmu players are just so thankful to be here,” Hur told Reuters by telephone.
“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. It’s great that we are able to take part in tournaments even though we are soldiers.”
Park Hyo-won, who finished runner-up at the Promi Open, pocketed a cool 80 million won ($74,000). As a private in the army, Hur earns around $130 per month.
With the golf unit’s future still up in the air, Hur said he would simply do his best in the Sangmu team regardless of whether it had any impact on the decision-making process.
“I’m a soldier, and solders obey orders,” he added. “I’ve been ordered to go to the Military World Games and score well so all my focus is on that. The other tournaments I take part in are just practise for the Games.
“When the Military Games are over I will have to obey orders, so I cannot rule out the possibility of being sent back to the regular army.”
For South Korea’s top athletes, success can be an avenue to bypass military service altogether.
Recognizing the prestige success in the international sporting arena brings, the government dangles the carrot of military exemptions for Asian Games gold medalists and athletes who bring back a medal of any color from the Olympics.
Lee Dae-taek, professor at Kookmin University’s Department of Physical Education, says that while military service is an integral part of South Korea’s defense, how the system is applied in the sporting environment needs to be revisited.
“The Sangmu teams were being formed in the 70s and 80s and at the time they were effective and played their part,” Lee told Reuters in an interview.
“But the times have changed and in modern society the Sangmu teams have their limits. We need other advantages (for athletes) as well as the Sangmu system.”
In some ways, sport actually benefits from the military service requirement, he added.
Like golden tickets to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, the tantalizing prospect of winning an exemption from military service can spur athletes to greater achievements at Olympic and Asian Games, said Lee.
While military service is seen as a rite of passage for most South Korean men, others go to great lengths to avoid it.
Attempting to manipulate various health and nationality clauses, some renounce citizenship or fake a debilitating illness. Some have even pulled out perfectly healthy teeth.
The public backlash towards high-profile figures such as actors, musicians and sportsmen who seek to skip military service is fierce and often career-ending.
Golfer Bae Sang-moon, who plays on the elite U.S. PGA Tour and is ranked 78th in the world, is currently embroiled in a court case with the military after he was denied an extension to his foreign travel pass and ordered to report for duty.
Bae says he only wants to delay his military service, not evade it, while the Military Manpower Agency maintains he failed to meet certain requirements that would have allowed him to delay enlistment and continue to compete abroad.
“A nation has the responsibility to protect its people... so whether you are Bae Sang-moon or (decorated swimmer) Park Tae-hwan or whoever, if you are a Korean man you have a duty to go to the military — that is the bottom line,” said Professor Lee.
“But for those who can contribute more to the country through other means, we give them certain privileges with respect to military service.
“The issue is, what role does sport play in our society? Is giving these privileges to sportsmen based on the spirit of the Constitution?”
Additional reporting by Oh Seung-yun; Editing by John O'Brien