Ultratravel - Seoul Sisters
Spring 2014

Of the world’s top 100 women golfers, more than 40 come from South Korea. Theirs is a game that has gripped a nation and inspired a generation. To find out why, Michelle Jana Chan packs her clubs to get tips from local experts.

It was early in the morning, long before sunrise, when my taxi pulled out of Incheon International Airport and began the hour-long journey to my hotel in downtown Seoul. Beyond the airport’s boundary, it was surprisingly dark until we passed a blinding bank of floodlights by the roadside. I asked the driver if it was a football field. “Night golf,” he replied.

It didn’t take me long to realise that South Koreans are fanatical about the game. “To get ahead in Korea, you have to play golf,” one businessman told me. “It’s seen as a prestigious sport, and the better you are, the further you can go in your career. To reach any kind of managerial position, you must first have a good handicap.”

This obsession has given rise to some of the world’s finest golfers, especially in the women’s game -- and they start young. In January last year, Lydia Ko (playing for New Zealand but born in Seoul and of Korean heritage) won a professional tournament at the age of 14, the youngest female golfer to do so. “Golf has become so popular that all parents want their daughters to play,” said Na Yeon Choi, winner of the 2012 US Women’s Open. “There are lots of female rising stars and the competition is tough.”

South Koreans have won five of the past six Women’s US Opens and dominate the leaderboard on the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour, with four women int he world’s top 10. The trend began in 1998 when Se Ri Pak won the US Women's Open. World number one Inbeen Park, who became the first South Korean to be named LPGA player of the year in 2013, believes traditional family values have bolstered the game. “It’s the support of parents,” she said, “as well as the fact that golfers practise a lot. Youngsters are getting inspired by the older players and dream of becoming professional. We have huge potential.”

I tested my own potential one afternoon at the Troon Golf Academy in Seoul, one of two in the South Korean capital (there are others in China, the US, Dubai and, of course, Scotland). This one is at the Banyan Tree Club & Spa hotel, where I hit a bucket of balls at the driving range. It was extraordinary to find such expansive facilities at a downtown hotel in a city as congested as Seoul.

Kylie Oh, a professional instructor at the academy, gave me her views on the success of the women’s game. “Parental influence is critical,” she agreed, “but another factor is physical build; there is not much difference between South Korean and American women. In the men’s game, the Americans are much bigger so it is harder for our men to compete.”

South Korean males have long trailed their female counterparts. Some say the country’s compulsory two-year stint of military service pulls men from the game during what would be the formative years of their golfing career. Others say there is more pressure on men to find white-collar work.

There are, of course, notable exceptions such as KJ Choi, the first South Korean player on the PGA Tour. And in 2009, YE Yang beat Tiger Woods at the PGA Championship to become the first Asian golfer to win a men’s major.

In spite of all the homegrown talent, South Korea itself is not the most obvious golfing destination. It has fewer than half the number of golf courses in the state of Florida alone. The terrain is mountainous, with dozens of protected parks, making the construction of golf courses difficult. It can sometimes be easier to undertake the expensive task of reclaiming land from the sea.

One sunny morning, I played a round at the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea in New Songdo City, a massive urban development built on reclaimed land on the outskirts of Seoul. My partner was 25-year-old Joo-Yeob Baek, who plays on the Korean tour. During our pre-game lunch, I nervously explained how long it had been since I’d last swung a club.

At the first tee, I pulled out a hefty driver from my rented set of clubs. By some fluke, the ball sailed down the fairway. I groaned. Now, things could only get worse -- and they did. Baek was ferociously consistent -- and extraordinarily patient with my unpredictable game. He kindly pretended not to have seen when I topped a ball, and his conversation was charming.

“There’s a great golf culture here,” he enthused, when I asked him what made South Korea such a compelling destination. “We have excellent caddies, delicious, healthy food in the clubhouses, and next-generation technology on the courses.” With a remote-control, her manoeuvred our self-driving buggy towards us -- and my jaw dropped in amazement. He was equally astounded when I told him that I usually carry my own clubs, or use a trolley.

For a golf break he recommended Jeju Island off the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. With year-round warm weather, it offers perennial golfing opportunities even when there is snow in the north. It also has one of the top 100 golf courses in the world, Nine Bridges. Kim Ha-Neul, of the Korean Ladies Professional Golf Association (KLPGA), suggested an alternative area around Busan, the country’s biggest port. “There are also great golf courses, and it’s cheaper than Jeju,” she said. Like Jeju, though, it has mild weather -- and sensational seafood.

The cuisine is repeatedly cited in golf circles as a reason for visiting South Korea, along with the high levels of service. “If visitors want a VIP experience,” said Na Yeon Choi, “they should come here.”

Golf may be an elite sport in South Korea, as it is in many parts of the world, but there are ways of playing it on a tighter budget. For example, many South Koreans spend their weekends at downtown driving ranges, and there are more than 4,000 facilities in the country offering screen golf in 3D. Peter Claughton, the former director of instruction at Troon Golf Academy at the Banyan Tree, said playing screen golf is a typical way to spend a Friday night in Seoul. “For just 25,000 won (£15), you can go out with friends, order noodles and a beer, and play a virtual round at any course around the world,” he told me.

Perhaps the most convenient golf option for travellers is Sky72 Golf Club, within striking distance of Seoul’s international airport. It might be too tight to fit in a round between check-in and take-off, but you could hit some balls at the on-site Dream Golf Range, claimed to be the largest driving range in the world. Alternatively, just 45 minutes outside Seoul is the futuristic Haesley Nine Bridges, with its Frank Lloyd Wright-style clubhouse and a course with a Sub-Air system that allows oxygen to be piped straight to its grass roots. Almost as striking is the clubhouse at the Avanti Club, whose 27-hole course is on an estate of nearly 500 acres just half an hour’s drive from Seoul.

With facilities like this, South Korea looks set to continue its success on the international circuit -- and to become a serious contender as a golf destination. Both developments will be fascinating to watch, not least next year, when the Presidents Cup comes to South Korea, the tournament’s first foray into Asia.

FIve of the best courses in South Korea

Nine Bridges
Located on the volcanic island of Jeju (sometimes likened to Maui in Hawaii), this is one of the country’s finest courses, with a dramatic location in the shadow of Mt Haliasan, the country’s highest mountain. The landscape is a mix of pine forest and rolling hills, with smooth bentgrass fairways. The clubhouse is known for its fine dining and its spacious spa, which offers high-tech ‘footcare’ treatments.

Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea
One of the focal points of New Songdo City’s green space programme, this 18-hole PGA championship golf course has been designed by the award-winning consultancy Nicklaus Design. There are multiple tees and strategies for handling the 7,300-yard course built for players of all abilities. The clubhouse has an technologically advanced golf practice and learning centre.

Pine Beach
One of the country’s newer courses Pine Beach has been referred to as Asia’s Pebble Beach, the renowned championship course in California because of its dramatic terrain and rocky cliffs and headlands. Positioned on the west coast of the peninsula in Haenam, near Gwangju, 10 holes are on cliff tops and headlands extending out into the sea. The 430-yard 16th is a dogleg par-four with the Yellow Sea along the right side of the fairway, the par-three 15th also plays across open water.

Anyang Benest Golf Club
Founded in the late Sixties, this course is considered to be the home of South Korean golf. It was set up by Lee Byung-Chuli, the founder of the electronics giant Samsung Group, with the aim of reaching out to ordinary players rather than hosting professional tournaments. On the club website, Byung-Chuli (who died in 1987) is quoted as saying: “There is more to it than achieving a sense of enlightenment -- golf symbolises the fact that there is no end to striving toward a goal.”

Sky 72 Golf Club
This golf centre, near Incheon International Airport, has four 18-hole courses, the most challenging of which is the Ocean Course designed by Steve Nicklaus. The relatively long par-threes and par-fours can be particularly challenging. The site also has the Dream Golf Range, one of the world’s largest, with 300 automatic tee-up bays. Night golf is possible at the Lake Course from April to November.

Michelle Jana Chan travelled with Cox & Kings (www.coxandkings.co.uk).