After 24 months of substituting figurative foxholes for sand-filled bunkers, Sangmoon Bae returned to the PGA Tour last week in northern California, the site of one of his two victories on the U.S. circuit.
Like nearly every male from South Korea, Bae was obligated to complete a two-year hitch in the country’s military. After participating in the 2015 Presidents Cup matches and successfully delaying his conscription for several years, he rode off into an uncertain future.
“It was an honor,” Bae, now 31, told Golf Channel at the 2017-18 season-opening Safeway Open, at which he shot 73-75 and missed the cut. “It was a beautiful, great memory.”
Although Bae surely is relieved to have his service behind him, South Korea is considering an expanded conscription policy that could have far wider golf implications. Bae, who had just completed a career season two years ago when he returned home, is one of only eight Korean-born players to have won on the PGA Tour, so his absence wasn’t much noticed in the States. Only three Korean men – Si Woo Kim at No. 39, Byeong Hun An at No. 78 and Jeunghun Wang at No. 86 – rank among the top 100 in the Official World Golf Ranking.
However, imagine the much larger impact on the sport if many of their female peers someday were forced into compulsory military service.
Given the increased tension and heightened fears that the South Korean military lacks the numbers to answer threats posed by its aggressive northern neighbor, that possibility seemingly has edged closer to reality. As first reported last month by The Washington Post, a petition circulated by South Korean citizens asked that the government make military stints mandatory for women. It had generated more than 123,000 signatures.
According to the newspaper, at a recent meeting, South Korean President Jae-in Moon said he was aware of the petition and called it an “interesting issue.”
As far as a South Korean impact on the women’s game, frightening might be a better term. South Korean females hold 12 of the top 25 spots in the Rolex Rankings and a whopping 75 of the top 200 overall, or nearly 38 percent. The LPGA visits South Korea this week when the KEB Hana Bank Championship tees off Thursday in Incheon.
North Korea continues to rankle world leaders by firing nuclear test weapons like New Year’s fireworks. U.S. President Donald Trump disparagingly called North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “little rocket man” while attending the recent Presidents Cup matches in New Jersey. Tension ratchets upward on a peninsula where the 38th parallel and the heavily defended demilitarized zone separate the two nations, which technically remain at war after a 1953 armistice halted the Korean War.
Women’s golf, and the LPGA, always has been a DMZ, and for two decades, golf fans have become inured to the number of Koreans playing at transcendent levels on the LPGA. However, if a call to arms for females were issued in South Korea, the talent drain at the top of the world ranking could be crushing.
The LPGA declined to discuss the issue, calling it “speculative,” which is absolutely true – until it isn’t. As it relates to South Korean concerns about the readiness of the Korean military and expanding service, it doesn’t take much imagination to remove the man from mandatory. A handful of countries, including Israel, Cuba, Norway and more ominously, North Korea, already require mandatory military service from women.
Such a move not only could damage the sport but wipe out crucial portions of careers. Female golfers from around the globe often peak in their 20s, if not earlier, such as with transcendent former teen stars Michelle Wie of the U.S. and Lydia Ko, a native South Korean who grew up in New Zealand.
Although some male South Koreans have postponed enlistment – Bae several times pushed back his service time before he was ordered to report at age 29 – the law requires eligible men to complete service between ages 18 and 35. K.J. Choi and Y.E. Yang served military stints before excelling on the PGA Tour.
Yet if conscription for women were to become compulsory, golfers ordered to serve at young ages could lose time from an unpredictable biological clock. Consider the quick-to-peak careers of Koreans Na Yeon Choi and Jiyai Shin. Both were ranked world No. 1 or led the tour in earnings before age 25 before quickly rappelling down the other side of the mountain.
Shin was the LPGA’s top rookie in 2009, reached No. 1 in the world at 20 and quit the LPGA in 2014. Choi won the Vare Trophy in 2010, then earned nearly $2 million in 2012 at 25, yet has won only twice in the past five seasons. Based on anecdotal evidence, a two-year separation from golf for a female in her early 20s might represent far more than an occupational pothole.
While the addition of mandatory military service for South Korean women remains uncertain, circumstances and political winds can change quickly. About 10,000 of South Korea’s 630,000 active-duty military personnel are women.
As for the here and now, the female Korean troops already have conquered North America. The top two players in the world ranking, So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park, respectively, are South Korean. Between them, they have earned nearly $3.7 million on the American tour in 2017, which doesn’t include endorsement income from companies back home.
A military hitch not only would be inconvenient and a potential career-wrecker but expensive. According to reports, a corporal in the South Korean military lives in barracks with other soldiers and earns about $100 per month.
There’s no camouflaging the potential indirect cost to the women’s game, which would be incalculable.