It goes without saying that the biggest event in golf this week is taking place in Rome. However, Sungjae Im and Si Woo Kim might argue that it’s taking place in Hangzhou, China.
In fairness, the two South Koreans might have a point, too. While the Ryder Cup is one of the biggest events in golf, Im and Kim are playing for something far bigger this week at the Asian Games — military exemptions.
The opportunity for this life-changing scenario for Im, 25, and Kim, 28, first arose when, in February 2022, news circulated that for the first time professional golfers would be allowed to compete in the Asian Games. Previously, the games were for amateurs only, meaning there was only one real opportunity for professional golfers like Im and Kim to avoid their nation’s mandatory 21-month military-service requirement, and that was by winning a medal of any colour at the Olympic Games. When they both failed to do that at the Olympics in Tokyo in 2021, it meant they would have to wait until Paris in 2024, without a guarantee of making the team or a guarantee of being in form, for another opportunity. Winning PGA Tour events, or contending in majors, two things both Im and Kim have done, unfortunately mean nothing when it comes to fulfulling this duty.
The Asian Games were originally scheduled to take place this time last year, but they were postponed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Kim and Im were announced as two of the team members by the Korea Golf Association in 2022. They will be joined by amateurs Jang Yu-bin and Cho Yoo-young. In order to be “largely exempt” from service, which must be completed before your mid-30s, they will need to win a gold medal in either the team or individual portion of the games.
Should neither Im or Kim win gold at the Asian Games, or win a medal of any kind in the Olympics next August, they could suffer a similar fate as Sangmoon Bae, another former South Korean phenom who won twice on the PGA Tour in 2013 and 2014 before he had to fulfill his military requirement after the 2015 Presidents Cup. Bae, 29 at the time, began his service that November and it ended in August 2017. The now 37-year-old has bounced between the PGA and Korn Ferry tours ever since, even picking up a KFT win in 2018 at the Albertsons Boise Open. Most recently, he played in the Fortinet Championship earlier this month, tying for 52nd. Other cases of well-known South Korean golfers having to complete service include eight-time PGA Tour winner KJ Choi and 2009 PGA champion YE Yang, who each completed their service in their early 20s before finding success in pro golf.
The golf portion of the games will take place at West Lake International Golf Course, located in the Xihu District of Hangzhou. As popular Twitter account Sungjae Tracker pointed out, it could be difficult to follow along live. But the schedule and results can be found here. Day 1 of golf competition will begin September 28 and it runs to October 1, when medals will be on the line. Im, currently ranked 27th in the world, finished inside the top 20 in four of his last six PGA Tour events. Kim, ranked 40th, recently qualified for just his second career Tour Championship, where he tied for 17th.
Main image: Sean M Haffey