Golf ban lifted for S. Korea's presidential officials

SOUTH KOREA - It seems presidential secretaries and officials may be able to get their golf fix, at least during their summer vacation.

Sources said presidential chief of staff Huh Tae-yeol recently remarked during a meeting that "those who really want to play golf should have no reason not to if they are playing with their own money." He also reportedly suggested perhaps they should play "screen golf," an indoor simulation golf game, instead.

The halfhearted permission comes months after President Park Geun-hye expressed strong antipathy toward the luxury sport in March.

"There was an incident where soldiers on service were found to have been playing golf during a grave security situation. Caution must be paid so such an incident is not repeated," Park had said after a group of general-level soldiers were found to have played golf at a period where North Korea was pouring out a barrage of threats against the South.

Voluntarily or reluctantly, Cheong Wa Dae members have until now been staying away from the greens.

Recently, however, there have been voices suggesting that the golf ban should be lifted, including Korea Communications Commission chief Lee Kyeong-jae, who reportedly mentioned to the president last month that it's about time that they play golf again.

Golf communities also expressed concern that the ban on public servants only aggravates the negative image of the industry that is already losing customers to overseas courses.

Despite Korea being home to a long list of world-renowned golfers such as Pak Se-ri, Choi Na-yeon, Yang Yong-eun and Choi Kyung-joo, public repulsion toward the sport is unlike any.

The golf industry began to grow during the 1950s, leading to private golf courses opening rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s. By 1984, there were 28 golf courses visited annually about 1.3 million times. There are now some 500 golf courses nationwide with annual visits to golf courses reaching 27 million.

But golf has remained a leisure sport for the "rich," due to the high cost, and the game being often used to entertain business partners. It takes from about 180,000 won (S$203) to 300,000 won for a game of golf. Golf is also subject to high taxes, including individual consumption tax and sports promotion fund.

High-rank officials golfing at a sensitive time remains one of the biggest political faux-pas, the recent one being former President Lee Myung-bak, who was slammed for playing golf on the anniversary of former President Roh Moo-hyun's death in May.

But there are also signs that more people are growing keener, with a survey by Gallup Korea in June showing 18 per cent of the respondents saying they play golf. Less than half, or 48 per cent said golf was an "extravagant sport."