S. Koreans prefer golf cafes to courses

July 5, 2008 9:03:08 PM PDT
When Myung-Hoon Hwang, 39, and his close friends get together on Friday nights, it used to be billiards and drinking all night. But nowadays their passion is hitting golf balls sometimes until 5:00 a.m., at Golfzon, an indoor virtual reality golf café. The so-called "screen golf cafés" are rising hot spots in South Korea, a nation fanatically in love with the sport.

Some 5,000 cafes mostly situated in business districts are connected online nationwide, powered by the world's most highly wired technology.

Several online hosts such as Golfzon (www.golfzon.com) and Family Golf (www.aonetour.co.kr) operate a virtual community where they keep track of scores and offer real-time cash prizes to any members hitting a hole-in-one during their games.

"We're going to bet on who is buying dinner tonight," says Hwang as he clicks on St. Andrews Old Course in Scotland, which the team agreed to play for the night. There are 60 more of the world's best courses to choose from.

The simulation program replicates every detail from hills and water hazards to even trees planted in exact locations.

"It really feels like you are out there," says Soon-Hyo Park, 36, as he picks a club to tee-off at the 4th hole.

After he takes his shot, three other golfers respond with excitement. A window pops up on the screen showing exact distance hit, swing speed and distance left to the green. Virtual birds fly and tree branches shake as if the wind blows, in accordance with the pre-programmed wind condition.

Next up, Hwang's second shot lays on a downhill slope.

"I'm not having much luck today," he says grudgingly, as the mat slowly tilts downward.

An estimated 200,000 Koreans play this virtual golf game every day, six times more than the number of golfers playing the real outdoor courses, according to the Korea Golf Association (KGA).

The soaring popularity of screen golf owes much in part to prohibitively expensive green fees in Korea. On average, each golfer spends about $300 per round; that is, if they are rich enough to buy a membership or have connections to member friends.

Country club memberships that are considered major assets and traded at an officially recognized 'membership market' cost $500,000 to $2 million. Tee times during peak hours are sold on the black market for thousands of dollars to businessmen desperate to impress and entertain guests.

Golf in general is perceived as a rich man's sport in Korean society, often manipulated as a form of bribery. Yet, it is a nationwide passion and closely linked to national pride, especially since dozens of Korean female golfers started to rank the top 20s in the LPGA tournaments in the U.S.

Newspapers run daily golf news sections, television networks broadcast major international tournaments, and two cable golf channels run 24 hours with a variety of golf-related programs.

"Golf is an addictive sport. Screen golf? Even more! But it's definitely affordable here for young people like me," gleams Hwang, who paid just $20 for the night's virtual round with his friends.

At a bar inside the screen golf café, they are taking a break, eating chicken and potato wedges delivered from Bennigan's next door.

"But you know the best thing is, you can play here rain or snow, day or night. You can't do that even if you pay thousands of dollars out at the country clubs."