Most golfers teeing it up at Kasumigaseki Country Club this week are aiming for a medal and the acclaim that comes with it. Two players, however, are searching for a whole lot more: the opportunity to get two years of their lives back from their nation.
Si Woo Kim and Sungjae Im represent South Korea at this year’s Olympics. Like all South Korean men, they are obligated to serve two years of mandatory military service. Unlike most of their countrymen, they have a way out: win a medal at the Olympics.
Nothing like a little added pressure, right?
Because of South Korea’s fraught history with its northern neighbor, all able-bodied males are obligated to serve between 18 and 21 months in the military once they turn 19. They can delay the date of their service for various reasons — such as working abroad on the PGA Tour, for instance — but without a significant cultural justification, like an Olympic medal, the military comes for everyone. Even the members of BTS, the South Korean pop band that’s one of the most popular groups on the planet, have only been able to defer, not discharge, their service obligation.
That means this tournament is about much more than hardware for Im and Kim. It’s about controlling their own lives for two more years. Granted, there’s the sense of patriotic obligation that comes with serving one’s country. And South Korea makes it so difficult to exempt out of military service precisely to avoid the whole “poor boys fighting rich men’s wars” syndrome that afflicts so many other nations.
So while Im and Kim have been preparing for this tournament for weeks, skipping the Open Championship to do so, both have indicated that they’re trying not to let the what-ifs enter their minds.
“I know it’s true that if we earn a medal the Korean government will exempt us from serving military,” Kim told assembled media on Wednesday. “But I don’t really, like, focus or think about the service in the military. My only goal is to win the championship and get medal and be honored.”
“I only focus and think about the winning games,” Im said, “not the military problem.”
Beyond the pressure of playing under conditions that could literally determine two years of their future, neither Im nor Kim is coming into the Olympics playing particularly well. Starting with this year’s Masters, Im has missed five of 12 cuts, with his highest finish a T8 at the Rocket Mortgage Classic. He ranks 35th overall on the PGA Tour in Strokes Gained, with his best metric being Off The Tee, where he ranks 16th.
Kim’s results have been similar; he’s missed the cut in one tournament and withdrawn from two since the Masters, with his best finish a T9 at the Memorial. As a result, oddsmakers aren’t bullish on either player. BetMGM puts Im’s odds of medaling at +800, 14th best in the field, while Kim is tied for 12th at +1200.
The heart of the issue is the fact that only certain wins count. Winning on the PGA Tour alone isn’t enough, nor is even winning a major — a fact made abundantly clear to Im when he finished runner-up to Dustin Johnson at last fall’s Masters. Only an Olympic medal, or a gold medal at the amateur-only Asian Games, gives sufficient credibility in the eyes of the South Korean government to bestow exemption.
The professional risk to players is clear and obvious. Taking two years off in the middle of a career is damaging enough, but returning to contending form after that is a severe challenge. Two notable South Korean players, Sangmoon Bae and Seung-yul Noh, recently served their two-year terms but have had little success upon returning to the game.
The Olympic tournament begins Thursday morning in Japan. Kim begins his quest for gold at 10:03 a.m. local time in a grouping that includes Rasmus Hojgaard and Romain Langasque, while Im tees off at 10:25 a.m. alongside Collin Morikawa and Rory McIlroy. Three days and a few hours later, they’ll have a good idea of what their next few years will hold, one way or another.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at email@example.com.
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