Basic coursework, in a classroom that has 18 holes
They were doing their homework, lined up at the two-story outdoor driving range, smacking bucketloads of white balls across to the net. Driving practice is par for the course at Hampyeong Gold High School, in Hampeong county, South Jeolla province.
The students must take five hours of regular classes every day before heading out to the range behind the building. Each shot, they say, brings them closer to their dream of being the next Pak Se-ri or K.J. Choi.
“I like playing golf and I want to become a pro golfer,” said Cho Sang-chan. Cho said he started playing golf when he was a middle school sophomore in Incheon.
“I like sports and my father recommended that I attend this school,” said Lee Jae-hyeok, a Gwangju native. “It’s kind of cool that everyone here plays golf.” Jae-hyeok practices more than five hours a day, which he said is a “little bit tough.”
Hampyeong is the first school in Korea to specialize in golf. A public school, it has 122 students, 19 of whom are girls. Most but not all of the students are from the Jeolla region, and some are from Seoul or the Gyeongsang provinces. They stay in the school’s dormitory. In addition to golf, the students must also take classes in Korean, mathematics and other standard subjects.
After a year or two, most students play at a low-professional level. The top 10 percent are bogey players, meaning they play one stroke above par, and the rest can average 80 to 90 for the course, a respectable score. What makes this particularly impressive is that up to 70 percent of the students had never played golf before they enrolled in the school.
Golf is still considered an expensive sport in Korea with green fees at private courses ranging from 200,000 won to 300,000 won ($192 to $288). Parents who want their kids to be golfers can easily spend 5 million to 10 million won a month for private lessons and green fees.
At Hampyeong, however, students pay only 200,000 won every three months in tuition. The school even has 20 sets of clubs for rent, in case a student can’t afford his or her own set. For now, students still must pay green fees when they play in the field ― which they usually do twice a week ― but in a few years Honam University and the Hampyeong county will build golf courses nearby, which Hampyeong students will be able to use for free.
The school recently made headlines after a 17-year-old sophomore at the school, Shin Ji-ae, won the SK Enclean Invitational Women’s Golf Tournament on Sept. 11, beating even the most well-known pro golfers in Korea. Standing only 155 centimeters (5.1 feet) tall, Shin can whack the ball as far as 262 yards.
Since then, the school has dealt with a deluge of phone calls and impromtu visits from parents who ask how they can enroll their child in the school ― and how long it will take to become the next great golf pro.
“In the past, we had to recruit students who didn’t even know the multiplication tables,” said the school’s founder and one of its teachers, Lee Keun-hyung. “It was just us in this hinterland school. [Shin’s victory] was fortunate for our community. Otherwise, the school might have been closed by now.”
Hampyeong’s current incarnation as a golf academy is only three years old; the school originally started in 1929 to teach farming and horticulture to students from rural areas, but in the 1990s the number of enrollees plummeted. At its height, Hampyeon had 1,000 students; by 1999, it was down to 300.
The officials wrestled with different ideas on how to turn the school around, until a farming teacher finally came up with a plan that was as compelling as it was unusual. That teacher was Mr. Lee, whose argument boiled down to a single sentence: “Golf course management is all about farming.”
The school turned its agricultural equipment and engineering classes into club-fitting lectures, and farming into golf course and green management. Given that becoming a professional golfer requires as much luck as it does skill, such classes are necessary so that students can fall back on something if they don’t instantly become sports stars.
“Unlike in other sports, a person can make a living in golf doing things other than playing the actual game,” Mr. Lee said.
Though it has become famous for its golf lessons, the school’s original idea was to cater not only to would-be professionals but also those who wanted to work in the golf industry, such as green keepers and club-fitters. Most of all, the school has state-of-the-art facilities such as golf-club repairing and measuring tools, and turf and grass management equipment, most of which had to be imported.
According to Mr. Lee, few colleges and club manufacturers are as well equipped as his school.
The school’s principal, Lee Jae-sul, said the school is not a golf academy and that it cannot compete with other golf schools in Gyeonggi or Chungcheong provinces. “Who would want to come down so far to Hampyeong?” he said.
With the international success of Korean golfers, many schools have started their own golf teams and have begun training students. Regional governments are also making plans to set up golf schools.
When the school started recruiting students in 2002, however, 95 percent of the applicants said they wanted to become a professional golfer. It enrolled 24 students in 2002, and 48 each in the following years. But wish as one might to be the next K. J. Choi or Pak Se-ri, obviously not everyone can play on a professional level.
According to Kim Hyun-seok, a pro golfer and instructor at the Hampyeong school, less than one-tenth of the students will ever become professional golfers.
“Many parents want their children to become professional golfers even if their children aren’t talented enough,” the principal said. “They only think about the fame their children might achieve someday.”
Students must choose their area of concentration before their senior year.
“After learning and playing for two years, this is about the time when they find out whether they can become professional golfers,” the principal said.
Mr. Lee said there is a strong demand for greenskeepers at golf courses around the area. Greenskeepers take care of the grass and turf, design the course features, improve and correct soil conditions and treat pests and diseased plants. In Korea, most green keepers hold bachelor degrees in agricultural studies and receive a year of training before starting work.
“Greenskeepers can earn as much as professional golfers,” Mr. Kim said.
by Limb Jae-un