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(Yonhap Feature) Die-hard golfers go indoors to keep playing even when economy is down

All Headlines 09:00 January 22, 2013

By Laura-Claire Corson
Contributing writer

SEOUL, Jan. 22 (Yonhap) -- On a quiet Friday morning, golfer Shin Dong-young relaxes in his office: a screen golf center and putting area complete with comfortable chairs, a couch and golf magazines. In front of him are eight putting stations where customers can practice gently tapping a ball into a hole.

In the adjacent room, a middle-aged couple swings their clubs against the wall, simulating an actual golf course with green grass, trees and wide-open spaces.

Shin started playing golf in 1988, the same year South Korea hosted the Olympics and Korea's economy was in full swing. Twenty-four years later, golf has steadily risen as a go-to sport, and now, despite a lagging and delayed economic recovery, it is a popular sport for reasons ranging from health benefits to showing off social class, making business deals and hanging out with friends.

In Korea, both men and women support golf on the course, in enclosed practice areas and particularly in dark-lit basement rooms where screen golf reigns supreme.

Screen golf, where golfers swing clubs and hit balls against a golf-synthetic screen that covers a wall and progress is monitored by a computer, made big news in Korea in the late 2000s. Since then, with businesses dotted throughout Seoul, owners and golfers alike say screen golf allows them to play the sport they love at a more affordable price and in more accessible locations.

"Screen golf is cheaper," said Lee Myung-hee, who works at a screen golf center near Mount Nam in central Seoul. "When the economy is bad, more people will come to screen golf. (It's the) perfect time to play outdoors, but people come here."

Though prices differ from company to company, screen golf is widely considered a cheap option, often costing less than 20,000 won (US$18.30) compared to 200,000 won and up at most courses. Also, golfers don't have to wear the same apparel -- a golf shirt can cost up to 200,000 won -- or have the same etiquette.

Still, there are many people congregating on actual courses, which have grown in number.

According to June Park, a vice president of business development who mainly focuses on Korea for Nicklaus Design, the number of golf courses in the country has increased, from 100 in 1990 to some 400 now.

Nicklaus Design, a golf course design company started by legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus, has worked on nine golf courses in Korea and 356 courses open for play worldwide.

"Golf itself is your own game. (It is) something different to Koreans," Park said, adding people admire the "fun of it" and like how it's associated with Western culture.

Players say golf continues its prominence because it's a competitive sport, which Koreans enjoy. Plus, it's a social event, and on a screen course, the networking will take only a couple of hours whereas it can take up to 18 hours on the course.

"Everyone can have beers and hang out. It's still playing golf. You still putt it, but it's in a more social environment," said Jonathan Casper, an associate professor in the department of parks, recreation and tourism management at North Carolina State University, who focuses on sport participation and marketing of participant sports. In 2011, he spent two weeks in Korea after being invited by some universities.

At screen golf locales around Seoul, the decor ranges from homey with cozy couches to extravagant with sleek black tile floors and high glass doors. Practice areas, where customers whack balls against tall, mesh green covers that are easily seen across the city, draw in those who are practicing for the course. People can talk, eat and drink while working on their putts and swings, which are all now "recognized as part of golf culture," said Oh Cheol-kyu, the secretary general of the Korean Golf Association.

Employees say while still popular, the number of people playing golf and screen golf has dwindled. Kim Hee-moon, a manager of a golf club and supplies store near Sinsa Station in southern Seoul, says the number of people golfing may have increased, "but not as much as expected due to the economy."

Yet, business owners are glad the tight economy has not yet hit them.

At a screen golf location in Jongno, central Seoul, Park Young-ho says he sees 10 to 20 teams, comprised of two to four people, at his shop on the weekends. The number increases to 40 to 50 teams per day during the week.

"(This) is a convenient place," he said.

Near Sinsa Station, about 20 golfers swing their clubs in near succession at a practice area while others mill around lockers and vending machines. The shop owner, Kim Young-woon, said his business has steadily risen over the past 30 years.

Charlie Chang practices once or twice a week. For him, the sport is for both pleasure and business.

"(Golf is) difficult to learn," he said, adding, "People like to learn difficult things."


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