It’s only a game, folksIt is hard to find another sport with two more extreme reputations like golf. Golfers praise it as one of life’s joys; critics disparage it as a symbol - and the origin - of corruption and luxury. In Korean society, the negative perception clearly dominates. Some scholars even call it the “golfers’ alliance” and treat it like an “axis of evil,” as if a small number of leaders get together at a country club to dominate the world.
In fact, it costs too much for average citizens to play golf, and country clubs provide the time and space for officials and businessmen to collude. When golf rounds are offered to entertain clients, the sport could be a link to corruption. Therefore, golf is often seen as an evil that public servants should avoid. Whether you play golf or not is a litmus test for your public service ethics. Sometimes, organizations order their members not to play golf, and some ruin their careers by violating the ban.
The practice hasn’t changed in the Park Geun-hye administration. When the inter-Korean military tensions elevated earlier this year, President Park made a poignant comment on a golf round of top military brass, which led to a golf ban. Last month, Korea Communications Commissioner Lee Kyeong-jae proposed to Park that she lift the ban, suggesting that the officials are still discouraged from playing the sport. Not long ago at the Blue House, Park had a luncheon with editorial chiefs of major media companies, and on the golf ban, she said, “I have various thoughts now.” In other words, she seems to be contemplating whether to lift the ban or continue to keep the officials away from the links.
Recently, presidential chief of staff Huh Tae-yeol set a few guidelines on golf at the Blue House senior secretarial meeting. If you want to play golf during vacation, play with someone who has no room for suspicion at your own expense. Also, it would be better to practice at indoor virtual golf simulators than going to a golf course. Simply put, he lifted the ban conditionally.
However, is golf such an important issue that the president and the chief of staff should mention it in their official capacities? Does the president really need to contemplate and the chief of staff announce a guideline? Don’t they have other things to worry about? Do the highly educated public servants lack the ability to decide whether it is appropriate to play golf or not? If they lack judgment and only follow orders, how can they make policy decisions?
Also, Huh’s guideline is nothing special. It was very basic and obvious - as if he were instructing the officials to wash their hands before a meal or brush their teeth before bed. At this rate, the officials will be directed to only use Korean golf clubs, wear no fancy golf wear and count their strokes honestly.
The Blue House’s over-sensitivity regarding golf is inspired by concerns about corruption. However, a corrupt government official will find any possible means to play golf despite the ban. If one doesn’t work, he will seek other ways to play. In that case, it’s a waste of administrative resources to prohibit civil servants from playing golf and check golf courses to see if they are playing. Corruption and collusion should be prevented by other means, not by guarding the entrances to golf courses.
It is also pathetic to consider golfers as part of the corrupt establishment and non-golfers as conscientious and clean officials. Former President Roh Moo-hyun and former Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan played golf. Now that the times have changed, former democratization and student movement activists enjoy the sport. Golf courses can also be found in North Korea, where Kim Jong-il played. There is no reason for the harsh view of golf. If you can afford it, it doesn’t matter if your hobby is playing golf or piloting airplanes. Public servants don’t necessarily have to spend their leisure time reading or playing a game of Go.
Let’s take off the mask of hypocrisy. If public servants continue to feel awkward playing golf and have to ask around to see if it is appropriate, they’d better off breaking their clubs in two. That way, the game is no longer fun, and if you don’t enjoy it, you can’t play it right.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Nahm Yoon-ho