[Ed. This story appeared in Golf Australia magazine in 2015, as a preview to October’s President’s Cup. I’m in the midst of a couple Korean projects right now; may be headed back there in September… Figured it was worth reprising here.]

By Hal Phillips
SEOUL, South Korea — Let’s get straight to the irony: Koreans are hands-down the most ardent and prolific golf travelers in the world. For a variety of reasons, however, their collective reputation in these golf destinations, particularly those in Asia (their most frequent ports of call), is less than sterling. For the first time, this October — on the occasion of the 11th Presidents Cup Matches — the golf world returns the favor, en masse, as thousands of internationals will descend on the Peninsula to observe four days of competition and make their own golf holidays.

What will they find? One of the game’s singular golf cultures, highly stylized (sometimes to the point of curation) and complemented by a collection of first-rate parkland courses, immaculately kept. The Presidents Cup is a showcase event for the Korean golf community, the biggest international golf event ever staged here, and while public courses remain somewhat rare (and definitely dear), many private clubs are throwing open their doors to welcome the international golfing public — and make a few won (855 to the Australian dollar) in the bargain.

But Aussies who do venture north this spring — especially those who may have cooled their heels behind a glacial Korean foursome in Pattaya, or perhaps witnessed a Gold Coast waitress endure another East Asian browbeating — will be pleased to find a kinder, gentler, quicker brand of Korean golfer on home soil. One might well ask about the phones, to which Korea golfers seem permanently affixed. Well, don’t expect miracles. This remains the most wired, technologically obsessed population on earth, and that extends to their golfing habits, home and away, for better and worse.

To be fair, there are sanguine byproducts of this high-tech mentality. In June, while striding down the 2nd fairway at Whistling Rock Country Club — a private club northeast of the capital and home to one of the nation’s top 5 tracks — the visiting golfer is immediately struck by two things: First, my playing partners and everyone else on the course that day are dressed to the absolute nines. Second, as my caddie walks beside me, our golf cart drives itself down the path — thanks to an electric-eye mechanism embedded in the concrete and caddie-operated by remote control. It goes without saying these drone carts also come complete with sockets, for phone charging.  

“I love Korea, totally wired and everyone looks sharp, man or woman, 25 or 65,” says David Dale, a partner with California-based course architects at Golfplan, who have designed 22 courses in Korea. “Golfers arrive at the course in sport coats and slacks, carrying small grooming bags with golf shoes and change of clothes. They go to their lockers with their 4-digit security codes and change into these highly fashionable pants, shirts and caps (with ball markers on the brims). Most of the time, they’re putting on sleeves to keep the sun off them, even the men.”

Dale and Golfplan have designed courses in 75 different countries, “But I’ve never been to any other country that had a stronger sense of fashion,” he says. “They have these awesome golf slacks that are fleece-lined with waterproofing and pin stripes. I’ve got a pair. They’re thermal. I use them for construction visits in cold climates — but they’re stylish enough to wear with a sport coat!”

The clubhouse at Whistling Rock is typical of the genre here: palatial, modernist and staffed to the gills. Upstairs, a long, narrow Zen garden splits the hallway leading to a massive but still-elegant dining space, where picture windows look out onto the golf course. Downstairs, some 40 members of a course-rating panel (representing GOLF Magazine Korea) populate a sumptuous meeting space of burled wood and overstuffed chairs. Back upstairs, I pass a golf shop that is, well… remarkably modest: mostly golf balls and a few shirts.

According to Whistling Rock Vice President David Fisher, this is typical of Korean clubs, which stock very little logoed merchandise because the lion’s share of golf apparel is purchased not from clubs but direct from top designers. The golf apparel industry in Korea has been estimated at USD$3.5 billion — this for a country of just 1.5 million golfing souls.

“In Korea, the fashion changes. We have four distinct seasons and the manufacturers come up with new designs for each season,” explained Michael, a Korean-American living in Korea and working for a golf industry company (he asked that his real name not be used). “People tend to keep up with the season and they don’t have loyalties to the club they belong to. Elsewhere it’s common that members will wear shirts with the club logo, but in Korea that’s not the case. People tend to lean toward designers shirts, which can be very expensive, 200-300 dollars. Even if they don’t have a good game in terms of golf skill, they try to look good. In Korea, if you don’t dress up, you’re pretty much looked down upon.”

For men, shorts on the golf course are considered particularly frumpy. “Most of the membership golf courses,” Michael says, “do not permit shorts — and golfers must wear hats outside the clubhouse. Without hats, you cannot go out on the course.”

Um, why is that?

“I don’t know.”

The shorts thing is good to know, though daytime temperatures for October typically range from 7-18 degrees (and these days hats make good skin-care sense most anywhere, anytime). Still, Dale suggests that exacting standards and high fashion are just what we should expect from a population with “the highest level of elective cosmetic surgery in the world and the no. 1 destination for these procedures in Asia. I’m even thinking about getting something done, around my eyes… I’m serious.”

•••

While the Presidents Cup may prove the first truly worldwide window on the Korean golf scene, it’s not as though this country is only now warming to the game. Golf has been played here since the 1950s; the Korean PGA was formed in 1968. While several Korean men have since made their marks on professional tours around the world, their countrywomen utterly dominate the distaff game today. Indeed, the entirely domestic Korean LPGA Tour may be the second strongest tour on Earth.

On TV, the Korean golf marketplace supports three 24-hour golf channels — one devoted entirely to “screen golf”, or indoor play via golf simulators. This is seen as a particularly good way for new players to learn the game. However, between screen golfers and those who pack double- and triple-decker driving ranges, it’s estimated that one-third of the nation’s golfers have never set foot on an actual course.

“I am one of those guys who likes to work on my game in the mornings,” says Paul, an expat living and working in the Korean golf industry (and another who requested anonymity in exchange for his candor). “I do this at 5:30 a.m., six days a week, at my local driving range, a double-decker with 52 bays. If I get there at 5:40, I have to wait.”

Unfortunately, Korean talent and enthusiasm for the game don’t travel particularly well. “I know some courses in The Philippines that simply don’t allow Korean golfers,” Paul says. “They’re loud, they spit and they treat caddies poorly. I personally have never seen any Korean in my foursomes mistreat a caddie [in Korea], but that sort of thing is not unheard of.”

Oftentimes, golfing tourists are cut a bit of slack when it comes to comportment. They are, by definition, visitors unfamiliar with local mores. Across Southeast Asia, for example, native men traditionally wear trousers but it’s expected that foreign men (especially western men) will wear shorts. In Britain, a particularly boisterous group of Americans in the pub will be the subject of eye-rolling, if not reprimand.

We often make these allowances for international visitors, and that’s probably how Korean golf holidaymakers were treated, at first, when they started traveling en masse to places like Thailand, Indonesia, Australia and Vietnam. However, after a couple decades of failing to replace divots, dawdling on tees while talking on the phone, and treating clubhouse staff like red-headed stepchildren, the slack has run out.

Koreans travel so widely and pervasively, it is, of course, difficult to generalize. Jason Batterham is the British-born director of golf at Laguna Lang Co, a lovely Vietnamese resort and golf club that caters quite heavily to the Korean travel market. His pro shop is continually packed with Koreans, but he warns against painting them with too broad a brush. Most Koreans on golf holiday book their adventures through Korean tour operators. It’s these on-site tour leaders, says Batterham, who can be particularly strident, not so much the players themselves.

While Korean-American Michael acknowledges this dynamic, he also recognizes the seeds of boorish behavior in Korea itself.

“Some people are just rude to start with,” he says, “and those guys (and they are men) tend to be arrogant when they go abroad, too. In Korea, some people — the ‘haves’, as opposed to the ‘have-nots’ — tend to be really rude toward people in the service industry. In a restaurant, there is a very polite way to say something, and a rude way to say the same thing. People who are financially very successful tend to make rude remarks. That sort of behavior would apply to caddie treatment, too.

“Korea is a very rigid society in terms of manners. I think that when Koreans go abroad, there is a setting free. There is no one to watch over you when traveling. So you tend to be a bad boy, in a way.”

At home, these social controls remain fully pronounced and, for natives, inescapable. Take the pace of play issue. Abroad, Koreans are famously plodding. At home, there is great pressure from clubs and courses to play in 4 hours and 30 minutes. As Dale notes, in a country where clubs do 80-100,000 rounds a year (in a 10-month season), that’s hardly snail-paced. A weekend might see 450-500 players, going off at 7-minute intervals, with marshals poised to appear out of nowhere, wagging their fingers.

One can imagine that, for people raised in this golfing culture, a 5.5-hour round in Thailand would feel quite luxurious, and welcome. “Korea people in general don’t know how to pace themselves without a caddie mindful of this pace expectation,” Michael said.

Expat Paul believes that while Korean golfers abroad have earned their spotty reputations, “if you can make generalizations about this, they are much, much better behaved at home.”

•••

There are 500 courses in Korea and, until 15 years ago, 90 percent were private clubs — a figure that has fallen to somewhere closer to 60 percent, as many new public tracks have been built and just as many private clubs have opened their doors to outside play. That sort of transition is no small task in Korea, where the law requires a 100 percent vote of the membership to enact such a transition. But the market has dictated this pattern: Private clubs continue to struggle financially, while public courses (such as Jack Nicklaus GC, site of the Presidents Cup) have proved to be cash cows. In any case, one can see why international golfers will be welcomed at so many private clubs come October.

Those planning a trip around the Matches will have their pick of all but the nation’s most elite members clubs, plus a host of glitzy, new resort tracks. Here’s a starter’s kit:

• Sky 72 Golf Resort, Incheon: Close to JNGC Korea (even closer to Incheon International Airport) and boasting 72 holes. Here’s a bonus: The owners are pioneers in allowing men to wear shorts (www.sky72.com).
• South Cape Owners Club, Namhae Island — Located on the country’s southeastern coast, this is another resort track perched along a spectacular rocky coastline, with lodging on site (www.southcape.co.kr).
• Island Country Club, Daebu — Just an hour from the airport, Island CC was a finalist to host the Presidents Cup before the bidding war got too crazy. A seaside stunner, from the hand of David Dale and Golfplan. (www.islandresort.co.kr)
• La Vie Est Belle, Choochun City — Eighteen new resort holes and 18 more to open next year, in the rugged hills northeast of Seoul. Site of next year’s Korean Ladies Open (www.lavieestbellegolfnresort.com).
• Blue Mountain Golf Club, Hong Cheon — A true public course and a magnificent one, designed by Nicklaus, within hailing distance of Seoul and the airport (www.bluemountaincc.co.kr).

Once you’ve arrived at your Korean golfing destination — dressed for success and carrying a change of clothes — you may be surprised to find (in a country so obsessed with driving-range play) that few courses, public or private, include practice ranges. Korean players don’t typically indulge in such things on a golfing day out. Instead, they don their best duds, gather outside the clubhouse, meet their caddies, amble down to the first tee, do a bit of stretching, and away they go.

Golf course topography might be the next thing that strikes an international visitor. In this small, rugged, densely populated country, agrarian land is preserved at all costs. Accordingly, courses are often located only in areas unsuitable to farming, which results in mountainous layouts that sport striking elevation changes. Routing golf courses through this sort of vertiginous terrain can be a challenge (and expensive), but it’s the finer points that give Korean golf courses an aesthetic all their own. For example, you will never find consecutive par-3s or par-5s here.

“That is an absolute rule. Totally taboo,” Dale explains. “There are certain prescriptions to designing in Korea. The course must be a par 36-36, never 37-35. Very formulaic. Every private club must measure 7,000 yards. If it’s less, it’s seen as inferior. And teahouses must be situated after the 4th or 5th hole on each nine, ideally before a par-3, where groups tend to stack up anyway.”

Ah, the teahouse — perhaps Korea’s most cherished and organic contribution to golfing culture. These are essentially halfway houses, resting points, where a cool towel, hard-boiled egg and maybe a bowl of noodles can be had. “All sorts of interesting snacks from club to club,” Dale notes. “Usually something protein and something carbohydrate.” The latter food group includes beer, naturally.

At Jack Nicklaus GC, the teahouses are actually quite pedestrian: concrete blocks with a small patio. At most private clubs, however, they are the subject of great artistry and whimsy. At 27-hole Whistling Rock, the three nines are named for their teahouses. My favorite: the Cocoon, a futuristic pod straight out of Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” that looks out onto a placid, highland pool, all of it landscaped to a fair thee well.

Guests in the teahouse are always treated courteously by their fellow foursomes, and staff. But there’s little socializing between groups in the Cocoon and their like. By the same token, after the round — after the shower, the sauna, the change of clothes — it’s uncommon for one foursome to intermingle with another in the bar or restaurant.

“There is a private aspect to playing the game in Korea that is very important,” expat Paul says. “Koreans are very courteous to other groups, very respectful. I think people will see this in the galleries, too, come October. But when they go to a clubhouse restaurant, they stick very much to their own group. They tend not to reach out and introduce themselves or be social, even with people they know. They wait for an introduction.”

One reason Korean clubhouses are so big is the need for multiple private meeting rooms — places where the chairman and his VIPs can go, after a game, to avoid any and all social pressures. Many Korean golf rounds are business rounds, so the desire “not to impose” is that much stronger.

On the course itself, the mood is more freewheeling — and there’s always a game. Korean golfers love to gamble. Many carry four metal sticks in their bags so as to randomly form teams by drawing “straws”. A common gambit requires each player to throw in 180,000 won and play various games at 10,000 per hole. The money is kept with caddies (in special wallets, for this specific purpose) and doled out after each hole.

Caddies in Korea are uniformly delightful (and maths-capable), so here’s a bit of inside cultural knowledge you can share during your trip. In Korean parlance, the word for the number 4 (“sa”) is pronounced very much like the word for death. This has resulted in a fair bit of mass tetraphobia. Mentioning the number 4 around sick relatives is avoided, for example; most elevators here don’t include 4th floors (or any floors with a 4). There’s a tetraphobic golf joke that Korean caddies often tell. You can turn it around on them thusly: “This is the 4th hole? I hope we all survive.”