Feature Interview with 오상준
1. Tell us about yourself. How did you get into golf?
My father taught me how to play golf, but it was several years later in the States when I got into the game seriously. After getting a master’s degree in architecture in 2000, I worked several years as a junior architect in Manhattan. Life wasn’t easy back then, but I sought peace of mind while playing golf at various municipal courses in New Jersey. This video clip (https://youtu.be/rsaqDzZ-OrI) tells people more about myself.
2. How does someone from South Korea end up studying golf course architecture at the University of Edinburgh? I am very envious!
While I was looking for new and affordable golf courses to play in, I found different styles of design in each of the courses I visited. I wanted to know more about the makings of golf courses and started reading about golf course architecture. At the same time, I decided to write travel articles about the wonderful golf resorts in the States. Traveling from New York to Florida via different states thrilled me, and that was when I played courses designed by Donald Ross, Seth Raynor, Pete Dye, Tom Fazio and Jack Nicklaus. There was something special in golf course architecture that I wanted to study more, and I searched around and found, at the home of golf in Scotland, a school that would provide a degree in golf course architecture.
3. Why undertake a book project? What goals did/do you have for Living My Life through Golf?
Living My Life through Golf was written last year in February when I was going through the most difficult time in life. I had to completely detach myself from my surroundings and find something I could hold on to. I finished writing a 220-page essay in 20 days, and, 3 months later, the book came out. In the end, golf saved me again.
This book is about the experience I had in the US, UK, Australia and other parts of the world while I was traveling, studying, and living under the subject of golf. From the several hundred golf courses I visited during those years, I selected 25 courses that I have special memories of.
I am looking forward to finishing the English version. So far, I have attempted to translate the Korean script into English for many months, hit the writer’s block more than once, and have now finally realized that I must completely rewrite it. It is taking shape now, especially I now have a chapter of Korean golf history that I did not have in my previous Korean version.
Some of my readers have told me this book has completely changed their attitude towards golf and helped them to regain the energy they need to start over. Others said the book is full of golf history and facts that they did not know of. I am glad that I have given them different perspectives. My story is not about the number of golf courses I have played, but about the wisdom and energy I have received from the people and the places I have encountered while traveling. It is also about how I overcame my hardships and became a better person through golf. The book also talks about the future of golf that I envision as a golf course critic and an architect. If I can deliver these messages to the readers, my goal is accomplished.
4. Very noble indeed. Let’s get into the history of golf and South Korea. When and under what circumstances did golf first come there?
Koreans in the early 1900s could not afford the luxury of bringing in British golf traditions like the Japanese did because the peninsula was under Japanese occupation for 35 years from 1910 until 1945. Golf was perhaps the last thing Koreans could think of as a pastime in those days. However, stories have been passed down that golf did exist prior to 1900 in the Chosun dynasty (1392-1910), the last kingdom to exist in the Korean peninsula. It is said that, in 1897, a group of British merchants built a 6-hole course on the hillside near the port city of ‘Wonsan’ in North Korea, but the course disappeared after the merchants left in 1905.
The first golf course to appear in the written records of Korea was Hyochang-Won Golf Course, built between 1919 and 1921. H.E. Daunt, a British amateur golfer, was invited to design the course. He was a member of Kobe G.C., the first Japanese golf club that was opened in 1913 and had won the Japanese amateur championship in 1915. He described his experience in a book titled Inaka or Reminiscences of Rokkosan and Other Rocks, published in 1923. In it, he wrote the following, which I have translated into English for your audience:
“Through the introduction of the Manchu railway corporation, I visited Gyungsung (current name Seoul) for the first time in May 1919. The general manager of Chosun Hotel, Mr. Inohara, was not a golfer, but by the time I got there, he had acquired the land and a detailed plan for the 9-hole course. My role was limited to selecting the right locations for tees, greens and bunkers at the site. However, it was not an easy task to put hands on the Hyochang-Won imperial graveyard full of pine trees and weeds. The people of the Chosun dynasty were reluctant to bring any alteration to this sacred place where the removal of scattered burial mounds was a prerequisite to building golf holes. As a result, there were numerous obstacles to deal with, and the process had to be carefully conducted to create a decent golf course.”
Hyochang-Won Golf Course officially opened in 1921 and was played in the early years mainly by the Japanese and western expats living in Korea or foreign travelers staying at Chosun hotel. But, the popularity of golf grew fast, and being able to play golf was considered a prerequisite for being a true gentleman within the high society of Gyungsung. In 1924, with a strong desire for a better and longer golf course, ‘Gyungsung Golf Club’ was formed by high-ranking officials of the Japanese Government General of Chosun and Japanese corporate executives, and their first project was to build their own golf course at Chungryang-Ri. The Chungryang-Ri Golf Course was open for play in November 1924. It was a par 62 course of 16 holes in 3436 yards, and the greens were sand.
5. The Japanese occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945. What was the best course they built during that period?
I must say it was ‘Kunjari’ because it was the first 18-hole golf course in Korea, and, for the first time, turf was used for the greens. It was built on the land within the imperial burial ground west of Gyungsung, and the land was bestowed by ‘Yi Un’, the last crown prince of the Chosun dynasty. He took up the game of golf while he was living in Japan, and his love of the game became stronger after he spent some time at St. Andrews in 1927. He is known as the first Korean golfer.
With the land and some financial aid from Yi Un, Kunjari G.C. was opened in 1930 as the first 18-hole golf course in Korea. It was par 69, 6160 yards in length, using Korai grass for greens. The architect of Kunjari was Rokuro Akaboshi, an accomplished amateur golfer from Japan who studied at Princeton, learned to play golf in the States and later won the inaugural Japan Open Golf Championship in 1927 as an amateur. Not much is known about the morphological details of Kunjari and the layout of the holes. The remaining information about the course is limited to the records and historical facts of numerous tournaments held there including the first Chosun Amateur Golf Championship. Kunjari was closed during World War II. Mature pine trees on the course were cut off and requisitioned for the war. Several fairways were used as landing strips for airplanes and others were cultivated to produce grains. The fates of the other courses in the Korean peninsula were the same, but it was Kunjari that endured and was resurrected from its ruins after the end of World War II when Korea obtained independence from Japan.
6. Your book is full of wonderful stories and anecdotes. Tell us about the one involving the innocent question “What do you do in the weekends?”
At the ceremonial party of the first anniversary of Korean Independence Day in 1949, then-President of the Republic of Korea, Mr. Seung Man Lee, asked a casual question to the generals of the US Armed Forces in Korea. “What do you do in the weekends?” The answer he was given was that they fly to Okinawa to play golf because there are no golf courses in Korea. President Lee immediately summoned the ministry of finance and directed him to build a golf course ASAP. To him, it was a matter of national security because he feared that the North would invade the South while the commanders of the US Armed Forces were off playing golf in Japan. The urgent task of rebuilding Kunjari took only 9 months to finish, but, despite much anticipation, President Lee was not able to enjoy the fruits of his labor for long as the Korean war broke out one month later on June 25, 1950.
7. You note that the “Alternate green system was applied to most of the golf courses in Korea built between 60’s and 80’s.” Tell us about its origins and purpose.
The system was first invented in Japan to increase the efficiency of maintaining greens in a transitional climatic zone where summers are extremely hot and humid and winter temperatures drop well below freezing. By having both cool and warm season grass greens, it was believed that maintaining healthy grass and minimizing wear and tear would be easier. However, this system only allows for two small and monotonously shaped greens sitting side by side, and, as a result, there is no room for creating internal undulation in the greens. It has been proven by the greatest examples of the top courses in the world that one green system guarded by varying bunker placements provides a variety of shot values for approach shots. This also gives the opportunity to shape the surroundings with more freedom, potentially inducing creative shots for up and down. Lastly, sizable one greens allow for imaginative internal undulations that are tied to their surroundings, providing putting challenges. Advancement in maintenance technology has helped greenkeepers to manage one green systems properly in transitional zones without the problems they used to have decades ago.
8. What is the finest course today in Korea that still employs the alternate green system?
Courses built prior to the 90s with the alternate green system pretty much all fall into the so called ‘freeway style’, lacking shot values. There is one golf course opened in 2008 that has an alternate green system worth mentioning. It is Rainbow Hills Country Club, a 27-hole course designed by RTJ Jr. RTJ Jr. used a peculiar concept where he built 18 holes with one green and the other 9 holes partially with the alternate green system. The west course is the one with an alternate green on 6 holes and an elongated single green on 3 holes. However, the ways in which the architect designed the alternate greens were diverse and exciting. He did not simply juxtapose two greens; the greens were located with varying distances, sometimes separated by water hazards and multitudes of bunkers. Inside these small greens, there are just enough undulations to excite a golfer’s imagination, and, furthermore, I love the fact that the architect did not brazenly repeat the alternate green design for all of the 9 holes and left 3 holes for creative large single greens.
9. Tell us about Mr. Duk-Chun Yeon. Is it accurate to say he is the first Korean to build an 18-hole course?
Yes, he designed the Old course of Hanyang C.C. (1964). He started his career as a caddie at Kunjari and became a professional golfer in Japan. Later, he won the Japan Open at the age of 25 in 1941. His involvement in the resurrection of Kunjari in 1949 before the Korean War opened a door for him to a career as a golf course architect, but his design skills were limited to what he had seen and experienced as a professional golfer in Japan. Unlike some of the prominent Japanese architects of his age, he never had any association with the professionally trained golf course architects from Japan or Britain. He adopted an alternate green system for all of his projects.
10. Conversely, who was the first person to build a course in Korea that had studied the great courses of the United Kingdom?
It had to be Rokuro Akaboshi who designed Kunjari. He was a close associate of C.H. Alison when Alison was invited to Japan in 1930 for three months to design Tokyo G.C.’s Asaka course, Kawana Hotel’s Fuji course, and Hirono. Unfortunately, there is no trace left of Kunjari, so it is unknown how much of Alison’s influence went into the design of Kunjari through Akaboshi.
Having said that, I wonder what could have possibly happened if Alison had been invited to Korea en route to Malaysia to remodel Royal Selangor.
11. I love this passage that you wrote: ‘Great things are created by great hands, and the hands need a great patron. Remarkable golf courses we dream of playing are no exception. They have visionaries with discriminating eyes to select great lands and talented architects to work with.’ The chairman of CJ Group, Jay Lee, was one such man. Talk about his determination to build The Club at Nine Bridges and his goal for it.
When Jay Lee, the chairman of CJ group (a Korean conglomerate in food and entertainment), decided to build a golf course back in the late 90’s, he had one goal. “Build a world class golf course that is superior to any of the existing ones in Korea”. Being the eldest grandchild of the founder of Samsung corporation, Jay Lee wanted to build upon the legacy that his grandfather had left at Anyang C.C. He put forward the task to his team, and it was to build a course that looks and plays like the ones on ESPN and Golf Channel. ‘You must be able to see the lush green grass all year round from tee to green, but, most of all, you must be able to make a banknote-sized divot from fairways.’ By the late 90’s, warm season grass was being used for fairways with no exception. Therefore, the two things Jay Lee wanted had to be achieved in entirely different ways.
12. What a dream for Ron Fream to enjoy the might of the CJ Group behind him. Please describe the raw property with which he was given to work. When did construction begin? When did the course open?
Finding the right piece of land was important because a tee to green bent grass course needs a well-ventilated site under cool temperatures all year round. They found the right spot at a 600-meter-high mountain plateau in Jeju island. At this location, open to the fresh air of Mt. Halla, summers are cooler, and winters are milder than anywhere else in Korea. Ron Fream, an American architect, was hired to design the course. He had already done some work in Korea by then, but this was an opportunity to create the masterpiece of his lifetime. He created holes that are reminiscent of Gleneagles of Scotland and fits well in the natural environment of Mt. Halla. He took great advantage of the ample land available within the site to create wide strategic fairways and dynamic green surrounds guarded by sod wall bunkers of grand scale. These architectural features are the stark differences that separate Nine Bridges from all the other courses in Korea. The course opened in 2001.
13. I have never been, but your writing is captivating: ‘Golf at Nine Bridges provides wonderful exploration of the nature in the highlands of Mt. Halla. No holes are alike, and each provides great views of Mt. Halla or ‘Orum’ at distant background. Black lava rock crops and stone walls are the added hazards. The rhythmical progression of different pars is pleasurable and challenging at the same time.’ Is it your favorite course in South Korea?
Masterpieces and virtuosos are hard to come across. Let’s think of the three tenors: Jose Carreras, Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. I love Carreras because, when I watched him singing later in his career, I could feel his sense of determination and how much he had to struggle to succeed. On the other hand, Pavarotti seemed so smooth, carefree, as if he was born to sing like he did. To me, Nine Bridges is like Carreras while South Cape Owners Club is like Pavarotti. I love both, but it is hard to beat the sublime nature of the cliff holes South Cape has. They are hard to come across, and, when I think about South Cape, it makes me feel good because the door is always open to the public (Nine Bridges is a private club, yet South Cape is a resort golf course).
14. You are a big fan of the 8th hole at Nine Bridges. Please describe it.
Among the front 9 holes, the 8th hole, short par 4 of 355 yards, is my favorite because of its interesting green complex. A decent tee shot leaves you with a distance of less than 100 yards to the green, and this makes you think it would be an easy birdie hole. However, due to the small hump on the front part of two-tiered green sloping from back to front, you must play your shot with pinpoint accuracy. This hole is visually pleasing as the horizon of the green surface meets the sky above and beyond.
15. You note that the back nine is called the Highland Course. You even compare the sensation of playing the course to that of Gleneagles. Please elaborate.
The ambience of open air and vistas behind golf is present to a spectacular degree at both places. To specify in terms of golf, some of the elevated greens, although Gleneagles’s case is more severe, give great challenge. At both places, exciting movements of the land from tee to green, accentuated by deep sod faced bunkers, are well tied into the surrounds. The peaceful natural environments in the highlands along with the luxurious resort facilities are much alike.
16. Tell us about Yongwhy.
‘Yongway’ is the name of Orum, a volcanic crater found in the island of Jeju. As you walk down the fairway of the 12th hole, you suddenly feel a sense of serenity, being surrounded by the forest of the highlands and, most prominently, the ‘Yongwhy’, meaning ‘a reposed dragon’.
17. The Home hole produces everything from eagles to doubles or worse. I assume that was always the intent, to have a Home hole that could produce great swings of fortune? Please describe it.
You can never describe Nine Bridges without talking about the signature hole at 18th. This hole has been stretched to 574 yards from the back to make the CJ CUP more challenging. From the teeing ground, there are two distinctive routes within the open space through the green. There, right in the middle of this open space, exists a small colony of lava stones and pine trees halfway to the green. Long hitters often choose to take the riskier option to the left of this colony where a small parcel of fairway exists between 290 and 350 yards from the back tee. Anything less than 290 in carry distance will end up in the downhill heavy rough before or left of this landing area, making it extremely difficult to get onto the green in two. On the other hand, if you aim left but miss slightly to the right, you will find yourself among the stones and trees in the middle. The other option is to hit a long iron or fairway wood safely to the right side and get onto the island green in three. However, the average driving distance of PGA Tour players being close to 296 yards, the majority of players during the CJ CUP took the riskier option, and the result made this hole generate more eagles than any other hole on the course.
18. You detail the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea thusly: ‘JNGCK is a unique urban golf club. 18 holes of tournament class golf surrounding the land designated for a community of 179 luxury housing are all situated within 195 acres of rectangular site and they are just 5 minute-drive away from the downtown Songdo residential district.’ Compared to Nine Bridges built on a secluded spot on Jeju Island, this was the exact opposite sort of opportunity where everything was manmade. I know you were involved as a project manager. Tell us how this course came about and what was required from a construction point of view.
In 2005, when Jack Nicklaus was invited by Stan Gale, a real estate developer, from Boston to South Korea, Stan gave him a heli tour over the site of future golf clubs near the port city of Incheon at the west coast. From the air, all he saw was an ocean with some mud flats close to the shore. He thought Stan was joking, but, after hearing what Stan had to say about the blueprint of Songdo smart city and the golf club joint venture Stan had with the South Korean government and corporations, he was convinced. 5 years later, in 2010, Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea (JNGCK) was born.
JNGCK is the most special golf course project to me because, from the very beginning of its development, I was involved as a project manager during the process of government permits, construction documentation, and construction site supervision, and I worked as a liaison among the local team, the client, and Nicklaus Design. Back in 2008, when the construction began, I had an interesting conversation with the lead architect of Nicklaus Design about the heavily undulating greens of the JNGCK. Having visited Bear Lakes links course in Florida, which was renovated by Nicklaus Design in 2007, I found an uncanny similarity between Bear Lakes and JNGCK regarding how the fairways, bunkers, and greens were shaped in ways that I had never seen from any of the Nicklaus Design courses built from the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and 00’s. My argument was that Jack came away from his collaboration with Tom Doak at Sebonack (2006) with several new ideas. Ever since Jack went into the golf course design business, he has inspired many course architects and has been inspired by others himself. To me, it was remarkable to observe the process of making naturalistic, picturesque bunkering and the dynamic undulations of the greens and fairways that had never been done before in Korea.
19. You are a big fan of the routing, noting, ‘The front and back nine holes each has 5 holes in clockwise and 4 holes in counterclockwise direction creating varying angles of play with prevailing wind of the day.’ The diversity of backdrops is quite amazing. Please describe how they differ depending on which direction you are heading.
The routing of the two returning nine takes the shape of butterfly wings. It is perhaps the most efficient land use plan for a project of this kind. However, the economical use of space did not diminish the quality of golf at JNGCK. The front and back nine holes circle around the two empty lots saved for luxury housing, making every hole turn at least 45 to 90 degrees as each hole progresses to the next. This dynamic environment of golf rarely happens even in the British links courses where the concept of ‘playing in the elements’ originated. This course exceeds 7,400 yards in length and is full of design elements successfully built in to provide a variety of challenges and shot value.
20. You value such opportunities of creating something from nothing because‘ although it can never replicate nature, it can create green space. Turning a plot of land that was once an abandoned salt mine, sanitary landfill, ex-quarry and reclaimed land into a golf course is not only environmentally sustainable but can create jobs and support the local economy. If carefully planned and built on those available lands, golf courses can become a habitat for both wildlife and human beings.’ Very true! Are there any such opportunities under way in South Korea at present?
A links style course near Incheon International airport is being finished. The site is an odd shape, sitting right under the landing path to the airport. However, the contractor is the same company that built JNGCK and Nine Bridges, so I am very curious to see what they can come up with. Down south to the western seashore, there is a 45-hole public golf course called South Links. It was also built on reclaimed land and opened in October 2019. The 18-hole course was designed by Kyle Phillips and the 27-hole course by Jim Engh. I am looking forward to checking it out in the coming weeks.
21. What are your two favorite holes at JNGCK and what makes them so?
The first of my two favorite holes, if I must choose, is the 7th, because it makes you think over each and every shot from tee to green. It is 559-yard par 5, facing three bunkers diagonally placed in the line of play off the tee. The carrying distances for those bunkers are 225 yards to the closest, 250 yards to the middle and 275 yards to the furthest from the championship tee. After you are successfully faced with the predicament off the tee, depending on where you are, you can either lay-up away from the water hazard on the left or go for the green in two. However, the green itself presents another challenge. Unlike the typical greens in Korea that have inclining slopes from front to back, this green has a higher front that hinders shots from rolling onto the green surface. The bunker on the front left of the green is another trap that you must deal with.
The homecoming hole is my favorite, too. It is another par 5, 545 yards from the back. This hole was designed to create drama and the designer’s intent was proven a success at the very last match on Sunday during the 2015 Presidents Cup. It was a singles match between Sang-Mun Bae of the International team and Bill Haas of the US team. Both were good off the tee and tried to get on green in two. Sang-Mun Bae’s second shot was short off to the left and landed on a low collection area, leaving him a difficult up and down. On the other hand, Bill Haas put his second shot to the greenside bunker over the water hazard. Bill Haas won the hole and the match from the bunker and gave the US team a hard-earned victory. It was one of the closest matches in the history of the Presidents Cup.
22. Another course that you profile is South Cape Owners Club, founded by the fashion icon J.B. Chung. Tell us how he answered your question, ‘What was the most important criteria for choosing a course architect?
I have visited South Cape Owners Club 5 times. The 2nd time, I traveled with Darius Oliver from Australia, and the 3rd time was with Simon Holt from Scotland. For both occasions, we played golf with J.B. and had some intriguing conversations at his famous music library. There I asked J.B., ‘What was the most important criteria for choosing a course architect?’ and, he said, ‘I wanted to find someone I can work with well and pursues a beauty between rustic and refined. I am happy with what I have done here.’
23. Everyone including me raves about the cliff holes, of which there are many. You though also single out the ‘bridge holes’ at South Cape. Please explain.
There is one criterion I use to tell how good a golf course architect is, and that is how well the ‘Bridge Holes’ are designed. ‘Bridge Hole’ is a term I use to describe a less distinctive hole that fills the gap between more memorable holes. When an architect deals with the site, there are locations that fit perfectly for golf holes of different pars. On the other hand, in order to seamlessly link 18 pieces of the puzzle, architects sometimes must deal with land that is less than ideal for golf. This is where the genius of a talented architect shines.
At the South Cape, Kyle Phillips did this wonderfully. Among the front nine, the 4th and the 7th hole are the bridge holes. Between the exciting opening stretch of the first three holes and the picturesque par 5, the 5th, there lies the 4th hole. The scale and shape of the land only allows for a short par 3, but the architect turned this into a unique hole for testing short iron skills before golfers face the long and difficult hole at the 5th. It matches the logic behind the 5th hole at Bandon Trail, Oregon, a short but sporty par 3 that requires precision.
The other bridge hole is the 7th that sits on a monotonous uphill. This hole connects the 6th, a picturesque par 3 crossing the ocean, and the 8th, a par 4 on the way back to the clubhouse. By placing bunkers at strategic locations, this hole becomes something that’s not a pushover, but rather a hole that stimulates golfers’ minds. From the tee, you are bound to choose between a driver, a wood or even a long iron to plan for your next shot to the green.
24. I have never seen nicer golf facilities than those in Korea. They are both grand yet done with exquisite attention to detail and design. They are enormously expensive too. Are such monuments part of the culture?
Golf has always been considered as a game for the rich in Korea. No wonder why, because nowadays the average weekend green fee for daily fee golf courses near Seoul comes close to $180 USD. To join a membership at one of the most exclusive private clubs near Seoul, the refundable joining fee can go up as high as 1.8 million USD. So, in order to justify the prices of these super exclusive memberships, all facilities from clubhouse, artworks, down to the silverware must be the very best. However, this does not guarantee that you will have the best golf experience. Yes, it is shocking, but many of the courses of these private clubs are built on mountainsides because the lands available for golf near Seoul are mostly mountainous. The results are narrow fairways squeezed into the mountainsides built with reinforced steep slopes, lots of out-of-bounds, and hard walks between the holes.
I am an advocate of the belief that a good golf experience is mostly about the golf course, not the clubhouse or the artwork they exhibit. So, you won’t see many of these super exclusive golf clubs built on mountainsides in my list of the top 10 golf courses in Korea.
25. Much of GolfClubAtlas’s readership is in North America and Europe. For those contemplating a trip somewhere different, please describe some of the non-golf aspects that make a trip to South Korea indelible.
I remember digging into a plate of Southern BBQ at a restaurant in Charleston when I was on my way to Georgia for golf. The sumptuous seafood from Barnbougle, Tasmania is another thing I cherish.
To completely immerse yourself into the local culture, you must eat and play with the locals. I have been fortunate enough to be able to enjoy different cultures in this way thanks to my friends in other countries. Great food and drink must follow a good round of golf. Korea sits on a peninsula surrounded by the sea on three sides, and the southern sea is especially famous for its great seafood. Golf as well in that region is probably the best for travelers. There are three great public access seaside courses: South Cape Owners Club, designed by Kyle Phillips, Sagewood Yeosu by David McLay Kidd, and Pine Beach Haenam by David Dale of Golfplan. In order to get there, you must first fly to Incheon International Airport. Seoul is just one hour away from the airport, so it may be a good idea to stay an extra day or two to explore the old and new parts of the city, full of history, great restaurants, and welcoming people.