Yes, it was boorish. On that we can all agree. When Bio Kim, the leading money winner on the Korean Tour, reacted to a camera click in his backswing by thrusting a middle finger toward the offending spectator and then slamming his driver to the ground, he clearly violated the norms of professional behavior.
Such action warranted a healthy fine and a stern talking to. But a three-year suspension?
Kim was banned from the tour, which is run by the Korea Professional Golfers’ Association, for three years. Three. Years. Here are just a few of the felonies you can commit in New York and receive shorter sentences than three years:
- Criminally negligent homicide
- First-degree criminal contempt
- First-degree menacing
- Fourth-degree arson
- Fourth-degree grand larceny
- Fourth-degree money laundering
- Second-degree stalking
- Second-degree identity theft
- Second-degree vehicular assault
Depending on where you live, other crimes that jar civilized sensibilities carry potential sentences of less than three years.
Of course, Kim won’t have his freedoms taken away. He can still sleep in his own bed and go out for coffee every morning. Nobody is dead and to anyone’s knowledge he’s never stolen a car. But he is a professional golfer with limited outlets on which to ply his trade. A 29-year-old South Korean who played on the PGA Tour in 2011, Kim obviously feels most comfortable in his homeland – he’s good enough to lead that tour’s money list – so a three-year suspension is draconian at best and a career-killer at worst.
Sure, flipping someone off, as Americans call it, is juvenile and uncouth. It is, in fact, one of the oldest taunts in human history.
To lend some perspective to this, several years ago a Liverpool footballer (or soccer player to those of us in the States) named Luis Suarez gave the tall-finger salute to Fulham fans during the Football Association Challenge Cup. Suarez was frustrated after a 1-0 loss. For venting those feelings, he was fined £20,000 and suspended … for one game.
The National Football League is replete with lesser suspensions for behavior that far exceeds what Kim did. In 2018 alone 31 NFL players, one general manager and a referee were suspended for negligent, unprofessional and, in many cases, willful misconduct not attached to heat-of-the-moment incidents. None of those suspensions came close to three years. For example, Reuben Foster of the Washington Redskins served no suspension and paid only a fine for a misdemeanor domestic violence charge that was dismissed earlier this year on the heels of the linebacker’s other run-ins with the law. Even Plaxico Burress, who was sentenced to two years in prison in 2009 for shooting himself in the leg with a pistol in a crowded nightclub, was suspended by the New York Giants for only four games.
Sure, flipping someone off, as Americans call it, is juvenile and uncouth. It is, in fact, one of the oldest taunts in human history. In the fourth century B.C., the philosopher Diogenes gave the finger to a politician named Demosthenes in ancient Greece, saying to an assembly, “This is the great demagogue.”
According to contemporary historians, from the Cimbrian War in 113 B.C. to the imperial campaigns in Germania a century later, Roman legionnaires were taunted on the battlefield by Germanic tribesmen thrusting their middle fingers upward. So, yes, it’s a goad, a jeer, an insult. But it’s also been used by everyone from politicians to pop stars in recent years with little or no blowback.
So, why did the KPGA come down so hard on Kim?
“(The middle finger) is really a Western thing,” said J.S. Kang, a South Korean-born golf agent who grew up in Toronto and has been living in Atlanta for almost two decades. “You see it here (in the States) so often in road-rage situations and other places that we have become sort of numb to it. Over there, it isn’t that ingrained. Most Koreans are savvy to Western insults but it doesn’t have the same historical meaning in places like Korea that it has in the West.
“But if you look at all Korean players, especially if you look at all the ones on the LPGA, you don’t see one of them being brash. You don’t see them being outspoken. The one who was demonstrative, Ha Na Jang, was looked down upon both at home and by other (Korean) players on tour. So, it’s seen as a very genteel sport (in Korea) that has a certain code of conduct.”
There is also a cultural unity in the East that Westerners often miss. Jang was vilified because her fist pumps and celebration dances were viewed as an in-your-face insult to other competitors, not just from Jang but from Korea as a whole. Even though they are fierce competitors, Korean players share a collectivist cultural identity. An insult by one is an affront to all.
“Every culture interprets the unwritten rules of golf a little differently,” Kang said. “If you play in Scotland, the things you do in and around the game are different than they are over here and in other places. So, at all the private clubs in Korea, for example, you show up wearing a jacket no matter where you’ve come from, and you carry your golf stuff inside in a bag. Showing up in golf clothes and changing shoes at your car is completely boorish behavior over there.
“You walk in, hang your jacket up, change clothes, play golf, go to the sauna afterward, and then change again before leaving. It’s very formal. To do otherwise is an insult to the sport. But at the same time, it’s perfectly acceptable for people to be handing money back and forth settling bets on every green. So, every country’s interpretation of how to play the game perfectly is different.”
Combine that intense formality with the cultural homogeneity and serious attention paid to even the slightest insult, and it’s easy to see how the KPGA punished Kim as it did.
“I think it just means a lot more for a golfer in Korea to show their displeasure that way,” Kang said.
It’s still not right. But at least it’s an explanation.
Bio Kim is left to ponder his future after receiving a three-year Korean Tour suspension for making an obscene gesture. Photo: Sam Greenwood, Getty Images
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