South Korean golfers Sungjae Im and Si Woo Kim must win a medal at the Tokyo Olympics to avoid 2 years of mandatory military service, sources close to the two golfers told The Korea Herald. South Korean golfers Sungjae Im and Si Woo Kim must win a medal at the Tokyo Olympics to avoid 2 years of mandatory military service, sources close to the two golfers told The Korea Herald.
South Korea’s golfers Si Woo Kim and Sungjae Im can be thankful to the Olympics for bringing them this far. With no Olympic medal in sight, having to serve two years of mandatory military service would have been tough to live with. But if they win a medal at the Tokyo Games, they will be able to avoid this burden, and get back to playing golf instead.
Every competitor participating in the Tokyo Olympic Games this year has a distinct motivation for being there. For others, being the greatest in the world at one sport has been a lifetime ambition. Others believe it is their responsibility to represent their native nation as one of the best athletes on the planet.
Sungjae Im and Si Woo Kim, two South Korean golfers, could care less about all of it.
This week at the Olympics, Im and Kim have a once-in-a-lifetime chance that they may never have again. A medal of any sort would free them from South Korea’s two-year military service requirement.
Let’s talk about stress.
Sungjae Im and Si Woo Kim have yet to finish their compulsory military duty.
South Korean duo Sungjae Im and Si Woo Kim | Ezra Shaw/Getty Images and Michael Reaves/Getty Images
The military in South Korea works in a very different manner from the military in the United States. While many Americans today opt to join the military, every male South Korean citizen is required to serve his nation for 18 to 21 months after turning 18. Most people finish their obligatory duty as soon as they are able, although those who wait until they are 28 may join.
The practice dates back to 1957, and individuals who have refused to cooperate have been sentenced to prison throughout the years. Men who reside outside of South Korea and do not return to finish their duty may lose their citizenship and be barred from returning to the country.
Although every South Korean male is required to serve in the military by the age of 30, there are a few exceptions that enable elite athletes to continue their careers without interruption.
That takes us to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
With a medal in the Tokyo Olympics, Im and Kim may receive a military exemption.
Park Chung-hee, the president of South Korea at the time, granted a military exemption to any athlete who brought home a medal from the Olympic Games every four years back in 1973. Athletes who earned a gold medal at the Asian Games were ultimately granted the exemption.
Unfortunately for Im and Kim, the Asian Games golf tournament is only open to amateurs. Before becoming pro, neither golfer had an opportunity to participate in the event.
As a result, the Tokyo Olympics competition this weekend is the most significant event of their young lives. They are well aware of this. Im and Kim both made the extreme step of withdrawing from the Open Championship two weeks ago in order to focus on the potentially life-changing Olympics.
In Tokyo this weekend, Kim will be the one carrying the most weight. The three-time PGA Tour champion turned 26 only a few months ago, meaning this is his last opportunity to earn an Olympic medal before turning 28 and joining the military. Im, on the other hand, is just 23 years old, so he still has a chance to win a medal in the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.
However, there’s no assurance he’ll make it. Both South Korean golfers must be thinking now or never this weekend.
This week, we’re all South Korean fans.
If you’re an American who plans to watch the next Olympic golf tournament, you’ll undoubtedly be rooting for Collin Morikawa, Xander Schauffele, Justin Thomas, or Patrick Reed to win gold. But how can you not cheer for Im and Kim to win silver and bronze, respectively?
For the South Koreans, this is about much more than a medal. If neither Im nor Kim finish in the top three this week, not only will they be summoned to serve in the military for their native country, but their whole PGA Tour careers would be jeopardized.
Your swing — and your career — may be irreparably harmed if you spend two years without picking up a golf club. Sangmoon Bae can attest to this.
Back in 2011, Bae was rated as high as 26th in the Official World Golf Ranking. Bae had won 12 professional tournaments across the globe by the time he was compelled to enlist in 2015, and he had even participated for the International team in the Presidents Cup. Bae battled hard to recover his form after returning from duty and regaining full-time status on the PGA Tour. Bae participated in 22 Tour tournaments in 2018. In 14 of them, he missed the cut, and he never finished higher than 27th all season.
After the 2018 season, Bae’s PGA Tour card was revoked. He is now rated 958th in the world.
Im and Kim must find a method to reach the podium in Tokyo if they are to escape the potential fall from grace that their fellow countryman suffered just a few years ago.
Sungjae and Si Woo, we’re all rooting for you.
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