News & Opinion

Tour players hold no fear about Korea event

NORTON, Mass. – With missiles flying and nuclear-weapons testing underway in North Korea, the Korean peninsula would seem to be one of the world’s scariest places.

But it’s not searing enough to keep the PGA Tour or its players away from the inaugural CJ Cup at Nine Bridges next month on Jeju Island, South Korea.

The 714-square-mile island, which sits in the Korea Strait, between the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea, is one hour by plane from Seoul, as far as possible from the turmoil in North Korea yet still in Korea.

But that distance is less than 350 miles from the 38th parallel and the demilitarized zone that separates communist North Korea from South Korea. Jeju Island is well within missile range of North dictator Kim Jong Un’s arsenal.  

The PGA Tour provided a large carrot to players in the form of a $9.25 million purse for the Oct. 19-22 CJ Cup. Other than the four major championships, the four World Golf Championships and the Players Championship, the CJ Cup will offer the largest purse on the PGA Tour. In the current FedEx Cup playoff series, the events offer $8.75 million purses.

That money has gotten the players’ attention.

“Free money. I’d go to the moon for free money,” said Pat Perez, explaining his decision to dismiss geopolitical tensions and play the 78-man, no-cut event in Korea. “When it’s time to go, it’s time to go. We’re on an island, so we’re way off the beaten path. If it was like one of the hot spots, maybe.”

At the Dell Technologies Championship, which concludes today here at TPC Boston, that was the prevailing sentiment among the 10 players questioned about whether they were concerned about playing in Korea. The 1953 armistice in the Korean War halted fighting between the U.S.-backed South and the Chinese-supported North but did not formally end the war.

Even South Korean Si Woo Kim, who makes his home in Dallas, dismissed concerns about returning to his homeland. 

“It looks like news, but nothing is going to happen,” Kim said. “It happens every year.”

Well, not quite. This is the first year that North Korea successfully launched an intercontinental ballistic missile and demonstrated a level of sophistication with its nuclear program to rattle northeast Asia and the Western world.

Most players take comfort with the fact that the event is six weeks away, saying that the PGA Tour would never put them in harm’s way. If hostilities were to become more imminent, every player interviewed expected the Tour to call off the event.

Last year, concerns about the mosquito-borne Zika virus prompted Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, among others, to skip golf’s return to the Olympic Games, in Rio de Janeiro.

During the past several years, terrorist activities in Istanbul have prompted the European Tour to take a closer look at security at its Turkish Airlines Open that is part of the Race to Dubai series.

Argentina’s Emiliano Grillo, who intends to play in Korea next month, skipped Turkey in 2015 because of security concerns.

“It was a bit worse,” Grillo said. “You have to go through the airport, and in the six months prior, two times the airport was bombed. So why should I go? I don’t have any reason to go, and that’s the reason why I lost my European Tour card.”

Unless the PGA Tour throws up a red flag, Jeju Island will host its first PGA Tour event, with a field that seems willing to overlook the North’s posturing for the opportunity to play for a big purse.

“It’s very cold and very wet. That is my only concern, honestly,” India’s Anirban Lahiri said. “I live in India. I share a border with China. We’ve been at war with Pakistan for years. People misunderstand what real problems are.”

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli