The 2015 Presidents Cup, contested at the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea, in Incheon, was one of last year’s more underrated sporting events. The handful of die-hard golf fans who tuned in for this Ryder Cup–style match between the International and U.S. teams witnessed a white-knuckle finish, as the young South Korean star Sang-Moon Bae, playing in his last event before reporting for two years of mandatory military service, chunked a greenside chip on the final hole of the final match to hand the Americans a one-point victory.
The host venue’s clubhouse, and the gentle sine wave of its zinc roofline, provided a striking backdrop for the action. The 190,693-square-foot structure (by Mehrdad Yazdani of CannonDesign) scans more as the headquarters of a world-beating biotech company than as a place for weekend hackers to change shoes and sip cocktails. By American golf standards, it is spectacularly over-the-top. In Korea, though, this level of design is pretty much par for the course.
Why is this the case? The more one explores golf around the world, the more one begins to understand that the game itself is value neutral; different societies project their own ideals and aspirations onto it. Korea is a highly competitive nation; it’s through this lens that its emerging golf culture should be viewed.
The country’s most significant claim to fame in golf is being the world’s leading exporter of female touring professionals. Se Ri Pak, its first superstar, rose to prominence in the ’90s and stands as the youngest person ever to enter the World Golf Hall of Fame. Though far less heralded, she was just as transformative a figure on the LPGA Tour as Tiger Woods has been on the men’s side. The women’s game has largely been dominated by Koreans ever since. The current standard-bearer, Inbee Park, is a once-in-a-generation putting genius who at the age of 27 has already completed a career Grand Slam. K. J. Choi, a farm boy from the southern provinces, exploded the popular notion among Koreans that golf was only a rich man’s game. An eight-time winner on the PGA Tour, he remains the country’s leading male star, though a new generation, including Seung-Yul Noh and the aforementioned Bae, waits in the wings.
While Korean golfers have had no shortage of role models over the past two decades, the game is nevertheless difficult to access. In this small, mountainous country, most sites that are naturally suited for golf have (sensibly) been earmarked for agriculture. Furthermore, half the population lives in Seoul’s capital region, which regularly serves up the nightmarish traffic situations one would expect from a metropolitan area of about 25 million. Most Koreans content themselves with practicing at multistory urban driving ranges—establishments where, curiously, one pays not for a set number of balls but for an allotment of time, thus promoting wild flailing away. Given these circumstances, it’s understandable that the rare opportunities to actually play the game can turn into a major production.
“Koreans spend far more on equipment and fashion than on the game itself,” said Kent Baek, a Seoul-based media consultant and former golf course construction supervisor. “It’s an image-and status-driven scene. In Scotland, they focus on heritage. Here, people love name brands.”
The biggest name brands are those of Korean corporations—Samsung, Hyundai—and frequently, these are the owners of the country’s finest golf clubs. (The situation is similar to that of the American golf industry in the 1950s, when companies like IBM, NCR, and Firestone operated their own private facilities.) Golf clubs are widely seen as vehicles for flexing corporate muscle, with a sizable portion of membership rolls filled by the executive ranks. Client entertainment, with après-golf spa treatments and wining and dining, is the typical order of the day, and the clubhouse is central to the experience.
One club that represents this model is Haesley Nine Bridges (82-64/793-9999; ninebridges.co.kr), in suburban Seoul. It is the second golf development by the conglomerate CJ E&C; its first, the Club at Nine Bridges, on Jeju Island (some 60 miles south of the Korean mainland), ranks among Golf magazine’s top 100 courses in the world. Haesley’s clubhouse, designed by Kyeong Sik Yoon and 2014 Pritzker Prize winner Shigeru Ban, is an engineering marvel that expands the boundaries of what’s possible in woodworking. Inspired by the “bamboo wife,” a traditional Korean body pillow, the atrium’s columns generate a repeating hexagonal pattern as they rise. They call to mind golf tees and the dimples on a golf ball, as well as the branches of trees. These upwelling columns of Norway spruce are highly functional, too. They support the entire roof load (also wood construction and lightweight), circulate air, and flood the clubhouse with natural light. Most impressive, all this is done without the use of a single nail—just screws and elaborate joinery.
“No one [in Korea] had any experience assembling a structure like this,” said Nine Bridges’ CEO, Chris Ahn. “We sent an engineer to Switzerland to monitor testing and hired a team of Swiss carpenters to assemble the timber pieces on-site.” Construction took a year and a half, but the clubhouse, which gathered up an armful of awards following its 2009 debut, has been a boon for CJ E&C.
Haesley is one of the only clubs in Korea that forbids unaccompanied guest play. “The best way to gain recognition Asia-wide is to be exclusive,” said Baek, the consultant. “But the other way is to win within the course rankings of the Korean golf magazines.” According to Baek, memberships can be bought and sold on an exchange—this is an Asian phenomenon that stands in stark contrast with the West—so exclusivity is prized not just for its own sake but because it drives the value of an investment. In any event, a club’s parent company must be deep-pocketed and heavily service oriented in order to maintain prestige. In the ski town of Chuncheon, a couple of hours northeast of Seoul, the Taekwang Group, a petrochemical and textile concern, is playing the game to the hilt with its development of Whistling Rock Country Club (82-70/8121-0100; whistlingrockcc.com). The golf course, by Ted Robinson Jr., features 27 holes sprawled across the mountainous terrain. Each nine is loaded with high-definition white-sand bunkers, dramatic shaping, immaculate turf, and flashy man-made waterfalls. It’s not even remotely natural-looking, but the design is highly playable—file it under fantasy golf that’s a treat to experience.
Whistling Rock’s clubhouse was designed by another internationally renowned architect: Francine Houben, creative director of the Dutch firm Mecanoo, which recently won a $300 million commission to renovate the Fifth Avenue buildings of the New York Public Library in Manhattan. Even by Korea’s high standards, Whistling Rock’s clubhouse is truly the star of the show. For starters, it’s enormous—167,000 square feet—but it’s situated in such a way that it frequently serves as a backdrop for the golf. Mecanoo describes it as a “floating belvedere,” and, indeed, from a distance it can appear unmoored from its base, though its horizontal travertine slabs—the structure’s dominant feature—do not suggest weightlessness. There is, however, a fascinating contrast and interplay between these horizontal planes and the thin, vertical elements of the clubhouse façade. Set at irregular intervals, these timbers clearly evoke the random, rhythmic beauty of trees grouped together in nature.
It should be added that for the facilities featured here, the run on architectural extravagance isn’t confined to the clubhouses and their attendant amenities. There’s also a side competition related to teahouses—or, in American golf parlance, halfway houses. The typical high-end Korean club will have not one but three such structures, each one more fanciful than the last. These are not just snack bars; they’re flamboyant cocoons and neatly parked UFOs (Whistling Rock), or cantilevered cliff-top aeries worthy of a James Bond set piece (South Cape; see below). At the Ananti Club (82-31/589-3000; ananticlub.com), yet another architectural marvel in the capital region, one teahouse doubles as a shrine to Steve McQueen’s racing exploits. Is this trying too hard? Probably. But it’s not every day golfers can sip their mid-round cappuccino while straddling a legend’s motorcycle.
The latest entry in the Korean clubhouse derby comes from a resort rather than a private club. Not far from the city of Yeosu, on the country’s southern coast, is South Cape Owner’s Club (82/1644-0280; southcape.co.kr). It is the creation of fashion magnate Jae Bong Chung, who, in 2012, sold a controlling interest in his upscale-apparel empire, the wonderfully named Handsome Corporation, to a subsidiary of Hyundai for a shade under $363 million. Situated on a high peninsula overlooking distant mountain ranges and, closer in, a vast archipelago speckling the Korea Strait, the resort boasts one of the most picturesque natural settings in the game. Golf architect Kyle Phillips took full advantage of the scenery in fashioning a first-rate course, one that remains laudably walkable despite the rugged terrain.
“Our mission is to be artful,” said Chung during a breakfast interview. “I wanted the clubhouse to be sculptural.” Clubhouse architect Minsuk Cho, who cut his teeth under Rem Koolhaas at OMA and now runs his own Seoul-based firm, Mass Studies, delivered on this count: South Cape feels like a modern art museum. From a bird’s-eye view, the steel-and-concrete structure resembles a pair of linked boomerangs; at their meeting point is the resort’s “outdoor lobby,” which uses a reflecting pool, a neon-tube sculpture, and the sweeping curvature of the roofline to not so much frame as consume a glorious ocean vista.
Chung’s mission is fulfilled throughout the property; the senses are continually delighted. As a trail’s-end reward for hikers, Ring Dome, an ethereal sculpture by Cho that has been publicly displayed in New York and Milan, has been placed on a tranquil, isolated bluff. Chung’s aesthetic refinement extends beyond the visual. The clubhouse’s music library houses an extensive vinyl collection that plays on a pair of 1920s cinema-grade Western Electric speakers. Considered by some to be the best speakers ever made, they project the analog warmth much cherished by audiophiles. The resort’s ten spacious rental villas, also overlooking the ocean, all demonstrate modern, minimalist interior design at an uncommonly high level.
Chung clearly has his sights set on the upper echelons of world golf. South Cape’s back nine features two par threes that instantly evoke (and, remarkably, do not pale in comparison with) a pair of California icons—the 7th at Pebble Beach and the 16th at Cypress Point. Chung traveled to the Monterey Peninsula in 2014, after his course was complete, to see for the first time some of the courses that had inspired Kyle Phillips. “I played Cypress Point. I enjoyed the golf course,” he said over lunch following our round. “But the clubhouse? I was a little...embarrassed.”
Photos: Ananti Club Seoul; Joann Dost