With each Olympic golf year, the debate is sure to rage more than it has in past editions.
Where does this competition stand within the professional golf landscape? We know what that answer is on the women’s side. Qualifying is intense and winning a medal could be career-defining. For the men, most would agree the Olympics does not come close to reaching major championship or Ryder Cup status; maybe it isn’t even considered on par with high-tier PGA Tour events.
But for two particular male players, winning an Olympic medal could literally mean getting to stay on the golf course to preserve their successful careers.
Si Woo Kim and Sungjae Im, the South Korean representatives, could avoid the military service their country requires if they were to win a medal this week. All men in South Korea must serve between 18-21 months depending on which branch they go into – it’s a requirement upon turning 19 years old, but can be delayed for legitimate reasons like working or studying abroad. For the vast majority, that delay can’t be prolonged forever. By no later than your mid-30’s, and typically much earlier than that, the service must begin.
For athletes, there are generally two accomplishments that grant you an exemption: Earning a gold medal in the Asian Games, which for golf is an amateur-only competition held every four years, or you can earn any medal at the Olympic Games. That’s it. There have been special cases over the years, such as the 2002 World Cup in soccer where the South Korean team, a co-host of the event, was offered an exemption opportunity before the tournament. If they made the round of 16, it was determined, all 23 men would be exempt. The team reached the semifinals during a Cinderella run, clinching the exemptions. A similar situation occurred at the 2006 World Baseball Classic where it was decided that a semifinal appearance would be good enough for the South Korean squad to receive an exemption. That team was also successful, finishing third in the tournament.
Still, the window is a narrow one. For golfers like Kim and Im, their accomplishments to this point do not offer any relief from the military service. Kim, 26, has won three times on the PGA Tour, including the Players Championship, while Im, 23, is a one-time PGA Tour winner and former Rookie of the Year. That’s far from obscurity, but not enough to get out of their duties. Neither would winning the Masters, being on a winning Presidents Cup team or anything of the sort.
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