Hole in none: how screen golf got serious in South Korea

  • Wednesday 29, July 2020 10:21 AM
Sharjah 24 - AFP: On the final green of the tournament, Ha Ki-won carefully took his stance and addressed the ball. A gentle strike, and it rolled forward.
In front of him it circled the hole, making a rattling sound as it dropped, and Ha raised his fist in triumph, taking victory and a 20 million won ($17,000) winner's cheque by a single shot.

The ball, though, was not in a hole, but still on the carpet. This was a professional screen golf tournament in South Korea, which hosts what organisers say is the world's only such tour.

For Ha, 38, screen golf has offered a competitive lifeline: he first wielded a club at the age of 17, and reached the second tier of the professional KPGA tour, but never made a cut in tournament play.

In screen golf, though, he now has five victories, and in 2017 he gave up real-life competition altogether, converting fully to simulator action.

"Now I feel more at ease in front of the giant screen," said Ha.

Just like on a real course, players compete in several groups simultaneously, each taking shots in turn.

But rather than walking in open countryside to reach their next lie, they step in front of a screen measuring 5.8 by 3.0 metres.

Sensors on the floor and ceiling track the trajectory of the ball after impact and project its onward path down the virtual course.

The country's biggest screen golf operator Golfzon -- which has more than 1,300 centres across the South -- set up the tour in 2012, with seven events a year, culminating in November's GTour Championship, worth 150 million won to the winner.

There were 130 competitors at this month's tournament in Daejeon, south of Seoul, eight of them first-tier KPGA professionals.

The popularity is driven by accessibility: traditional golf is a hugely successful spectator sport in South Korea, which is a global powerhouse in the women's game, providing eight of the current world top 20.

But with more than 65 percent of South Korea made up of mountains and a population of 52 million, land for golf courses is at a premium, club memberships are highly exclusive, and green fees can cost hundreds of dollars.