For South Koreans, Olympic medal is only way out of military

Jul 27, 2021, 1:23 PM | Updated: Jul 28, 2021, 1:53 am

KAWAGOE, Japan (AP) — They keep telling themselves the Olympics is no different from any other golf tournament because anything else would only make it harder on Sungjae Im and Si Woo Kim.

It’s already tough to ignore the perks of winning a medal.

And if either of the South Koreans find themselves in the mix Sunday afternoon at Kasumigaseki Country Club, it will be impossible to ignore a brand of pressure that no other player in the 60-man field can appreciate.

An Olympic medal is their only ticket out of two-year mandatory military service.

“I know it’s true that if we earn a medal the Korean government will exempt us from serving military,” Kim said through an interpreter. “But I don’t really focus or think about the service in the military. My only goal is to win the championship and get a medal and be honored.”

The Tokyo Olympics might not be their last chance.

Both are young enough — Im is 23, Kim is 26 — that they could get another crack at a medal in Paris three years from now. But that’s assuming they qualify. Kim was in a close competition with K.H. Lee for the second Olympic spot that wasn’t decided until the final week.

Both also know the effect of walking away from the game for two years.

Sangmoon Bae, a two-time winner on the PGA Tour, played in the Presidents Cup in 2015 before a home crowd in South Korea. That was his final event before he had to enlist. Bae won a Korn Ferry Tour event a year after he got out to earn back his full card. Since then, he has missed the cut in half of his tournaments and is No. 958 in the world.

“I’ve kind of lost my feel how to play golf,” Bae said in a 2019 interview. “Not how to swing — I forgot how to play golf.”

Seung-yul Noh, another PGA Tour winner, started his two-year stint in 2018. Since his return — six events before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down golf for three months — he has made it to the weekend three times in 14 starts on the tour, with only one finish inside the top 50.

Just another tournament? Im’s and Kim’s actions say otherwise. The Olympics meant enough to both that they withdrew from the British Open to prepare for the men’s golf competition, which starts Thursday.

Im flew home to South Korea on July 14 and came to Tokyo nine days later. He wanted to be adjusted to the time change from the U.S.

“I only focus and think about winning the games, not the military problem,” Im said.

For South Korean golfers, the only other exemption is a gold medal in the Asian Games. But that’s only for amateurs. Whether a major would be enough to get out of the military isn’t known because it hasn’t happened. Y.E. Yang had already served before he beat Tiger Woods in the 2009 Championship at Hazeltine.

Im pulled to within one shot of the lead in the final round of the Masters last November until Dustin Johnson pulled away. Would a green jacket from Augusta National have carried the same weight as an Olympic medal if Im had won?

According to Golf Digest, the South Korean government made an exception for the national soccer team at the World Cup in 2002, hosted by South Korea and Japan. The team would receive exemptions by reaching the round of 16. South Korea made it to the semifinals.

The national team at the first World Baseball Classic in 2006 was offered a military exemption for reaching the semifinals. South Korea finished third.

Im would have a realistic chance to finish in the top three at any tournament.

After spending two years on the Japan Golf Tour, he made an immediate impression with a win and a runner-up finish to start the year on the Korn Ferry Tour. He went 3-1-1 in his Presidents Cup debut in 2019 — playing with three partners — and won the Honda Classic a year later.

“I do have experience playing in Japan for two years,” Im said. “And because I have the experience, the condition of the fairway and condition of the green is so good in Japan, so when I am making iron shots that will be no problem to me and I feel so comfortable.”

In some respects, Kim is fortunate to even be in Japan.

He is best known for winning The Players Championship in 2017 — one year after the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro — at age 21. But he was sliding down the world ranking when the pandemic hit and postponed the Tokyo Olympics. That actually helped him.

Kim won The American Express in the California desert in January to move back into the top 50 in the world ranking for the first time since 2018, and that’s where he has been hovering.

“Because of COVID situation, my ranking was a little bit down,” Kim said. The objective was to work hard and get back “so that I could join the team this year in Olympic games.”

___

More AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2020-tokyo-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

A member of the AlKuwari family shows the trophy after winning the first prize at the Mzayen World ...
Associated Press

Camel pageant among attractions on World Cup sidelines

ASH-SHHANIYA, Qatar (AP) — Like all good pageant contestants, Nazaa’a displayed not only dazzling beauty but also poise and grace. She batted her eyelashes and flashed a toothy smile for the television cameras at the Mzayen World Cup, a pageant held in the Qatari desert about 15 miles (25 kilometers) away from Doha and soccer’s […]
1 day ago
Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson throws a pass during an NFL football practice at the te...
Associated Press

Watson has better shot winning with Browns than fixing image

Deshaun Watson has a better chance of leading the Cleveland Browns to their first Super Bowl title than rebuilding his public image. The disgraced quarterback wouldn’t address his 11-game suspension for sexual misconduct or his league-mandated therapy sessions on Thursday in his first comments since returning to the Browns. “I have been advised to stay […]
1 day ago
Japan's Kaoru Mitoma appears to have the ball over the line before crossing it for a goal during th...
Associated Press

AP photo catches key moment before Japan’s World Cup goal

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — From most angles, it looked like the ball went out of play just before Japan scored its winning goal in the 2-1 victory against Spain in the World Cup. Associated Press photographer Petr David Josek took a photo from above that appears to support the referee’s decision to allow it. Josek’s […]
1 day ago
Belgium's Leandro Trossard, left, and Croatia's Josko Gvardiol fight for the ball during the World ...
Associated Press

‘Little Pep’ Gvardiol coming up big for Croatia at World Cup

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — For 90 minutes, the hulking, masked mass that is Josko Gvardiol kept Belgium’s big-name strikers at bay with timely tackles — none bigger than his stop on Romelu Lukaku two minutes into stoppage time. Then the 20-year-old Croat who is fast becoming the most sought-after center back in Europe went over […]
1 day ago
Christian Pulisic of the United States attends a press conference before a training session at Al-G...
Associated Press

US star Pulisic on track to play against Dutch in World Cup

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Christian Pulisic is on track to play for the United States in its World Cup round of 16 match against the Netherlands on Saturday, Pulisic left Tuesday’s final group stage match against Iran at halftime after bruising his pelvic bone in a collision with the goalkeeper while scoring in the 38th […]
1 day ago
Spain players leave the pitch at the end of the World Cup group E soccer match between Japan and Sp...
Associated Press

Spain in recovery mode after losing to Japan at World Cup

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — It’s not how Spain imagined reaching the knockout phase of the World Cup: finishing the group stage with a loss and having to rely on other teams to help it advance. Spain survived but heads into the round of 16 against Morocco with bruised confidence after losing 2-1 to Japan. “We […]
1 day ago
For South Koreans, Olympic medal is only way out of military