South Korea is a sleeping giant in the world of golf. Despite the game being virtually unknown among the wider population as recently as the 1980s, we now see Korean golfers are a force on the PGA and LPGA Tours. In fact, the FedEx Cup points leader going into the current hiatus was none other than South Korean golfer and last year’s Rookie of the Year Im Sungjae. In women’s golf in particular, following trailblazer Pak Se-Ri in the 90s and early 2000s, South Korean pros dominate the top-20 despite the country having far fewer people than America, Japan, or the UK. So how can a country that is overwhelmingly urban, where half the population lives in the Seoul metro area, and where golf lacks the deep roots of other countries be the world’s third largest golf market? The secret is the proliferation of facilities offering golf simulators, or as it’s known locally, “screen golf”.
Playing Screen Golf
Anyone who has been to a South Korean city can attest to the love of golf. Multi-tiered driving ranges are common, often taking up a large portion of a city block, many open late into the night and featuring food and drink service. But for golfers trying to get a taste of the real thing will look for a screen golf facility. These businesses are often akin to bowling alleys in America, they offer clubs to borrow (and often shoes and gloves) and often have food and maybe even a bar inside. And just like with bowling, some folks take it much more seriously than others, bringing their own equipment and competing in organized competitions.
What is different from bowling alleys is that often screen golf is played in separate rooms, with a seating area for those not currently playing. The golf simulator itself is a massive beast, often with a screen 15 feet or more across. The most popular simulator is Golfzon, which features hundreds of real courses from across the world in addition to purely virtual courses. Golfers can compete against others in real time, or see how their scores rank against thousands of other players competing on the same course. Sensors measure flight and distance in real time, and the playing surface features multiple materials to match fairway, greens, roughs, and bunkers. The playing surface also tilts to the appropriate angle to simulate your actual lie. It truly is the closest thing you can get to a real golf course while staying inside.
Screen Golf and Korean Culture
The proliferation of screen golf is a big reason why golf in Korea is actually gaining players, unlike in Western countries like America where players are dwindling. Screen golf has even spawned its own professional league with sponsored events that are televised, with top players earning endorsements and enjoying fame. Many of these facilities are open 24 hours to compliment the hectic work schedule of many Koreans. In fact, business analysts estimate between 200,000 and a quarter of a million people play screen golf each day in South Korea. The popularity has seen Golfzon open new facilities throughout Asia, with select expansion into US cities as well. It may be that urban centers, with little to no actual golf facilities, may bring a revival to the sport in Western countries as has happened in South Korea.