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

Jul 27, 2021, 1:23 PM | Updated: Jul 28, 2021, 1:54 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

Ottawa Senators celebrate a goal against the Los Angeles Kings during the second period in an NHL h...
Associated Press

Giroux scores on OT breakaway, Senators beat Kings 3-2

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Claude Giroux scored on a breakaway 20 seconds into overtime, Brady Tkachuk had a goal and an assist and the Ottawa Senators beat the Los Angeles Kings 3-2 on Sunday night. Alex DeBrincat had a power-play goal, Cam Talbot made 25 saves and the Senators won consecutive games for the first […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

Saterfield, Portland St. beat in-state rive Oregon St. 83-71

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Jorell Saterfield hit four 3-pointers and finished with 15 points to help Portland State beat Oregon State for the second time in eight days, 83-71 in the seventh-place game of the Phil Knight Legacy tournament Sunday night. Mikal Starks had 13 points, five assists and three steals for Portland State (3-4). […]
1 day ago
Connecticut head coach Dan Hurley celebrates after his team won the Phil Knight invitational champi...
Associated Press

Clingan lifts UConn past Iowa State for Phil Knight title

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Donovan Clingan had 15 points and 10 rebounds to power No. 20 UConn to a 71-53 win over Iowa State in the championship game of the Phil Knight Invitational on Sunday night. Tristen Newton scored 13 points for the Huskies (8-0), who went 20 for 25 at the free-throw line. Alex […]
1 day ago
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers reacts during the second half of an NFL football game a...
Associated Press

Hurts, Eagles run past Packers 40-33; Rodgers hurt

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Jalen Hurts ran and ran and he ran so much that Green Bay couldn’t catch him as he raced his way into Philadelphia’s record book. Hurts outran the Packers and he eclipsed all the other fleet-footed Pro Bowl quarterbacks in Eagles’ history. Better than Randall Cunningham, better than Donovan McNabb, better than […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

Udeze scores 33, New Mexico beats Northern Colorado 98-74

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Morris Udeze scored 33 points as New Mexico beat Northern Colorado 98-74 on Sunday night. Udeze also contributed 14 rebounds for the Lobos (6-0). Jaelen House added 22 points while shooting 7 for 12 (3 for 6 from 3-point range) and 5 of 5 from the free throw line, and he […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

Dartmouth takes down UTSA 78-77 in OT

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Ryan Cornish had 21 points in Dartmouth’s 78-77 overtime victory against UTSA on Sunday night at the San Antonio Shootout. Cornish added nine rebounds for the Big Green (2-4). Demilade Adelekun added 15 points while shooting 6 of 12 from the field and 3 for 4 from the line, and he […]
1 day ago
For South Koreans, Olympic medal is only way out of military