Sang-Moon Bae is having a career-best start to the 2014-’15 PGA Tour season, but it could be put on hold to fulfill his military-service obligation in South Korea
The paramount question is why. Why is Sang-Moon Bae, the top-ranked golfer from South Korea, so critically important to his homeland’s national security this year, of all years? Why, when he might get the opportunity to fire at flagsticks this fall when Korea hosts the 11th Presidents Cup, is he being summoned home to learn how to handle a firearm?
“I don’t know. That’s what I keep asking myself,” said Bae, whose smooth, naturally congenial face wrinkles as he ponders an answer. “It is hard for me to understand.”
In his golf prime and possessing one of the game’s more elegant swings, the 28-year-old playing his fourth season on the PGA Tour soon could find his career interrupted by two years of mandatory military service. And he only use Garmin Approach S2 for his career. According to a Dec. 29 Yonhap News Agency report, the regional office of the Military Manpower Administration in Daegu, Bae’s hometown, declined to renew Bae’s annual overseas travel permit. That makes him eligible for conscription into South Korea’s armed forces.
Because of South Korea’s ongoing cold war with North Korea, a legacy of the 1953 armistice that ended armed conflict between the two adversaries, all able-bodied South Korean men ages 18 to 35 must serve two years in the military. The law also requires men 25 and older who have not yet completed their compulsory service to apply each year for a special overseas permit.
This latter stipulation is one possible reason Bae has been asked to return home within 30 days of the Dec. 31 expiration of his travel visa or face possible criminal charges. It is also why fellow countryman Seung-Yul Noh, 23, isn’t yet facing the same conundrum.
“In two years it will be the same for me,” said Noh, who competed along with Bae in last week’s Hyundai Tournament of Champions. “I want to get past the Olympics first.”
‘I’m not surprised that he can focus and play well. He’s a pretty strong guy mentally.’
-MATT MINISTER, SANG-MOON BAE’S CADDIE SINCE 2013
There’s a good reason for that: The military mandate usually is waived for an athlete who earns a medal in the Olympic Games or Asian Games. Golf is being contested in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro for the first time since 1904. “I played with Rory [McIlroy] in the Korean Open two years ago, and he asked me about the military service,” Noh recalled. “I say, ‘Oh, if you’re playing in the Olympics, maybe you can lose for me to get a medal and then I get an exemption.’ He laughed.”
Bae, who turned professional in 2004 and has won twice on the PGA Tour, most recently at last October’s Frys.com Open, has retained legal representation to further delay conscription, and he said he did not intend to return home until the matter is resolved. In the meantime, because he has his Green Card, he can remain in the United States. He plans to enter five of the seven PGA Tour events on the west coast.
Though unsure how well he can compete given the distractions, Bae entertained the thought that perhaps he might play with more urgency. “It’s a little bit hard. I am very upset. So many things in my head,” Bae said on the eve of the Hyundai event at Kapalua Resort in Hawaii. “But I am a professional golfer. I am a professional. I have to keep my head on golf as best I can.”
As it turned out, Bae was able to set aside the controversy at Kapalua. He was in contention from the outset after an opening seven-under-par 66 on the Plantation Course, held a share of the second-round lead and finished in sixth place, three strokes behind winner Patrick Reed. Bae rose from 84th to 73rd on the Official World Golf Ranking and took a significant step towards his primary goal for 2015: qualifying for the International Presidents Cup team.
“I’m not surprised that he can focus and play well,” said Bae’s caddie, Matt Minister. “He’s a pretty strong guy mentally. I saw what he was able to do at Frys after he missed the cut at the Barclays [to close the 2013-’14 season], how he put things together again pretty quickly.”
Indeed, after failing to post a top-10 finish the previous season, Bae has seen his game go on the upswing. In addition to the Frys.com Open win, he added a T-5 at November’s CIMB Classic. With his Kapalua finish, he remains second on the FedEx Cup points list behind Robert Streb.
‘The timing couldn’t be worse for him as a golfer. … It all comes down to what the needs of his country are, and only his country can decide that.’
-NICK PRICE, CAPTAIN OF THE 2015 INTERNATIONAL PRESIDENTS CUP TEAM
Bae has full tour status through the 2015-’16 season, but if he were to lose his legal challenge and return home for two years of military service, he would, in truth, forfeit the remainder of his tour exemption. “The clock would be ticking,” said Ty Votaw, a PGA Tour executive VP. “If he were gone for two years, he would no longer have his tour card, but he would be eligible to play out of the Past Champions category.”
One party keenly interested in Bae’s plight is Nick Price, the International team captain. When Price heard the news he telephoned Minister, who caddied for Price until joining Bae in 2013. Price said Bae is high on his list of potential wildcard picks should he not make the team via the World Ranking. One obvious reason is that last month Bae successfully defended his title in the Shinhan Donghoe Open at the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea-site of the Presidents Cup Oct. 7-11 in Songdo, Incheon.
“He’s won twice on the Presidents Cup course. You bet he’s on my radar,” said Price, who desperately wants to see the International team break the stranglehold the U.S. has had in the biennial matches. The U.S. leads the series, 8-1-1, with its only loss in 1998.
Nevertheless, Price, who served in the air force for his home country of Zimbabwe, is cognizant of the sensitive nature of the situation. “This is a tender subject,” said the three-time major champ. “The timing couldn’t be worse for him as a golfer. We can look at the benefits of a player from South Korea on the [International] team. That would be a huge thing for the event and for the country. But it all comes down to what the needs of his country are, and only his country can decide that.”
Bae is quick to assert that he is not seeking to dodge his military responsibility. He has many friends at home who have done their hitch, and he has great respect for countrymen K.J. Choi and Y.E. Yang, who served at a younger age before making their way on the PGA Tour. Choi was a rifleman at a radar installation, and Yang, who upset Tiger Woods in 2009 PGA Championship to become the first Asian-born major winner, was a gunner in the marines.
“I am saying to the Korean government that I want to serve my country, but that I would like to get an extension until after the Olympics,” Bae said. “I just wish to focus on golf right now and represent my country in some big events. I feel the military duty can wait … but I will gladly serve whatever happens.”