SEOUL, South Korea -- The distance between South Korea and France is half a world away -- nearly 11 hours by plane.
Yet, I was able to experience both within a month this fall by taking epic "immersion" golf trips to Paris and Seoul. My first golf adventures in continental Europe and Asia not only introduced me to new cultures -- languages, food, customs, etc. -- but new golf traditions I had never seen before in all my travels.
Counting trips to South Africa last December and Scotland -- the Home of Golf -- in July, it's amazing to me how different golf can be from country to country, especially for a game so dependent upon time-honored traditions.
In France, a country so sophisticated when it comes to food, wine and the good life, it's almost surreal that its people have little tolerance for golf. If the French have time for long and leisurely meals, the pace-of-play issues that plague golf shouldn't matter, right? I guess the French would rather drink and eat handsomely than chase a little white ball.
Golf hasn't taken root in France, despite having more than 400,000 registered golfers and nearly 700 courses. Even the pros I met admitted the country has little to no golf culture at all. The brain trust behind the 2018 Ryder Cup, France's first major golf event outside of the European Tour, hopes the passion and pageantry of golf's Super Bowl provides the spark necessary to grow the game and put the country on a map for traveling players. It's an uphill climb, to be sure.
South Korea sits on the opposite side of the spectrum. It's golf crazy to the core. South Korean women have invaded the LPGA Tour by the hordes. Taekwang Country Club outside of Seoul is a perfect example of the madness. Its 36 holes are so busy that there are two greens side by side on almost every hole to handle the constant traffic. The North and South nines are lighted for night-time play. Perhaps most impressive is a four-tiered driving range that's great for anybody who wants to practice or learn the game.
The major problem in South Korea is access. Golf is still considered an elitist game tied to big business. That's why the successful 2015 President's Cup led to the recent announcement that the PGA Tour will be bringing a new tournament to South Korea in 2017. Corporate cash runs the show.
If Koreans want their careers to succeed, they probably better learn how to play. Whistling Rock and Haesley Nine Bridges -- the two exclusively private clubs I visited outside Seoul -- were all about status. Not your handicap, but your position in life. Koreans greet people by holding out a business card. Forget the handshake. They're hoping to receive a card in return, so they can size you up.
What's your title? Are you important? That's the objective. It's a symbol of a city that's so overcrowded and a country that's so competitive. It's also why what club you belong to is critical. If you're a Whistling Rock member -- and paid the $1.2 million to join -- that fact brings clout to any boardroom or foursome.
As for the actual rounds of golf I played in each country, there were other noticeable differences:
Asia, of course, is well known for its female caddies. Golfers who have played in Asia will recognize the familiar caddie call of "Shawwt!" after a good shot. These caddies don't rake bunkers, rarely fix pitch marks and aren't always the best green readers, but they're great company. Their English tends to be broken, albeit serviceable.
In France, I didn't notice a single caddie during my five rounds at four different clubs. I'm sure private clubs have them, but I don't think they're available much at public and resort courses.
This is where South Korea really blew me away -- driverless golf carts! I had never seen or heard of anything like these five-person transports, which hold a foursome with a caddie behind the wheel. When the caddies are off looking for a ball or bringing clubs to their players, they use a remote control to move the carts forward. The carts don't leave the path, so they never crash and the course stays in pristine condition. Golfers can walk or ride as much as they please.
The only complaint would be the back seat is a little too snug for three golfers. Our foursome made a rule that if anybody made birdie, that person gets the front seat until somebody drops another one. Stuck in the middle in the back? That's the punishment for being a bogey golfer.
It's not uncommon in South Korea to stop between nines for lunch, a tradition I first experienced in South Africa. It's not my favorite thing, even if the "black noodles" at Whistling Rock were too good to be true. It always takes me a couple holes to get back into rhythm after a stop.
Lunch after nine holes at Haesley Nine Bridges did us no favors. All the groups behind us played through, and we lost our position. We jumped around trying to reclaim a spot on the course and ultimately ran out of time to finish all 18 holes.
Teahouses are South Korea's version of "comfort stations" that are all the rage at high-end resort and private clubs in Los Cabos, Mexico. Where they differ is the fancy food and drink in Cabo is free.
The drinks and snacks for purchase in the teahouses aren't elaborate choices, but the buildings themselves are modern works of art. They're cool places to relax for a minute and admire the architecture. The teahouses at Whistling Rock inspired the names for each nine -- the Cloud, the Temple and the Cocoon.
The 19th hole
Perhaps the biggest similarity between the two countries comes at the 19th hole. The food and drink after golf in both countries proved to be exquisite. And that doesn't mean it always had to be fancy.
Omaha Beach Golf Club on the English Channel in Normandy along the northern coast of France served what will forever be my favorite sandwich. France's expertise for making fine bread and cheese really stood out, even in something as simple as a meat-and-cheese sandwich. Terre Blanche , France's no. 1 golf resort, has a clubhouse restaurant named Les Caroubiers that takes basic golf fare such as soups, burgers and salads to the next level.
Since much of the golf played in South Korea is business related, the expectation after the round is by following up with dinner and drinks to talk shop and more group bonding. The elaborate clubhouses at all three courses I visited were well equipped with large locker rooms to freshen up and restaurants and/or meeting rooms that serve outstanding food.
All of these traditions have me wondering what's best for golf? Teahouses slow down play, but they're so beautiful. Driverless carts are awesome, but shouldn't we all be walking? Young female caddies can be cute, but wouldn't a caddie who can read greens better make more sense? It seems to me that wherever I travel to play, how to improve the game tends to bring up more questions than answers.