Sungjae Im and Si Woo Kim made a significant sacrifice to prepare for the Tokyo Olympics, and perhaps no two players in the 60-player field have more on the line than the two South Koreans this week.
Im and Kim opted to skip The Open Championship, the final major of 2021, to focus on the Games.An Olympic medal would be a huge honor, but it would also bring an exemption by the Korean government from a mandatory two-year military service commitment.
"I know it's true that if we earn a medal the Korean government will exempt us from serving military, but I don't really, like, focus or think about the service in the military," Kim said Wednesday. "My only goal is to win the championship and get medal and be honored."
Im also said his only focus is "about winning the Games, not the military problem."
While the pair can downplay the military exemption, it has also become one of the biggest storylines of the men's event.
Sangmoon Bae was a two-time winner on the PGA Tour when he began his service following the 2015 Presidents Cup, returning for the 2017-18 season. Seung-Yul Noh is also a former Tour winner who returned toward the end of 2019 following his military commitment for South Korea.
Former top 100 players, both have struggled since their returns to professional golf.
Bae is now ranked 958th in the world. He primarily plays on the Korn Ferry Tour and has made only five cuts in 16 worldwide starts in 2021.
Noh is ranked 736th, having made only two of seven cuts this year.
That's not to say the same professional struggles would befall Im and Kim should they ultimately serve their military commitments.
Im is a former PGA Tour Rookie of the Year who has a PGA Tour win to go with a tie for second at the Masters last November. He enters this week ranked No. 27 and has been as high as No. 16. Im also recently purchased a home in Atlanta.
Kim is ranked 55th in the world and has risen as high as 28th. The 2017 Players champion also won the American Express earlier this year for his third career PGA Tour victory.
Both used the week off from The Open to fly to South Korea ahead of the Games.
"I wanted to get used to the time difference between Japan and United States," he said. "I made myself so comfortable and relaxed and prepared."
Kim said he has been working as much on his physical conditioning as much as his game ahead of the four-day event. While Kim downplayed the importance of winning an Olympic medal, saying "it's just same tournament to me," Im didn't hide his excitement.
"It was my dream since I was a little kid, being an Olympian, and I can't believe this happened to me," he said. "And as a representative for my nation I'll do my best and show my best play to all people in Korea and my fans and all people supporting me."
--Field Level Media