▲ Players in the country's first polo match at the Korea Polo Country Club. Photo courtesy Jeju Special Self-Governing Province
After piling salmon and caviar hors d’oeuvres onto their plates and selecting glasses of wine, the well-dressed guests at Korea’s first polo match meandered through the recently completed two-story clubhouse at the Korea Polo Country Club and made their way out back through grand doors. The line of sofas overlooking the vast polo field — roughly the size of eight soccer fields — let everyone know instantly that they had chosen the right event to attend that weekend, and despite their unfamiliarity with the sport, the only real question was why Ralph Lauren had not come to photograph his next catalogue.
“It’s the Hyatt with horses,” said Marc Hogberg, a visiting player from Singapore, when asked to describe the club. “This club is world-class, the future of polo resorts. It was such a great feeling waking up in a room overlooking the field I would soon be playing on.”
The primary objective of the grand opening event was to showcase what’s in store for those in attendance, should they be interested in pioneering the sport of polo in Korea alongside club president Lee Joo Bae. The first day was by invite only, with guests primarily Lee’s colleagues and friends from Seoul, and a handful from Singapore where he currently lives. In addition, a few out-classed English teachers enjoyed the gathering, earning their invite later on by showing the international players how to correctly do a night out in Jeju City.
Prior to the game, a crew of Mongolian horse-riders, who made an appearance earlier this year at the Fire Festival, wowed the crowd with their acrobatic stunts atop galloping horses. After the performance, speeches were made by outgoing Jeju Governor Kim Tae Hwan and Lee. A marching band then welcomed the international players from Argentina, Australia, England, Singapore, and the Philippines, four of whom play professionally. Due to frost-bitten toes earned conquering Mount Everest two weeks prior, Tom Claytor, a player currently living in Thailand, chose to provide the commentary for the game rather than play.
“This is the best clubhouse in Asia,” Claytor said during his opening address.
Lee met Claytor and the other players while visiting clubs in Australia, Thai-land and Singapore. “Polo is a small world, in Asia there are only a few hundred active players,” Lee said.
Lee was the sole representative of Korea on the field, taking a break from fraternizing with guests to give a local face to the sport. He has played for five years, and demonstrated to onlookers what can be accomplished in a short time with his goal in the second chukka (period), much to the delight of the crowd. Lee and three of the players from abroad formed “Team Korea,” and received a half-point handicap to balance out the competition.
Much of the match was friendly, with teams exchanging goals throughout. However, the International Team rallied in the final minutes to score 3 goals to Korea’s 1, and surpassed Team Korea 7-5.5. The match was halved at 4 chukkas, and would be continued the next day.
“This was an exhibition and display of polo as a team sport – a match where people can see how the game is played more than a competitive battle,” Hogberg said.
With everyone waking up that morning to rain showers and thunderstorms, the new field handled its first real test with success. The 30cm of sand under the grass allowed for quick drainage, and the affect on play was minimal. “We were amazed, [the weather] can be a big problem at most clubs,” Hogberg said.
By the end of the match, it appeared the Korean spectators’ interest in food took over, with many heading to the dining room before the final whistle. While enjoying the buffet meal featuring giant crab legs and an array of sashimi, the crowd was treated to a live performance from Kim Jin Ho of the top pop ballad group SG Wannabe.
The event continued long after the horses were put to rest, and in order to prevent losing his guests, Lee wisely hosted an after party showcasing South Korea’s domination of Greece on three TV screens. With noisemakers, an over-animated fan leading the crowd in chants of "Dae–Han-Min-Guk” and an overflowing supply of snacks and beer, the viewing brought some familiarity, comfort and camaraderie to close out the day.
The second day was open to the public, with about 250 people in attendance. Highlights featured horse riding, polo lessons, and the continuation of the match. After another 4 chukkas, team Korea edged out the Internationals 11.5-10, with Lee scoring three of his team’s six goals in just two chukkas of play.
The polo weekend gave guests an exciting glimpse of an appealing lifestyle and challenging new sport, and, despite steep membership costs and an off-the-beaten-path location, Lee said many had expressed interest in memberships. To keep the good times rolling, he plans to host an Indonesian team in July, and either a Shanghainese or Thai team in August.
Although it is yet to be seen whether Korea will adopt the sport of polo, there is little question Lee’s “world class” facilities made quick fans of the players from abroad.
“Jeju was an incredible mix of Korean culture, beautiful scenery and a polo experience in a new country, which in the long run I hope will grow to be internationally known and successful,” Hogburn said. “I will definitely grab any chance I can to return to Korea Polo Country Club, I just need to get used to that kimchi they keep serving me.”
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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