LA QUINTA, Calif. – Seung-Yul Noh is constantly tinkering, never mind that his swing, which generates so much power from his small frame, is near picture perfect.
He walks down fairways mimicking various swing planes and release positions. His pre-shot routine includes a visual inspection of his backswing, followed by several practice swings.
Noh, 20, is starring at this Q-School, and would likely be leading if not for an awful finish. The South Korean played PGA West’s Nicklaus Tournament course Saturday, making six birdies and just a single bogey in his first 16 holes. The high winds that bent flagsticks and blew open porta-potties had little impact until the 17th hole.
He bogeyed that par-3, then hit his tee shot out-of-bounds on the final hole. His next tee shot sailed into the left rough. Trying to lay up, he hit his shot in the water. He dropped, wedged on the green, then two-putted for a quadruple-bogey 8.
It added up to a 72 that gave him an 11-under 277 total. He’ll be safely in the top 10 at day’s end. Noh is No. 101 in the Official World Golf Ranking, the second-highest-ranked player in the field.
Countryman Sang-Moon Bae is ranked 26th in the world. He shot 75 Saturday after also finding trouble at the Nicklaus Tournament course’s 18th hole. He made double bogey there, and will start Sunday’s fifth round several shots outside the cut line for PGA Tour cards (top 25 and ties).
Noh moved up the leaderboard with a bogey-free 64 Friday at PGA West’s TPC Stadium Course, matching the low round there this week. It was the kind of round that illustrated why people are quick to sing Noh’s praises.
“I think he is bold and aggressive, (and) trusts his swing, which translates to great shots,” K.J. Choi said in an email to Golfweek. “Even if he has a difficult shot, he trusts his swing and goes for it. That’s confidence. He is long just like Tiger was, with very good physique.”
Noh won on the European Tour last year, and was the Asian Tour’s leading money winner in 2010. He finished 30th in both the 2011 U.S. Open and Open Championship. Bae is the leading money winner on the Japan Tour, having won three times this year.
The last time Q-School was at PGA West, Y.E. Yang had to hole an 8-foot putt to earn his Tour card on the number. He would’ve been without a PGA Tour card had he missed. He went on to win the PGA Championship that following season, becoming the first Asian-born man to win a major. He hoped the victory would inspire other Korean players to come Stateside, much like Se Ri Pak’s victory at the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open win was a catalyst for Koreans’ dominance on the LPGA.
“He was the same player as a lot of other players in Korea, and then he beat Tiger Woods,” Bio Kim said. “We thought it was almost impossible to beat Tiger Woods in the final round of a major.”
Kim, 21, graduated from last year’s Q-School and was the youngest player on this year’s PGA Tour. He’s back at Q-School this year and in the middle of the pack, likely destined for the Nationwide Tour.
Tag Ridings, Noh’s playing partner for the past two days, just shook his head when asked to assess the 20-year-old’s game.
“He’s very good,” Ridings said. “There’s nothing you can say. A true professional. He’s good. I couldn’t beat a stick at 20.”
Choi became the first Korean to earn a PGA Tour card when he graduated the 1999 Q-School. He’ll be joined by new faces next year. Danny Lee, who was born in Seoul, will be a PGA Tour rookie in 2012. Lee, 21, finished sixth on the Nationwide Tour money list. Kyung-Tae Kim, who represented the Internationals at the recent Presidents Cup, has expressed interest in taking Tour membership. The 25-year-old is No. 23 in the world.
One PGA Tour player manager estimated there will be 20 players of Korean descent on the PGA Tour in five years. A large increase, but still well short of the 43 Korean women on the LPGA this year.
Edward Loar, who played with both Bae and Noh this week, played the Asian Tour from 2002-07, winning the 2004 Korean Open. He said the talent pool in Korea, like the rest of the world, has grown deeper over the years.
“When I started playing in Asia in 2002, you could just go over there and pretty much tee it up and make a cut. Now, the level of play is so much higher,” Loar said. “Guys all over the world are getting better.”
And they’re at Q-School, trying to earn their way to the PGA Tour.