Two South Korean golfers will be forced to complete mandatory military service if they are unable to medal at Tokyo 2020.
Sungjae Im, 23, and Si Woo Kim, 26, have both enjoyed successful careers; Im is one of the game's young stars, sitting inside the world’s top 20, and Kim won twice on the PGA Tour. The second of these victories made him the youngest ever winner of the Players Championship in 2017, locked up his Tour card for five years and put $1.89 million in his pocket.
But, despite having victories that are the envy of countless athletes across the globe, in the eyes of the South Korean government the two men owe their county an unpaid debt: military service.
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The pair have just one way to escape this compulsory service which would see them leave behind their golfing careers for two years: securing a medal at Tokyo 2020.
Military service is mandatory for South Korean men, with only a few exceptions being made to the rule.
The South Korean government considers a very narrow set of accomplishments sufficient to “enhance national prestige” and thus exempt a citizen from military service; for most athletes this only includes securing a medal at either the Olympic or Asian Games.
Athletes who have earned this exception include Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heung-Min, who guided the national team to a 2-1 victory in the gold medal match of the 2018 Asian Games, and Hyeon Chung, the first South Korean tennis player to reach a Grand Slam semi-final, who took gold in the 2014 Asian ​G​ames.
Kevin Na, a five-time winner on Tour, spent the first eight years of his life in Seoul before his family emigrated to Southern California. He became a US citizen upon turning 18, which resulted in him losing his Korean citizenship and thus not having to serve.
He believes that the list of reasons for exceptions to be granted should be expanded.
“(South Korea) doesn’t like making exemptions or giving special treatment to athletes or celebrities,” Na says, pointing out that he was planning to play the Korean Open but would’ve had to miss the U.S. Open due to a non-negotiable quarantine requirement.
“Would it be nice to not go all the way, but find some kind of middle ground where it benefits both sides but you’re not setting a bad example? That’d be nice.
“When you win a major, would you be exempt? That hasn’t happened yet. I think you should be exempt.
“I think you’ve done, what that does for your country in the golf world is pretty big. Look what it did in Japan for Hideki. I think it would be pretty close for that.
If a guy wins a major, I’m all for it. Exempt the guy.
“Those two years, what he could be doing representing your country, give him an exemption. He deserves it.”
At 23, Im has two shots at making his exception at an Olympic Games, but 26-year-old Kim needs to medal at this Games to escape military service
Having to serve would not only cost the pair two years of earnings but would also mean the potential end of their careers.
"It’s not the same," says Kevin Na.
You can practise all you want, but if you don’t play in competition, you will get rusty. The two guys that have gone to serve, they haven’t been the same.
For both Kim and Im, this Olympic Games is not about adding to their silverware, it is a fight to keep hold of their lives as they know them.
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