CRISTINA PEDLER WRITES — The pandemic has forced South Koreans to look within the country for their golf fix.
South Koreans are avid sports and outdoors enthusiasts. Their golfing population has continually been on the rise, despite declines in other golfing countries like the United States. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has strained the golf industry: thousands used to travel abroad to play but are now stuck at home and still craving to golf.
To understand this conundrum, I spoke to Mun Tae Chang, the President of Sin Han Irrigation Ltd, a golf course design and consulting company based in Seoul. He provided statistics on the Korean golf market before and after the pandemic.
South Korea’s current total population is roughly 51,000,000 people. South Korean golf players – including potential players – total about 10,000,000. The number of current players is about 8,000,000.
Before COVID-19 hit, the number of players flying to other countries per year was 3,000,000. Each month, 250,000 players flew to other countries. Popular golf destinations included China, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Laos, New Zealand and Australia. With so many players traveling abroad, there wasn’t too much traffic competing for space on the 550 courses in the domestic market.
This scene changed after COVID began to wreak havoc on the world, resulting in a typical supply and demand dilemma, one which multiple industries faced at the beginning of the pandemic. Remember the toilet paper debacle?
Same thing happened with golf. South Koreans soon realized that the country’s huge golfing population was inundating domestic courses in a so-called booking war. “There aren’t enough golf courses right now. It is very difficult to book the tee off time,” shared Mun Tae Chang. “As you know, Korean people love golf playing even if they are doing business with customers during playing golf.”
Worse, owners of golf courses are making new rules. Green fees are rising. Even if you want to play with 3 other people, you have to pay the green fee and additional fees for 4 players. Mun Tae says the changes seem crazy to players. As a result, wealthy South Koreans want to develop new golf courses because they believe the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting restrictions aren’t going away anytime soon.
This is no easy task. To understand the significance of building more golf courses, we have to talk geography. The country is largely mountainous, with small valleys and narrow coastal plains. The steep mountains of Korea are difficult to design and build on. Korea doesn’t have a lot of readily available land, so fairways are chipped onto mountainous areas because most of the lowlands are designated for agriculture.
Is there hope? South Korea is taking on the golf challenge. The country plans to construct 120 new golf courses within 5-6 years. Sin Han Irrigation is taking up 40 courses. Some are now under construction; some are being tendered and most are still in the planning stages.
That’s the Korean golf market right now – booming construction and players crowding the courses, waiting for their chance to tee off-somewhere new, perhaps in a number of years.