Following Yang’s lead, Koreans try Q-School
LA QUINTA, Calif. – Y.E. Yang thought the final putt was a formality. Hardly. It was a necessary predecessor to a watershed moment in golf’s global growth.
Yang came to the final hole of the 2008 Q-School at 20 under par, assuming his PGA Tour card was safe. His drive sailed right, barely in the water on the par-4 finishing hole. He wedged out, then hit his next shot short of the green. He then chipped to 8 feet.
Before hitting his bogey putt, Yang turned to his caddie, A.J. Montecino, and asked, “18 (under) ok?” No. The putt was a must-make. Yang made it to earn his Tour card without a shot to spare. He won twice the following season, including the PGA Championship, where he overtook Tiger Woods in the final round to become the first Asian male to win a major.
There’s little record of that putt, but its significance can’t be understated. If Yang missed, it's all but ensured that he doesn’t get into the Honda Classic, which he won, and eventually into the PGA Championship five months later. Yang said at the time that he hoped his victory would have a similar impact to Se Ri Pak’s win at the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open.
Q-School is back at PGA West for the first time since Yang’s graduation, and we may be seeing the results of his historic achievement. Korean players are coming to the United States in increased numbers and at an earlier age. The two top-ranked players at Q-School are Korean. Sang-Moon Bae, 25, is No. 26 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Seung-Yul Noh, 20, is 101st. Bae has won three times on the Japan Tour this season. Noh won last year’s Malaysian Open, which was co-sanctioned by the European Tour, and finished 30th at this year’s U.S. Open and Open Championship.
K.J. Choi was 29 when in 1999 he became the first Korean to earn a PGA Tour card. Yang was 35 when he earned his first card in 2007.
Kyung-Tae Kim, who played for the Internationals at the recent Presidents Cup, has shown interest in joining the PGA Tour. Kim, 25, became a special temporary member after top 10s at this year’s WGC-Bridgestone and Wyndham Championship and entered Q-School, but later withdrew.
Bio Kim, 21, also is at Q-School. He was the PGA Tour’s youngest member in 2011 after graduating last year’s Q-School. He finished 162nd on the money list, but won on the OneAsia Tour.
They’ll be trying to join Danny Lee, Sunghoon Kang and Kevin Na as Korean-born players in their 20s on the PGA Tour. Lee, 21, was the 2008 U.S. Amateur champion. He finished sixth on this year’s Nationwide Tour money list. Kang, 24, finished 120th on the PGA Tour money list after graduating last year’s Q-School.
Yang’s PGA win is just one reason for the increased Korean presence. Globalization, including the PGA Tour’s increased television presence in Korea, has enticed more players to come to the States. The young Koreans grew up in an era when Tiger Woods wasn’t just the world’s top golfer, but its most recognizable citizen. Male players are also leaving Korea earlier to avoid the military requirement. Yang spent almost two years in the military, beginning at age 21. Now his countrymen are serving time at Q-School, with an eye on the PGA Tour.