01/13/2015

What is happening right now between Sang-Moon Bae and his native country of South Korea is something the PGA Tour just isn’t used to seeing.

Sang-Moon Bae is among Korea’s most prolific winners, trailing K.J. Choi with his 8 wins. He has as many wins as Y.E. Yang, who famously beat out Tiger Woods for the 2009 PGA Championship.

Choi and Yang are both in their 40’s and are still on Tour, but with four and six years removed from their last victories, respectively, it can be said Bae is Korea’s top male star in the golfing world.

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Bae is looking now, for a spot on the International President’s Cup squad, which as it just so happens, will be competing against the U.S. in his home country in October.

Could things be any better for the 28 year old pro as he enters the prime years of his career? Yes, yes they could. Let us count the ways.


Bae is currently playing while under orders from the Republic of Korea’s Military Manpower Association to return at once to be processed for possible military service.

At the end of this month, he will be in criminal violation of that summons.

For those familiar only with the draft or Selective Service, here are some facts to get caught up:

  • His visa to work abroad expired at the end of 2014 and was not extended
  • All Korean men between 18 and 35 must at some point fulfill a 20 to 24 month obligation to their armed services.
  • Those under 25 can remain overseas without the need for a special permit

But Bae at 28 is now past that exemption.

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Some do it early, and some do it late. But in one form or another, everyone does it. The best he can hope for is a 4 week enlistment, but that generally comes from having achieved a high honor for his country.

Sung-Hoon Kang for example won the Gold Medal at the 2006 Asian Games in Qatar, thereby exempting himself from full service. Bae, eager to win the Gold for Korea in the Olympics hopes to follow Kang and avoid interrupting his rise through the ranks of the world’s best.

The timing of all this could not be worse. This October marks the first time the President’s Cup will be contested in Asia, rightly symbolizing Korea’s elevated stature in the game.

KJ Choi will be the voice of the team having accepted the role of Vice Captain under Nick Price. KJ, by the way, fulfilled his service in his early 20’s logging duty as a rifleman, radar man, and cook.

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Yang, who will be surely be on hand at the Cup, is held in high regard for serving as an ROK Marine before turning professional.

Last year Tim Finchem even added a military theme to the Cup by saying, “We will use that week in Korea to tell the story about the very strong relationship our military forces have with the business community in Seoul and in Korea.”

If it’s not already clear where this is heading for Bae, consider one last thing….the North Koreans while expressing some peaceful overtures continue to rattle their swords and are hinting at more nuclear testing for later this year. South Koreans take all of this very seriously and Bae is inviting a public relations disaster by challenging his recall.

The enlistments and discharges of Korean celebrities are followed very closely by fans and media websites.

One top site, Kdramastars.com which tracks TV and film, says simply that, “scheming to get out of military duty is not looked upon too kindly.” And generally there are few issues since “their temporary absence can make them even more popular.”

Naturally, a pure comparison can not be made between a film star’s popularity and an athlete’s performance, which is clearly Sang-Moon Bae’s main motivation for putting a legal force to work to get him out of it. He’s found big-time success and doesn’t want anything to stop. I wish him luck. And he’ll need it either way.

Two years in the service just might be preferable to facing KJ Choi in the Team Room. As a fan I hope it works out since its never good to see the Tour lose one its rising stars right as he’s catching his groove.

But, with all the good fortune he has to be thankful for, no matter how this all turns out, he can be most thankful he wasn’t born in North Korea.

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Now would be a good time to see where everyone else stands. Below is a quick round-up of some of Korea’s top golfers and their military status. It is worth noting there are limited exemptions for those who have completed undergraduate and graduate level studies.
  • Danny Lee – emigrated to New Zealand at age 8.
  • Kevin Na – emigrated to the U.S. at age 8.
  • Gunn Yang – 21 and is reigning US Amateur Champion.
  • Sang-Moon Bae –  28 and currently fighting military conscription.
  • Seung-Yul Noh – 23 and hoping to avoid service by medaling in the Rio Olympics next year.
  • Hyung-Sung Kim – At 34 Kim has only 1 year left before his obligation sunsets.
  • KJ Choi – KJ served 2 years in his early 20’s as rifleman, radar man, and cook.
  • Seung-Yuk Kim – 28 and yet to complete his service.
  • Y.E.Yang – the PGA champ served with the ROK Marines prior to turning pro.
  • An Byeong-Hun – the former US Amateur Champ is still just 23. His parents both Olympic medallists in Ping-Pong. (Yep)
  • Sung-Hoon Kang – exempt from service due to his Asian Games win.