Martin: Koreans have fared well at Q-School

Y.E. Yang

Y.E. Yang

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LA QUINTA, Calif. – It was a moment that occurred with little fanfare. Its importance can’t be understated, though. Y.E. Yang faced an 8-foot putt on the final hole of the 2008 Q-School, thinking he’d earn his PGA Tour card even if he missed. He asked his caddie for confirmation. “No, make!” A.J. Montecino implored, informing Yang that the bogey putt was mandatory.

Yang sank it to earn his card without a shot to spare. “The rest is history,” Montecino said. Yang went on to win the 2009 PGA Championship, becoming the first Asian-born major champion. It’s all but guaranteed he doesn’t earn his way into the PGA, let alone make history at Hazeltine, if he misses that final Q-School putt.

Yang said at the time he hoped his victory would inspire his countrymen to play their trade in the United States. His impact already is evident, just three years after his historic victory.

The final threesome Sunday at PGA Tour Q-School features two young Koreans: Meen-Whee Kim, 20, and Dong-Hwan Lee, 25. Lee will start Q-School’s fifth round with a two-shot lead over Kim, Vaughn Taylor, Richard H. Lee and Edward Loar. This could be the third consecutive year that multiple Korean players earn PGA Tour cards at Q-School. Two Koreans earned cards at both the 2010 and 2011 Q-Schools. No other country, besides the United States, had multiple graduates at both Q-Schools. Last year’s Korean graduates, Sang-Moon Bae and Seung-Yul Noh, had successful rookie seasons, both earning more than $1 million.

Edward Loar will join Kim and Dong-Hwan Lee in Sunday’s final group. Loar may be a native Texan, but he can offer perspective on the growth of Asian golf. Loar played in Asia from 2002-07. His two victories include the 2004 Korea Open.

“When I started playing in Asia in 2002, you could just go over there and pretty much tee it up and make a cut,” Loar said. “Now, the level of play is so much higher.”

Rickie Fowler came back from his 2011 Korea Open victory raving about the country’s young players. He was quick to mention Kim as one youngster that the country had high hopes for. Its obvious why. Before coming to Q-School, Kim beat PGA Tour players Kevin Na, Paul Casey, Charlie Wi, Seung-Yul Noh and John Huh to win the Shinhan Donghae Open. Dong-Hwan Lee is a two-time Japan Tour winner and No. 220 in the Official World Golf Ranking.

“This is my dream, to be on the PGA Tour,” Dong-Hwan Lee said. “It’s been my goal since the beginning. I feel like the PGA Tour is where I belong. I want to play shoulder-to-shoulder with the best players in the world.”

Years ago, Koreans were reluctant to leave Asia because of cultural and language barriers, said Ted Oh, 36, a Nationwide Tour player who was born in Seoul and played college golf from UNLV. K.J. Choi became the first Korean to earn a Tour card when he graduated Q-School in 1999. Choi was 29 when he earned his first card. Yang was 35. The four Koreans who graduated the 2010 and 2011 Q-Schools – Bio Kim, Sung Kang, Bae and Noh – were all 25 or younger. Choi is a mentor for his young countrymen. He’s encouraged them to come to the States. Growing up in an era of globalization also has helped.

Western culture has become more common in Korea. Seoul’s hosting of the 1988 Summer Olympics further opened the country to the world. Korean players now are more familiar with Western food, and almost all of them know at least basic English.

The PGA Tour has increased its visibility in South Korea in recent years. PGA Tour golf, via a U.S. feed and with Korean announcers, was televised 1,200 live hours in 2010, equal to the airtime in the United States and more than double the amount in 2000. The biggest moment that Koreans witnessed came when Yang powerlifted his TaylorMade staff bag over his head after defeating Woods to win the ’09 PGA Championship at Hazeltine.

Land is at a premium in South Korea. It is the world’s 108th-largest country - about the size of Indiana - but with a population (48.6 million) ranking 26th. Many Korean courses, especially near the capital of Seoul, are short and tight, which led many players to develop games that emphasize accuracy over distance, Sung Kang said. His generation grew up watching the bomb-and-gouge mentality take hold of the PGA Tour, though.

And now they’re exporting their games to the United States.

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