Why there’s a lot on the line for South Korean golfers at the Olympics

sungjae im practices

Sungjae Im prepares for the Olympic golf competition.

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Winning a medal at the Olympics is always a monumental accomplishment, but for the golfers representing South Korea, coming home with a piece of hardware would be, quite literally, life changing.

South Korean law states that all able-bodied men are required to start a 20-month military service by their 28th birthday. However, there are a few exceptions, including for athletes that medal at the Olympics.

For Si Woo Kim and Sungjae Im, winning a medal is the only way to avoid putting their professional golf careers on hold.

“I know it’s true that if we earn a medal the Korean government will exempt us from serving military,” Kim said. “But I don’t really focus or think about the service in the military.”

Kim, 26, is making his first Olympic appearance in Tokyo. And with the next Summer Games occurring after his 28th birthday, Tokyo represents his last chance to win a medal and avoid conscription.

The 23-year-old Im will have one more Olympic opportunity at the 2024 Games (should he qualify) if he does not earn a spot on the podium this weekend.

Conscription in South Korea has existed since 1957 and several other notable golfers have served time in their home country’s military. Most recently, two-time PGA Tour winner Sangmoon Bae served his 20-month term from 2015 to 2017.

Both Kim and Im skipped the Open Championship to prepare for Olympic competition.

“I only think focus and think about the winning games,” Im said. “Not the military problem.”

Im tees off in the opening round at 9:25 p.m. ET on Wednesday night while Kim gets started at 9:03 p.m.

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