Why you should care
Because this is a gold mine for fashion companies.
Between herky-jerky swings with a 7-iron, Min Lee listens earnestly to tips from her instructor on the third floor of a five-tier driving range atop a parking garage in downtown Seoul. As a robotic arm drops nicked and scuffed golf balls onto a fat rubber tee, Lee swings away with varying degrees of success: Some shots flare out onto the range, but many more nosedive into the netting that protects cars in the garage below.
Lee can take solace from the fact that in golf-crazy South Korea, sometimes it’s better to look marvelous than to play marvelous. Her outfit du jour for this Saturday-morning session: light green Adidas pants, white Adidas golf shoes, a green golf glove on her left hand and a long-sleeved white shirt with the iconic rainbow-hued umbrella logo that Arnold Palmer made into one of the world’s most recognizable brands. Even though the 28-year-old Lee isn’t familiar with the late, great Hall of Famer, she is a dedicated foot soldier in Arnie’s fashion army.
In many ways, the demand for “golf casual” in South Korea is comparable to the popularity of NFL-licensed apparel in the U.S. The numbers don’t lie: South Korea shells out an estimated $13 billion annually on golf, trailing only far more populous Japan and the U.S. as a market for the sport. The Korea Golf Association estimates that golf fans make up about 10 percent of the population, a figure that could double in the next decade or so. “There’s lots of money spent on very good brand names,” says David Fisher, an American expat who is vice president of international business at the Whistling Rock Golf Club. “It’s a heck of a market.” The exclusive retreat, which is about 90 minutes northeast of Seoul, has a $1.2 million initiation fee and mountain vistas that are equally eye-popping. “In America we seem to like subtle brands and subtle colors,” Fisher says. “Here it’s bright colors and big brands.”
Lee and her fellow duffers get plenty of inspiration for their golfing togs from homegrown pros. Five of the top 10 players on the LPGA Tour are from South Korea and 25 of the top 50. And reigning overall is Seoul native Inbee Park, who was a runaway gold medal winner at the Summer Olympics in Rio. On the men’s side, three South Koreans are among the top 60 golfers. To tap into all this overachieving on the links, last month the PGA Tour announced its first tournament in South Korea, which will debut in 2017 with $9.25 million in prize money, almost as much as the overall 2016 purse at the Masters Tournament at Augusta National. The event will be part of what’s essentially becoming the tour’s autumn Asian swing, joining events in Malaysia and China.
In South Korea, those high-profile pro events are expected to drive revenue where it counts — in retail sales. The LPGA Tour recently launched six stores in Seoul through a partnership with MK Trend and plans to open 100 more stores by the end of 2018. “Our stars are among the most popular athletes in South Korea,” says Jon Podany, the LPGA’s chief commercial officer. “Baseball, from what I hear, is the only sport that’s more popular on a week-to-week basis.” In an unexpected gender-bending twist, the LPGA-branded apparel also is fashionable with South Korean men, who were furious when it was proposed that LPGA markings be made smaller in the men’s line. Feedback was that the brand needed to be as visible as possible.
By contrast, in the U.S. market, it’s trendy for avid golfers to wear logoed apparel from courses, whether a home course, an exclusive club or a posh resort. There’s surprisingly little desire for that in South Korea, where it’s customary to bring a separate apparel bag (preferably brand name) to the course and change into a stylish golf outfit in the locker room. Even a premium course like the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea in Incheon — site of the 2015 Presidents Cup — doesn’t stock shirts with logos in the clubhouse. “So much of daily business life is white shirt and black suit and regimented that people love to celebrate their golf round and express that happiness with their personal fashion style,” says Chris Hahn, the director of marketing, Asia region, for TaylorMade-Adidas Golf. The company, which counts world No. 1 Jason Day, U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson and men’s gold medal winner Justin Rose among its tour pros, has about 40 locations in South Korea.
Surging interest in the sport is evident throughout South Korea at amateur and professional levels, from hugely popular indoor hitting simulators to massive multilevel driving ranges where Koreans get in early-morning swings before work. “Golf here is a major event,” says TaylorMade’s Hahn. “It’s expensive and time-consuming, so most golfers don’t get the opportunity to play as many times as U.S. or European golfers. As such, you really dress for the occasion here.” So while access to on-course golf might be limited in South Korea, access to golf brands most certainly is not.
At the driving range above the parking garage, Lee finishes her Saturday-morning practice session. Waiting to take her place in the hitting bay is a middle-aged man decked out in Adidas apparel, including a bright yellow shirt and yellow shoes that match his leather TaylorMade golf bag. Regardless of how well he swings a club, he’s certainly dressed to tee off.