Jung Pu Yol, a burly war veteran whose arms strain the seams of his sports jacket, squints against the evening sun cascading through layers of black webbing.
He takes careful aim, figuring for windage and the lay of the land. Then fires. THWACK.
The shot echoes across the deep caverns of downtown Seoul.
“We can outshoot the enemy any time, anywhere,” he says, resting his trusty weapon, an American-made McGregor No. 1, over his shoulder.
Yol is talking war. But he’s not talking guns. He’s talking golf. The enemy: the Japanese. They play golf too. But Yol and his Korean colleagues say they play better.
With his battered wood, Yol does battle every Tuesday and Thursday. A Samsung electronics salesman, Yol comes in contact with many Japanese businessmen. He invites them to his private driving range on Somsongno Boulevard near the Olympic Village. There he clobbers them.
“There is nothing, nothing that gives such satisfaction,” he says.
A generation ago there was no golf in Korea except as a game for the brass at the big American bases. Golf was a game that took up too much land and too much leisure. It was a frivolous Yankee pastime. But 10 or 15 years ago that changed. The Japanese decided they liked the game. Suddenly the stakes were different. Golf was a sport for comers, world-conquerors. It became a matter of national pride to best the Japanese, the people Koreans most admire and hate.
Koreans bulldozed nine and 18-hole courses wherever the rocky land permitted. More than 150 clubs sprouted up around the big cities of Seoul, Pusan and Icheon. But these are mostly for the elite. For the workaday hacks, Koreans built hundreds of urban driving ranges, mushrooms of black nets spread on spidery girders. Some include bunkers, ponds and creative roughs. Some stretch for 250 yards or more and arch a hundred feet into the sky.
Within a half-mile of Yol’s range in the crowded Taechidong community, four such clubs do a boom business. Seoul alone boasts nearly 200 driving ranges.
“This became the great passion when the Japanese got into it,” says Yung Chan Lee, 50, owner of Kangnam Street’s Garden Golf Club, its street sign written in English. “We compete with them in microchips and (automaking), why not golf?”
Two years ago, Lee gave up a button-down job as a securities trader for Merrill Lynch, bought 4 acres of prime realty south of the Han-gang River and erected a golfing yom sup jang, Korean for exercise center. It now includes 200 members who pay 80,000 won or about $110 a month and hundreds of weekend duffers who pay by the minute to knock balls disgorging from an automatic caddy. Lessons are also available from professionals for about $75 a month.
“The sport is good for health, good for family and good for high standard of living,” Lee says.
Chul Kyu Lim, 57, has been playing for two years. He distributes vending machines for Gold Star and claims golf is good for his image.
“We now have money enough to buy cars and homes,” he says. “We’re looking for prestige.
“When I have clients, I take them here. They are impressed. It is good for business.”
But golf hacking isn’t a game exclusively for the upper crust. A walk through the Somsongo course, set among a forest of cheerless six-story apartment buildings and corrugated steel awnings, shows a fountain of humanity.
Serious young attorneys from Society Row mingle with statuesque beauties in high-fashion golfwear who mill with wizened old ladies in traditional hanbok robes, young mothers lugging babies on their backs, teen-agers on rollerskates, raucous kids swinging sticks in wild imitation of their parents, and on one sunny afternoon, a 10-piece nong-ak band complete with gongs and drums. Nong-ak is Korean for farmers’ music.
“The (exercise centers) have become a gathering place to show off,” Lee says, “and to be seen.”
Golf in Korea is uniquely Korean, all the more so because the Japanese appear eager to muscle in. Japanese golf is the most costly in the world. Memberships are not gotten; they are inherited. Initiation fees at an average Tokyo club rocket into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. So the Japanese flock to Korea, clubs in hand. The cost of a roundtrip ticket to Seoul, a stay in a posh hotel and several rounds of golf is a pittance compared to the high green fees of Japan. Even the driving ranges are crowded with bargain-hunting Nipponese.
Yol, the war veteran, welcomes the challenge.
“They come like sheep to the slaughter,” he says, patting his McGregor.