Koreans looking to break PGA Tour Q-School trends

Sung-Hoon Kang hits his tee shot at No. 7 on the Panther Lake course during Thursday's round of the 2010 PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament at Orange County National.

Once Sung-hoon Kang completes his slow, controlled backswing, his body begins a violent turn that allows the 5-foot-7 player to hit drives longer than 300 yards.

Like Kang’s downswing, this week could mark a rapid acceleration in the number of Korean men on the PGA Tour.

After five rounds, two Koreans are in the top 25. If they hold that position over the final round Monday, they’ll be on the PGA Tour in 2011. Three Koreans earned PGA Tour cards in the past five Q-Schools combined.

Korean women took the LPGA by storm after Se Ri Pak won the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open. The Korean men appear to be on a similar path, though a few years behind their female counterparts.

While increased depth in the men’s game may keep the men from dominating to the same degree as the women, it seems inevitable that there will be an increased Korean influence on the PGA Tour in coming years. One agent estimated there would be 20 players of Korean descent on the PGA Tour in five years.

Bio Kim of South Korea is third at Q-School after consecutive 68s at 15 under. Kang, 23, is tied for 16th at 10 under. Countryman Seung Ho Lee was in the top 25 until he shot consecutive 73s (currently T-52).

Another player from Asia, India’s Rahil Gangjee, is contending for a PGA Tour card but is currently T-61. Gangjee said there are two hurdles that must be overcome for foreign players to try their hand at the PGA or Nationwide tours.

“Earlier on, there was a financial barrier and a psychological barrier,” he said. “I think ever since Arjun (Atwal) has been on this Tour, and Jeev (Mikha Singh) became a top-50 player in the world, people started giving (the U.S.) a chance, because that psychological barrier was broken.

“We can always get around the financial barrier, but to be able to think that you can really make it here, that’s something else.”

K.J. Choi and Y.E. Yang have served as inspiration for the Korean men.

Choi became the first Korean to win on the PGA Tour when he won the 2002 Compaq Classic. Yang’s win at the 2009 PGA Championship was the first major title for a Korean man.

Yang, Jin Park and Charlie Wi earned Tour cards at Q-School in the past five years. Park and Wi were born in Korea, but lived in the States before attending Arizona State and Cal, respectively.

“The older players, they didn’t want to come out here and play like K.J. Choi. They just wanted to be in Korea, or just go to Japan,” Kang said.

Kang said Korean players used to hit the ball short because tight Korean courses emphasize accuracy over distance, and many Korean players are smaller than their American counterparts, Kang said. Diet and exercise have helped Korean players hit it farther.

Korean parents have become more willing to support their sons’ American aspirations, as well.

“Older players, they didn’t have a lot of money to play golf,” Kang said. “Now, parents are really supporting golf for their kids. They can come here more often than the older players and have more experience in the States.”

Increased television, and Woods’ influence, have also made players look Stateside. Every PGA Tour event is televised live on Seoul Broadcasting System. SBS is at Orange County National, interviewing the Korean players for its newscasts and a documentary.

Kang has had success in the U.S. before. He was medalist and quarterfinalist at the 2003 U.S. Junior. In 2004, he advanced to the semifinals of both the U.S. Junior and U.S. Amateur Public Links. Kang would come to the United States a few months per year to compete in amateur tournaments.

Kang, the 2002 Korean Junior champion, won a gold medal 2006 Asian Games, which exempted him from mandatory military service, a hurdle for Korean men seeking to play professional golf.

Kang also made last year’s Q-School finals, but finished well down the leaderboard.

Gangjee is giving Q-School his first shot. It’s doubtful anyone traveled farther to reach Q-School’s second stage. He played last month’s Singapore Open, which was pushed to a Monday finish because of inclement weather. Gangjee flew from Singapore to Los Angeles, took a red-eye to Charlotte, then flew to Tampa before driving 90 minutes to Brooksville, Fla.

He arrived late Tuesday afternoon, rushing around the golf course to try to squeeze in his practice round before darkness. The event started that following morning. Gangjee said he yawned his way around his back nine.

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