ANSEONG, South Korea: Golf is among the most solitary of sports, its players engaged in a constant struggle with themselves as they compete against the implacable opponent of par.
But for autistic newly qualified professional Simon Seungmin Lee, it is a way to escape from his enclosed self and engage with the world.
The 20-year-old South Korean, who grew up in the US, has been medically assessed as having the communication skills of a child half his age—and the socialization abilities of a 10-month-old baby.
But six years after taking up the clubs, and following five failed attempts, he secured professional status at a Korea PGA trial in May —one of the few autistic people to do so anywhere in the world.
His next goal is a tour card at the Korea PGA qualifying school in November.
“I love golf,” said Lee, who has difficulty speaking and whose mother helped him communicate throughout the interview.
“I want to win the Masters,” he added.
‘Good night, mother’
Lee started showing symptoms in his early childhood in the United States where his father, a South Korean diplomat, was stationed.
“He started avoiding eye contact and replying with what the other person had just said. My heart sank one day when I said, ‘Good night Seungmin’, and he replied ‘Good night Seungmin’, instead of ‘Good night mother’,” she said of the phenomenon known as echolalia.
He tends to show attachments to certain objects – another common symptom – most notably a Patrick the Starfish character doll he was given when the family went to the Universal Studios theme park in Orlando, Florida 10 years ago.
Asked by his mother who he would rescue first from a sinking ship, her or the doll, Lee grimaced and groaned, unable to make up his mind.
At age eight, he was placed in a special education system in the US, where he started playing ice hockey as a sports therapy.
Six years later, he turned to golf, which he had been practising during summer vacations.
Autistic golfers are not completely unprecedented. Moe Norman, who won 55 Canadian Tour and other Canadian events from the 1950s to the 1970s, is believed to have suffered from the disorder. A metronomically reliable hitter of the ball, he has been described as “a supernaturally gifted yet cruelly misunderstood athlete”.
Lee is cognitively impaired, but has a remarkable rote memory and his motor skills appear to be highly developed, according to his golf coach Kim Jong-Pil.
“I think he was born as a golfer,” he said.
When they started working together, teaching him was harder than instructing 20 normal athletes at the same time, Kim said.
“As he has trouble communicating, I had to teach him with actions and poses, not by words, showing him every right pose and proper muscle movement and fixing his own by touching him,” he said.
Etiquette was another challenge, with Lee not understanding why he should stay quiet when other players were teeing off.
But once he learned the ropes, he never looked back.
“All I worry now is he is practicing too hard,” said the coach.
But Lee’s autism may act as an advantage in competition, he said, when pressure can adversely affect performance.
“Unlike ordinary athletes, he is not so tense in matches and his concentration remains high throughout a round,” Kim said.
Lee’s caddy Kim Bong-Sub, also a professional golfer, said Lee is especially strong in approach shots and putting, but has trouble making decisions — often the case with autistics — such as whether to lob the ball or roll it towards the hole.
Making the cut
Golf is hugely popular in South Korea, whose women players dominate the global game, taking five of the top seven places on the current LPGA money list.
Lee made his debut on the country’s professional golf tour at the KPGA Caido Golden V1 Open in June by invitation.
He failed to make the cut, but has secured sponsorship from South Korea’s Hana Financial Group – a rarity for someone at his level.
“As a patient suffering from developmental disorder, what he has achieved is remarkable indeed,” said company spokesman Paul Park.
Lee’s mother Bahk Jiae said she hoped to see her son set an example as a successful athlete with a disability.
“We all hugged with each other and cried” when he qualified for the professional ranks, she said.
“I was so moved when he said: ‘Mom, thank you. I am sorry for having caused you so much trouble’,” she said.
“I never thought he was able to put his feelings into such phrases.”