Tokyo Olympics: Sungjae Im and Si Woo Kim looking to avoid military service by winning a medal
Si Woo Kim and Sungjae Im need to win a medal during the golf competition at the Tokyo Olympics to avoid having to put their careers on hold and undergo military service in South Korea
By Ali Stafford
Last Updated: 28/07/21 3:31pm
Winning an Olympic medal would be among the career highlights for any sportsman, although it would hold even greater significance for two of the golfers in action in Tokyo.
Sungjae Im and Si Woo Kim are representing South Korea in the men's competition this week at Kasumigaseki Country Club, where winning a medal would avoid them having to put their PGA Tour careers on hold.
Military service remains mandatory for able-bodied South Korean men, beginning before they turn 28, with an Olympic medal one of the very few accomplishments considered by the government to "enhance national prestige" and make an athlete exempt.
Im, 23, may yet get another opportunity for Olympic success if he was to qualify for the 2024 games in Paris, although for Kim - aged 26 - this week's competition provides one last chance to collect a medal in time to avoid a 20-month stint of military service.
Kim has a win at The Players - often referred to as golf's "fifth major" - among his three PGA Tour titles, while Im finished runner-up to Dustin Johnson at The Masters last November and enjoyed a PGA Tour victory last season at the Honda Classic. Despite their achievements at the highest level, neither has done enough to avoid conscription.
Both players took the decision to skip The Open, the final men's major of the year, earlier this month to focus entirely on the Olympics, knowing that anything other than a top-three finish in Tokyo would have career-changing consequences.
Other than an Olympic medal, the only way for an athlete to avoid the full military service is by winning a gold medal in the Asian Games, as Tottenham star Heung-Min Son did during the 2018 contest.
Only amateur golfers compete in the Asian Games, ruling out that option for Im and Kim, with former Presidents Cup player K.T Kim and current Korn Ferry Tour golfer Whee Kim among the previous winners of the individual competition.
2019 AT&T Byron Nelson champion Sung Kang was part of the Korean side that won the team event in Doha in 2006, while KH Lee - a winner on the PGA Tour this season - was in the team that triumphed in Guangzhou four years later.
Others have completed their service much earlier in their careers, with eight-time PGA Tour winner KJ Choi fulfilling his military duties before turning professional and YE Yang - still the only Korean male major champion - enlisted in 1993 while still an amateur.
The PGA Tour does support golfers who have to undergo their military obligations by offering an exemption to return after completing their service, with a "Mandatory Obligation" category allowing golfers to retain the playing rights they hold at the time of conscription.
Two-time PGA Tour winner Sangmoon Bae underwent his service after the 2015 Presidents Cup and was able to return to action at the start of the 2017-18 season, while Seung-Yul Noh, winner of the 2014 Zurich Classic of New Orleans, came back in 2020 after taking a two-year hiatus to complete his military duties.
Bae and Noh have both struggled since their return to the professional game, falling to outside the world's top 800 having previously been in the game's top 100, with a two-season break from competitive action something that Im and Kim will be desperate to avoid.