SEOUL (Reuters) - If the government has its way more South Korean golfers will be carrying their own clubs, walking between holes rather than riding in a cart, and there will be more public courses.
The government wants more people to play by making the sport more affordable and less elitist.
It is not a mission to find a new generation of champions in a nation that currently fills half of the top ten slots on the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tour.
It’s about money, and is part of a much larger drive to encourage people to spend more, in a bid to offset the hard times South Korea’s big exporters are facing.
Inside a 109-page document published last month that outlined efforts to boost a plodding economy were a series of micro-measures dedicated to boosting participation in a range of sports.
But the efforts to democratize the game of golf were eye-catching given the curious place the sport occupies in South Korea’s status conscious society.
“Golf has become very popular among the public, while at the same time it has an elitist, extravagant image and is very expensive,” Lee Hoseung, the Finance Ministry’s director-general for economic policy, told Reuters.
“We feel it is right that we develop golf as a public sport, ease some of the consumers’ burden, expand the sport’s base and heighten the golf industry’s international competitiveness,” Lee said, raising hopes of more foreign golf tourists.
Proud of South Korean women’s success, golf has held a special place in South Korean hearts since Pak Se-ri became the youngest-ever winner of the U.S. Women’s Open in 1998.
But the high cost of playing has kept many golf lovers off the greens.
Instead, they go to golf lounges like the Loving You Golfzon in Seoul’s Gangnam district to enjoy the artificial experience of driving a ball down a fairway projected on a screen.
“Sure, it might not feel real, but it’s cheap and convenient,” said 44-year-old Lee Seung-yeop after teeing off in Loving You’s “Tiger Woods” room.
Lee plays screen golf at least three times a week. But he only steps on a real course maybe once a month.
It is easy to understand why.
Joining a private club remains prohibitively expensive for most South Koreans, even though the joining fees have fallen by a third since peaking at 317 million won ($275,125) in 2008.
A round of golf for a group of four at a public course in South Korea costs roughly $175 to $220 per person.
Fees for a shared caddy range between $70 and $105, which, the government noted, is way more than golfers in neighboring Japan have to pay.
For all that, South Koreans lavish around $13 billion annually on golf, or roughly $260 per capita.
Golf accounts for 38 percent of participation sports revenue in South Korea. But interest in the sport is plateauing.
After double-digit gains over most of the 2000s, visitors to South Korea’s 473 golf courses rose just 5.3 percent last year, the slowest in three years, according to the Korea Leisure Industry Institute.
Meantime, screen golf lounges have boomed, with the number reaching more than 7,000 last year, according to the Korea Simulation Golf Culture Association.
The ebbing fortunes of the real game has left many private courses in financial straits. Nearly half of the country’s 234 members-only golf clubs had burned through their capital by the end of 2014, according to government data.
As a solution, the government is encouraging private clubs to turn public by lending them money at low rates to repay membership fees, and to lower the voting share needed to take a private club public from 100 percent to 80 percent.
To make the game more affordable for the less well-off, the government has also advised course operators to relax rules requiring players to use golf carts and caddies.
Back in 1999, the then president Kim Dae-jung had basked in the afterglow of Pak Se-ri’s victory by formally encouraging the popularization of golf.
Yet official attitudes have been ambivalent toward a sport that was seen as a pastime of the rich. Private courses, for example, pay taxes on top of ordinary business taxes.
And, South Korean leaders, including current President Park Geun-hye, have gone as far as warning public servants against playing the game, without actually imposing a ban.
Even South Korea’s military euphemistically refers to some roughly 30 golf courses on its bases as “physical training facilities.”
“The government has turned golf into a sin and heavy taxes are pushing golfers away from courses,” said Lee Jong-kwan, a spokesman at the Korea Golf Course Business Association, which represents private clubs.
The government’s recent moves could help redress the balance.
“If I didn’t have to think about money I would go actual golfing,” said Jeong Won-cheol, a 34-year-old lounge player. “No question.”
($1 = 1,146.9000 won)
Editing by Tony Munroe and Simon Cameron-Moore