CHARLOTTE — A record four South Korean men compete in this week’s Presidents Cup, as the international team seeks its second title in 14 editions (and first since 1998). It will be a historic week if the brave underdogs can topple the Americans, but for half of the South Korean contingent, what happens this time next year could be even more life-changing.
In February, as the international sporting world focused on the Beijing Winter Olympics, news circulated that the Asian Games (held in Winter Olympics years) would allow professional golfers for the first time later in 2022.
The South Korean golf federation decided to use two of its four spots on the men’s golf team for professionals, its two highest men in the Official World Golf Ranking, and the other two for amateurs.
Why this matters: The Asian Games have additional meaning for South Koreans, given that a gold medal in the event can largely exempt them from the national 18-month military service requirement for men. Athletes who win an Asian Games gold medal, or an Olympic medal of any color, may see their service reduced to a few weeks of basic training.
Before the February news, South Korea’s top male professional golfers who had not yet served had to win an Olympic medal to be eligible for the waiver: a quadrennial individual tournament featuring many of the world’s best players. A South Korean man has failed to finish in the top 10 in the last two Olympics, after the sport returned to the program after a 112-year hiatus.
With the February news, those pros are now eligible for the Asian Games, where the field is continental and, perhaps more importantly, there is a second chance at a gold medal: a team event for each gender.
South Korea won the Asian Games men’s team event in 2006 and 2010, was second as host in 2002 and 2014 and third in 2018. Those were all amateur competitions. With professionals, South Korea could be in a stronger position.
South Korea has overtaken Japan as the deepest Asian nation in men’s professional golf, as evidenced by the quartet in the 12-man Presidents Cup squad, all ranked among the top 76 in the world. Japan has one in the Presidents Cup, champion Masters 2021 Hideki Matsuyamahis only man in the top 79 in the world.
MORE: Presidents Cup broadcast schedule on Golf Channel, NBC, Peacock
South Korea’s quartet at the Presidents Cup includes K H Lee, who was on the 2010 Asian Games champion team to get his military exemption. Plus Sungjae Im, Tom Kim Y yes woo kimthree PGA Tour winners yet to serve.
But no more than two of them can be in the Asian Games squad, should the South Korean federation’s selection procedures remain the same.
In April, South Korean media reported that Im and Si Woo Kim were chosen for the Asian Games team as the top-ranked men in the nation. Days later, the Asian Games, scheduled for this month in Hangzhou, China, were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. They have been rescheduled for next September and October.
Since then, 20-year-old Tom Kim has become the second-youngest PGA Tour winner since World War II. He overtook Si Woo Kim in the world rankings and is now ranked 22nd, which is 21 places ahead of Lee and 54 places ahead of Si Woo Kim. I am number 19.
A contact for the South Korean golf federation said in an email Wednesday that the federation has not decided who will be on the team now that the Games have been pushed back a year.
Tom Kim, speaking Tuesday at the Presidents Cup, believed qualifying would reopen and the two top-ranked men coming next spring would be in line to make the team.
“It worked out well for me, but for some guys it really didn’t work out well,” Tom Kim said of the Asian Games being postponed. “Whoever plays golf better ends up on that team. I am focused on doing my job this week and keeping my world ranking there. I have never had the opportunity to play for my country. So if I could start at the Asian Games, that would be an honor.”
Lee was asked on Wednesday what he thought about the possibility of playing another Asian Games. “Because I played before and now I’m a professional, I’m going to stay on the PGA Tour,” he said through a translator.
That leaves Im, Tom Kim, and Si Woo Kim, unless someone who is currently outside the top 100 steps up. for the exemption. Si Woo Kim turns 28 next June, possibly making the Asian Games his last chance.
“We are all very close,” said Tom Kim. “We are good friends and we want the best for each other and we support each other. So we spent a lot of time [together] off the golf course, too. Obviously, there is a good and healthy rivalry. But all we do is focus on how we can play the best golf and, you know, good golf takes care of everything.”
One similarity between the Presidents Cup and the Asian Games, given how infrequently they are played and the limited fields, is that a golfer’s first appearance could also be their last.
“So there’s a little bit more pressure behind it,” Im said, through a translator, of the Presidents Cup before being asked to compare the Asian Games. “There are several reasons why the Asian Games are important to Korean players. But the biggest part is, as a Korean, winning the gold medal for the country and being one of the best Asian players would be very, very significant.”
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