Golfing drive

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 September, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 September, 2004, 12:00am

South Korea has suddenly become a golfing power. In the women's professional game, Seri Pak and Grace Park, among others, practically dominate the sport. In major global championships, South Korean women - dubbed Seoul Sisters - sometimes account for half the leader board. In fact, the events could easily be mistaken for South Korean tournaments.

South Korean professional men may not be able to match their female counterparts, but they can still throw up a few surprises. K.J. Choi, who was third in this year's Master's tournament, is now one of world's top 10 money-making golfers.

Given these great achievements, one might think that South Korea is a golfers' paradise, where the sport is available to all. But, in fact, golf is still a very expensive and inaccessible sport. One round costs roughly US$200 per person, including green and caddie fees.

That is mainly because the government imposes high taxes on courses, arguing that golf is still a 'luxury' sport, monopolised by few rich people. Up to half of all green fees go to the government. And clubs are forced to charge high fees from the beginning, because they are heavily taxed when they start up.

Despite this, up to 3.5 million South Koreans manage to play regularly, and the numbers are rising. However, there are less than 200 courses around the nation, and high taxes and bureaucratic red tape discourage businesspeople from investing in new ones. Behind this intransigence lies the fact that bureaucrats still view it as a sport for the rich, and therefore, they try to keep the 'masses' away. People who go abroad to play, for instance, are often the target of harsh tax investigations.

The authorities believe that such measures stop people from going abroad to play, thereby keeping their money at home. However, the reality is very different. In fact, many people still travel overseas to play golf, but they rent their clubs and shoes when they get to the foreign club - thus, actually spending more money abroad.

Government figures reveal a recent upsurge in spending abroad, thanks partly to the rising number of golf trips to places like China, Thailand and Japan. Now, some officials have begun to try to address the problem. The government of South Jolla province recently revealed a grand plan to build the world's largest golf club, with 540 holes. That is three times larger than the Mission Hills complex, in Shenzhen, which currently holds the top spot.

It is not clear whether the ambitious plan will ever be realised, but at least the idea of making golf more affordable and accessible to South Koreans is a swing in the right direction.