PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – To chase his dream, K.J. Choi had to climb a mountain.
His arms were too long for a future in powerlifting, and baseball was just starting to take off in South Korea when he was a teenager. Without money to buy a baseball and a bat, Choi went to the nearest mountain, cut down a pine tree and fashioned his own bat. He played with a tennis ball, but it just wasn't the same. So imagine how he felt when he went to a driving range for a golf demonstration.
"Getting to hit a golf ball for the first time with an actual iron, I couldn't forget that solid feeling," Choi said. "It felt much better hitting a golf ball with a real club than hitting a tennis ball with my bat. And that's when I fell in love with it. I told myself, 'Just start golfing, and let's see how far it will take me.' And I kept with it."
It has carried him to 17 wins around the world, including The Players Championship, and more than $27 million in career earnings on the PGA Tour. He was the first South Korean to join the PGA Tour when he made it through Q-school in 1999. Now, finally, he has company.
And more are on the way.
These days, it is much easier for the likes of Seung-yul Noh, Sang-Moon Bae and Sunghoon Kang, who are among eight Korean-born players on the PGA Tour. Beyond American shores, only Australia has more PGA Tour players. They also have role models in Choi and Y.E. Yang, the first Asian man to win a major when he took down Tiger Woods in the 2009 PGA Championship. Most of them are products of the Korea Golf Association, which is pouring resources into golf and has produced a national team that could be the model for other developing golf nations.
How strong is the national team?
Korea won the gold medal in the prestigious Asian Games in 2006 in Qatar with a team that featured Kang and Presidents Cup player K.T. Kim. Noh, who was 18 when he defeated Choi in the 2010 Malaysian Open, was an alternate. Bae, who started this year at No. 30 in the world and lost in the quarterfinals to Rory McIlroy at the Match Play Championship, wasn't good enough to make the team.
"I tried," Bae said with a laugh. "But there were too many good amateurs in Korea, so I couldn't."
A year ago, Bae became the second straight Korean to win the money title on the Japan Golf Tour. Kim won the Japan money title in 2010, while Noh topped the Order of Merit that year on the Asian Tour. The ultimate stop is the PGA Tour, and the numbers are growing.
Korean success in America starts with the women. Another reminder came last week when Na Yeon Choi won the U.S. Women's Open at Blackwolf Run, where Se Ri Pak won the U.S. Women's Open in 1998 and became a pioneer for women's golf in her country. Korean membership on the LPGA Tour is approaching 50 players. More than 30 of them have won close to 100 times, and 10 have won majors.
For years after he became a PGA Tour winner, Choi rarely made it through an interview without being asked why there weren't as many Korean men.
The simple answer was the mandatory military service, which comes at a critical development stage for young golfers. Choi had to put in his two years at age 22. He was a rifleman, worked on a radar base and even spent time in the kitchen. His shift was to work two days and have two days off, during which time he could hit balls.
Some players have avoided military service by moving from Korea (U.S. Amateur champion Danny Lee to New Zealand, Kevin Na to America). Others have deferred until their 30s, and now there is a major incentive. Kang, for example, is exempt from his military service because he won a gold medal from the Asian Games. Players like Noh and Bae are hopeful of an Olympic medal in 2016.
"That was a big deal for me," Kang said.
But it's more than just a military obligation. There was a time when golf was considered only a game for the very rich, not a career path. Korean families invest heavily into their children's future, with a big emphasis on education. Pak's win at the Women's Open paved the way for women. It was still another four years before Choi won in New Orleans for his first PGA Tour win.
"Golf wasn't considered a good job for men," Choi said. "You didn't have a guaranteed income. No one knew you could make a living. Nowadays, as soon as you're born, parents stick a golf club in the baby's hands."
Choi learned that when he met his future wife and her parents didn't approve. Golf? How could someone provide for his family playing golf? Choi struck a deal that if he were to win a tournament, "I'm coming back and I'm going to take your daughter."
"They wanted me to prove I could support her," Choi said through his agent and translator, Michael Yim. "This only took a year to prove. I got my teaching license. I got on the Korean Tour. And I won."
More than $27 million later, do they approve? Choi smiled and said in English, "Big time."
Ty Votaw, the executive vice president of international affairs on the PGA Tour, became the LPGA commissioner the year after Pak's watershed moment at Blackwolf Run, and he saw the initial surge from South Korea. Votaw prefers to look at the development of Korea in a timeline that dates to the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, when it opened its markets. Among the Korean golf companies that invested in golf were LG, Samsung and Hyundai. Ten years later, Pak won the Women's Open. Now, two television networks are devoted to golf. The sport is no longer viewed as elitist. In some corners, it's hip.
"With golf on TV as much as it is there, golf is much more than a fashion backdrop than in this country," Votaw said. "You go to golf shops, and it's not your standard plaid plants. It's high-end fashion on the men's and women's side of things. It has captured the imagination of the youth. Even if they don't play golf, they see it as high fashion, and high achievement."
At the professional level, Votaw points to a changing landscape of opportunity in that corner of the world. Along with the Korean Tour, the men can make a living and aspire to reach the PGA Tour by playing in Japan (26 Korean players), the Asian Tour (13 players) and the fledgling OneAsia circuit (24 players).
Eight players are on the PGA Tour, a group that does not include John Huh, who was born in New York but grew up in Korea. He made it through Q-school and already has won this year at the Mayakoba Classic in Mexico. Huh will be making his major championship debut next week at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in the British Open.
One reason the men are not arriving to America in greater numbers is the competition.
"The worldwide pipeline of really good male players is much bigger," Votaw said. "There's a heck of a lot more competition on the men's side for a player to stand out."
Even so, the numbers are impossible to ignore. Only five years ago, 22 players from Korea signed up for Q-school on the PGA Tour. That number more than doubled to 52 a year ago. One of them was Bae, who was introduced to golf by his mother. He won 10 times on the Korean, Asian and Japan tours before he made it through Q-school last year.
"There's so many good players on the PGA Tour," he said. "I couldn't try PGA Tour Q-school because it was such a long trip to Korea. And Q-school is crazy hard. Only 25 people get their PGA Tour cards."
Korea, meanwhile, has kept up with its growing demand for golf.
With 3 million golfers, the country has 500 golf courses, 4,000 driving ranges and now has some 9,000 certified instructors. Even so, the story behind its success lies with the overwhelming support from the Korea Golf Association, which has 3,600 players — 2,000 of them men — registered in its national program from ages 8 to 20.
Golf Digest in Korea referred to the program as a "National Standing Army" of players, and the competition is stiff. The KGA takes eight players (four boys, four girls) at the elementary school level, 22 players from middle school, 26 players from high school and six players from the university level. An additional 12 comprise the national team.
Being part of this army means their expenses are paid. All KGA-registered golf clubs waive green fees for these players. They play some half-dozen international competitions each year, with the focus heavily on the Asian Games. And they take part in a winter training camp that last two months, which emphasizes fitness and fosters openness among players. More than anything, it builds pride in wearing the Korean flag on uniforms as a team member.
"If we prepare the players steadily from now on, we won't have a problem in winning Olympic medals," KGA vice chairman Dong-wook Kim told Golf Digest.
All these developments bring a smile to Choi.
Even though he hasn't won a major, young Koreans look to him in the same way so many women were inspired by Pak. Kang noted that even when Pak was winning majors, there were other Korean women on the LPGA Tour, such as Mi-Hyun Kim. On the PGA Tour, for the longest time there was only Choi.
At the Memorial this year, there was a poignant moment when two young Koreans stood quietly to the side of the putting green to watch Choi, then going out onto Muirfield Village for a practice round.
"When I first started winning on the PGA Tour, they were in their teens," Choi said. "They were kids. And now they're here."