To understand Bio Kim’s harsh suspension, one must first understand his country’s culture

October 2, 2019

We know nothing of their culture. Bio Kim, Korean golfer with several long stints in our permissive country, hit a bad tee shot with the click of a cellphone camera in his ear, turned to the offending spectator and offered the middle finger of his right hand, followed by an emphatic club-slamming as an exclamation mark. Kim won the tournament last week, played on a course in a massive new industrial city in Korea called Incheon. And he was banned from the Korean Tour for three years.

Of course that sounds excessive to our sensitive ears. Sergio Garcia, provoked at the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage, reportedly did the same thing, in the same direction. What was his penalty? Possibly nothing. (He was more provoked.) Definitely not a three-year ban.

Garcia spat in a cup on the 13th green at Doral one year. He had to be fined for that one. He definitely did not get a three-year ban. It’s unlikely he got a one-week ban.

This year, at the WGC event in Memphis, he took out a chunk of turf with a temper-tantrum second swing. He surely got fined for that, but there was no suspension, or none that was announced, anyhow.

Imagine if there was a three-year ban for his first offense? Sergio would never have had a first offense. Golf means too much to him.

Is Kim’s penalty excessive? Nearly all of us, we Statesiders, would say it is. But we did not grow up in a country where the government, for years, measured the length of minidresses and decided what was and was not acceptable. Shame, conformity and obedience are inherent values in Korean culture. We think of those things as negatives. They see them as positives. It’s actually hard to wrap your head around.

Here’s one telling thing about the Bio Kim episode. If you watch the tape, there’s a woman in the background who puts her hand on her mouth as Kim’s hand goes up. She cannot believe what she is seeing. If you responded similarly while walking through your local mall, you’d be breathing through your nose the whole time.

Here’s a second telling thing. When the penalty was announced, with extreme expedience, Kim responded by kneeling in front of TV cameras and apologizing. You know what would happen here, in the U.S.? The golfer would sign his card, collect his cardboard check, then call his agent and his lawyer and go to Twitter with some heartfelt 280-character open letter to anyone I may have offended. You or I would ignore and move on because, really, did the guy do anything to you or to me? We are a country of 327 million individuals. Korea has an ancient, unified culture. Kim’s act was a crime against a society.

Korean culture is far more hierarchical, and patriarchal. That’s why the penalty, from the men who run the Korean Tour, came down so quickly, like a lightning bolt. It also helps explain why there are eight Korean players among the top 20 on the LPGA money list right now, including the top three spots. Wherever there is golf in Korea, there are young girls dutifully doing exactly what their golf-obsessed golf-coach fathers tell them to do. If you’re athletic and have opportunity and follow direction well, you can get really good at golf. You can get good enough to get a college scholarship, win amateur events, maybe even get on the LPGA tour, possibly even win on it.

How much joy that player will get from the journey from beginner to 66-shooter is another question. Of course, that’s an American question, too. We’re into joy. Here, we grow up on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Or we have moved to this country and adopted that central sentence of American life. That doesn’t mean the rest of the world thinks that way. Because it doesn’t.

Had Kim flipped a bird en route to victory in Memphis, we would have turned it into a joke. Who would deny him the joy of victory because of one three-second protest to bad fan etiquette? The Korean Tour turned that idea and flipped it right over. Bio Kim, the Korean Tour said in a statement, “damaged the dignity of a golfer with etiquette violation and inappropriate behavior.” The golfer. It couldn’t even use the word his between with and etiquette. Too personal. Bio Kim didn’t damage Bio Kim’s reputation. He did damage to the reputation of every golfer on the Korean Tour, if not every golfer in Korea.

What do we say in similar situations? That Sergio, he really did it this time. Then we wait for him to do it again.

Michael Bamberger may be reached at