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For South Korean teen, golf comes first

For Eom Jae-moon, 17, golf is more than just his ticket to losing weight; it is his future. He spends 15 hours a day practicing, and his mother keeps him focused on the goal of landing a place on the PGA tour.

January 02, 2011|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
  • Like thousands of other young golfers in South Korea, 17-year-old Eom Jae-moon is expected to excel, turn pro and win tournaments.
Like thousands of other young golfers in South Korea, 17-year-old Eom Jae-moon… (Matt Douma, For The Times )

Reporting from Seoul — Eom Jae-moon, a 17-year-old with an unruly mop of brownish hair, considers golf his savior.

An overweight child, he was encouraged to work out at a health club, where he discovered an indoor driving range. Soon, his mother had to beg him to come home. He lost weight and quickly excelled at his chosen sport.

And although he sometimes hates the sound of the 6 a.m. alarm and the hourlong bus ride to his golf academy, he loves the feel of a golf club in his hands.

"I like the pressure of tournament golf, not knowing if you're going to win or lose; it's a rush," said Jae-moon, who has won one amateur tournament here.

He practices constantly, sometimes an astonishing 15 hours a day, hitting 900 balls under the scrutiny of a personal coach, living and breathing the sport to the exclusion of all else, including subjects such as science and history. His only outside endeavor is practicing English on his daily commute.

And that's exactly how his mother wants it. Challenging her son with a drill instructor's drive, Kim Han-mi directs his every move toward a possible future on the PGA tour.

"If he doesn't do well at a tournament, I yell at him," she said. "If he loses focus and blows chances for birdies, I get upset."

More than a decade after South Korean golfers burst onto the international scene, Jae-moon's tale illustrates the intense national pride in the success stories of recent years, but also an unsettling side to the country's mania for golf.

In a nation obsessed with success, thousands of young golfers soon learn a tough lesson: More than just playing the game, they're expected to excel, turn pro and win tournaments, making their families proud. The schedules of many youths are managed as closely as those of Olympic-hopeful figure skating or gymnastics prodigies around the globe.

"I always tell my son, 'We have to do more,' " Jae-moon's mother said.

South Korea's pro-golf phenomenon gained momentum in 1998 when ex-shot putter Se Ri-pak won both the LPGA championship and the U.S. Women's Open, becoming the first female rookie from her country to do so. More than half a dozen South Koreans have since won majors in women's golf.

This year, 43 South Koreans are thought likely to compete on the LPGA tour, or one-third of the 123 international players.

In 2010, counting Korean American Michelle Wie, ethnic Koreans accounted for five of the top 10 money winners, including the top two spots. Although the men have enjoyed less success, young golfers here still savor South Korean Yang Yong-eun's defeat of Tiger Woods to win the 2009 PGA Championship.

Today, 4 million South Koreans play golf, competing for space on 251 courses nationwide. In comparison, there are 2,500 courses in Japan and 18,000 in the U.S.

Jae-moon arrives at school each day at 9 a.m., but he doesn't go to any classroom. In a largely unregulated industry, each golf academy decides how many outside academic subjects to offer students. Many provide few or none at all.

With so few golf courses in the country, greens fees are astronomical, so Jae-moon is limited to three nine-hole rounds each week on an actual course. The rest of his time is spent in a vast center with indoor sand traps, driving ranges and putting greens.

He often gets home at midnight or later. He limits seeing friends to one night each week, usually Sundays. There just isn't enough time.

The teen's only act of rebellion came when he secretly got his ear pierced. His mother didn't like it, but the earring stayed. It was only after Jae-moon's coach frowned on the embellishment that he removed it.

Recently, Jae-moon's mother almost ended his golf career, but not for her son's lack of a well-rounded life: He missed a critical birdie putt.

"I gave him hell. I told him we'd send him abroad to study," she said. "If he was destined to play golf, he'd make more birdies. It wasn't an easy decision for me. We fought. He cried. He kept playing golf."

Like countless other youngsters here, Jae-moon will soon leave for a month in Thailand, where warmer weather, not to mention the luxury of playing outdoors on actual course, allows for more real-world golf under the eyes of his coach.

He can't wait to go.

"Just knowing that I'm going to play golf makes me happy," he said. "I walk on the grass at the course and I feel good."

john.glionna@latimes.com

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