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Notes From the Field, CJ Cup

“I can’t even describe in words what I feel right now. Being proud doesn’t really capture the overwhelming emotion that I’m feeling. I’ve had other Korean players come up to me and say that they are getting a lot of boost in their game and that they are given the wings to fly.”

-K.J. Choi-

The CJ Cup

A six hour overnight charter from Kuala Lumpur brings the PGA TOUR to Jeju Island, just south of the South Korea mainland, for the first ever TOUR event in the golf-crazed country of Korea. This is the event I had circled on the calendar for this fall, and the vibe I’ve been getting from the players has been the same. The purse is insane: $9.25 million, which is the largest of any of the non-majors/WGC/Players events. And it’s a limited field! Guys show up knowing they’re guaranteed at least $16,000, get put up in a five star resort, and golf their ball around the mountains for a few hours. Sounds like a damn good deal to me.

Nine Bridges

I’ve seen this course ranked as highly as 41st on various Top 100 lists, and couldn’t wait to see it for myself. I was lucky enough to be offered a spot in the Pro-Am on Wednesday, and had an absolute blast playing alongside Adam Hadwin and two amateur Koreans from Seoul. The locals were really cool, and spoke great English (which is not common on this island). This greatly enhanced the experience, and made it feel much more authentic as we got a lot of insight into Korean culture that we otherwise wouldn’t have had.

The course is immaculate. I was expecting Jeju to be a tropical island, but you get more of a Northeastern US or West Virginia type vibe with the towering pine trees and the fall colors starting to pop. They’ve gotten a lot of rain, so the fairways and greens are very soft and very receptive. The setting is phenomenal, and hard to do justice with a camera. It’s set up in the mountains near the middle of the island, yet it doesn’t resemble gimmicky mountain golf. In Korea, Pro-Am days are closed off to fans, and it was remarkably quiet up in these secluded woods. The cool climate is a welcome change from the constant state of sweat near the equator in Malaysia.

The pros have all had very good things to say about the course this week. It’s a very unique course that definitely has some really good holes. For them, it’s probably a bit too easy and a bit too short. There isn’t a real strong, demanding par-4 in the layout, and there aren’t too many shots that will make them uncomfortable. Guys like JT are able to hit so many wedges into greens that it can quickly turn into a birdiefest. This mountain area is supposed to get a lot of wind, which helps protect the course and explains the wide fairways and large greens. But so far this week, winds have been down and scoring conditions have been solid. All that being said, the course is most definitely suited to hold a PGA TOUR event, and is definitely considered to be a success from the perspective of the players that I’ve talked to.

In terms of my thoughts on the course, it’s really hard to say that I got a great feel for it in the Pro-Am. The tees were up incredibly far, and I’m not sure there was a par-4 that was over 350 yards. It’s also a Pro-Am, and I can’t be Guy The Hits Iron Off The Tee In A Pro-Am. So I cranked driver on every hole and had just an infinite amount of awkward 45 yard pitch shots from really soft turf in the fairway. Hadwin and his caddie Joe were talking about how they’re purposefully trying to make sure to avoid having to hit those shots off the fairway this week because it’s so hard to make the right contact.

So by the end of the round, I don’t think I got the full experience of how the course is supposed to play. With that in mind, it’s not totally fair for me to give a full opinion on the course. That being said, I would have a hard time rating it as a top 50 course in the world. It’s a really, really cool place in an unbelievable setting, but I didn’t feel like I was necessarily walking on greatness. That’s not necessarily a criticism, and it’s far from a lack of endorsement. It could be my unhealthy penchant for links golf, but I see a lot of courses from the UK that I played this summer that are ranked behind Nine Bridges, and it would not fall out that way in my personal rankings. Again, this is not a criticism of the actual course itself. It’s a criticism of the course raters that maybe put it on a perch that it doesn’t quite deserve.

(It’s also important to keep in mind that it is fall here. If the course was playing firm and fast, it would play completely different.)

The 18th hole has been met with some criticism. It’s a funky par-5 that, when the wind is anything but down, guys are going to be hitting fairway woods trying to hug the left side of the “upper” fairway. From there, you’re left with about 240-250 to an island green. However, if the wind is helping like it was on Thursday, the longest hitters can bomb one over the trees to the left and find the lower fairway. It’s a 315 adjusted carry to the fairway, and JT had wedge in from 142 today. It’s a true divider between the big hitters and the bunters, and there was a two group backup on the tee late in the day Thursday. It’s going to be really awkward down the closing stretch if that happens to the final groups on Sunday.

The Amenities

The amenities of the club are what takes it to the next level. The clubhouse lunch we had after the Pro-Am yesterday was first class (more on the food later), and the service was incredible. I struggled with the chopsticks for so long that a waiter actually casually slipped me a fork without trying to embarrass me.

The golf cart follows the cart path on a magnet, and the caddie controls the cart with a button on her waist. It’s kind of trippy the first time you see it. The caddie service was phenomenal (all female caddies here). Your clubs go around on the seemingly self driving cart, and the caddie brings out the clubs you need to the fairway. Our caddie Yessica definitely knew her stuff, and was very enthusiastic throughout the day.

There’s no detail overlooked here. They’ve got heated seats on the toilets in the media center! And an assortment of bidet options with visuals that help eliminate any uncertainty of what the different buttons do.

The Food

Hell yes! I wouldn’t call myself a foodie, but it’s probably the thing I look forward to most when I travel to a new part of the world. I’m a bit of a picky eater, but I’ll try almost anything. Flying solo to some pretty remote restaurants on this island with no English spoken, no one to help with translation, and limited ability to use chopsticks can be a bit intimidating. But you’ve gotta venture further than your hotel when you’re in these locales, and the food has been phenomenal. Here’s some spicy Korean beef soup that came with a giant personal bottle of water that was required.

You’ll be seeing the Bibigo logo on tee boxes and other locations around the course. They’re part of the CJ Group conglomerate, and they’re responsible for all of the cuisine on location. I realize that there is perhaps nothing more irrelevant to the reader experience than media food, but this dining experience has to be noted. They also have concession stands setup all over the course, and also make all of the food in the media center. I schedule my day around it. Fried coconut shrimp, sweet and sour pork, pasta, all different kinds of beef, soups, you name it. Some of the best meals I’ve had in Asia have come in the media center!

Update: I actually just got back from a dinner that needed to be written about. I thought I had experienced it, but it turns out I hadn’t. KJ Choi recommended a restaurant for us, and I’m not sure there are proper words in the English language to describe the flavor of this meat. I don’t even know the name of the place, and I don’t want to. In my own mind, it’s a place so authentic that the restaurant name doesn’t even translate to English. I have seen the light.

Other Notes

  • Similar to the experience at the 2015 Presidents Cup, camera phones have been an issue. There’s a law in South Korea about phone shutters, and on most (all?) phones it’s not possible to mute your camera sound. The law is in place to supposedly avoid unwanted pictures being taken. Well, this does not combine well with professional golf. There is not much English spoken within the crowd, but the requests to not take pictures are very clear. In many cases, the some fans were are flat out disrespectful. They lowered their phones when the caddies approached them, and then as soon as the caddies looked away, they raised them back up. I understand that there’s a cultural difference here, but this was an issue in several groups that I followed today. One caddie in particular made the remark that he’s never had to be so rude to fans before. In addition to the fans outside the ropes, the camera men inside the ropes do not like following the rules. At one point, a camera man was directly between Pat Perez and his target. I really, really wish I could repeat what Perez said to him, but I really, really cannot. Just trust me that it was hilarious.
  • I set out to write 500 words and now I’m coming up on 2K. There’s a lot going on out here. I’m well aware that we’re all in a need of a break in professional golf, but that there may not be the same enthusiasm for this event as there is here on the ground. But it’s pretty damn awesome out here. I sat in on the press conference for some of the Korean players this week, and K.J.’s quote at the top of the page really stuck out to me. Golf has a big, big future in Asia, and bringing a tournament to South Korea is a huge step.
  • There’s a LOT of new merchandise in the Pro Shop. You’re gonna wanna swing by and check it out. There’s a limited supply of vests and sweaters, you need to go quickly.

  • Spotted in the wild! Matty Kelly has put the NLU towel in play for Big Leish this week. We are officially on tour.

Thanks for indulging. If you’ve got any content requests for the week, send ’em over. It’s been a blast, and should be checking in Friday with a new podcast.

 

About the Author

Inventor of #TourSauce, always waits for the green to clear, and club twirl savant.

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