A Rising Tide of South Korean Golfers

Seung-Yul Noh, left, and K. J. Choi in 2010 (Kamarul Akhir/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

Seung-Yul Noh, left, and K. J. Choi in 2010. Noh, 20, has won twice internationally, and Choi, 41, has eight PGA Tour titles.

By Karen Crouse

KAPALUA, Hawaii — On Wednesday nights before a tournament, K. J. Choi visits the Korean Baptist church closest to the course he is playing, a practice that dates to when he was the PGA Tour’s first and only full-time player from South Korea. In the familiar hymns, sung in his native tongue, Choi experiences a connection, a communion, that he struggled at first to forge on the tour, where the courses and the language were foreign to him.

The echoes of home that Choi had to search for a decade ago, he will be able to find this week on the practice green and driving range at Waialae Country Club in Honolulu, the site of the year’s first full-field tour event. Choi’s prayer, finally, has been answered; the door he cracked open in 2000 is being knocked down in 2012 by 11 players of South Korean descent, led by a baby-faced 20-year-old, Seung-Yul Noh, who is poised to become golf’s next rising star.

“I’m so happy,” Choi, an eight-time tour winner, said last week. “It’s my dream to see this happening.”

For more than a decade, South Korean women have worn a path to the winner’s circle in professional golf. Two years before Choi made his PGA Tour debut, Se Ri Pak won four events, including two majors, as a rookie on the L.P.G.A. Tour. She thus opened a pipeline that has flooded the women’s game with golfers known collectively as the Seoul Sisters and infused the tour with corporate and broadcasting partners based in Asia.

But for reasons ingrained in their culture, South Korean men have lagged behind the women on golf’s world stage. J. S. Kang, a sports agent based in the United States who has lived in South Korea, said the country’s two-year compulsory military service had been a major factor, pulling promising men from the game during what would be the formative years of their careers.

Until recently, sports for boys were seen, essentially, as a refuge for those who could not keep up academically.

“Being a male-oriented society, sons are expected to be the doctors, the lawyers, the professionals,” Kang said. “There is more of an inclination to put a male on the academic track than the athletic track.”

In 2009, a Korean man other than Choi made a huge splash in the United States, Y. E. Yang. He overtook Tiger Woods at the P.G.A. Championship to become the first Asian golfer to win a men’s major.

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