On a Sunday, the young phenom from South Korea had all of the shots. His laser-like precision kept him in play off almost every tee. In swirling winds, he commanded his golf shots better than anybody in the field. He rolled in putts with reckless abandon. Seeking the biggest win of his career, he never relented the lead. Nobody saw it coming.
That was the exact script when Seung-Yul Noh won the Zurich Classic of New Orleans in 2014 at the age of 22. Sound familiar?
I was there. “A star is born,” I was heard saying on the air and to anybody who would listen in the coming days. This was the start of something really special. Sound familiar?
Prior to Noh’s win in New Orleans, he hadn’t finished in the top 30, with five missed cuts in the 11 tournaments prior. There was no form coming into that win. Sound familiar?
Since that breakthrough win, Noh has recorded six top-10 finishes in 78 starts with no more victories. It is a record that baffles me. I walked the final 36 holes with Noh that victorious weekend in 2014. He hit a stinger off of tees that made my jaw drop. He showed a resolute demeanor over putts. He WAS going to win again.
Fast forward to yesterday, when countryman Si Woo Kim made the final round of the 2017 The Players Championship a yawner. He hit clutch putts. He delivered clutch shots. He showed a calmness no player in that position is expected to have.
“I wasn't nervous at all because I was leading that hole,” he said when asked about the tee shot at 17, his 71st hole of the week. “I just focused on the middle of the green.”
It’s not that easy! It’s also not supposed to be easy for a player who had zero top-10 finishes in his last 16 starts, and just six made cuts. Sound familiar?
This is not a column of skepticism. It is a column of disbelief. For a country that went golf crazy and has dominated the women’s game, Kim joins a growing roster of young players who dangle incredible talent in front of our eyes, if only for a fleeting second.
We have been witness to magical performances, normally reserved for legendary and transcendent stars of the game. It has to happen again, right?
“I really wish I could be a good example of the Korean men's player because, as you know, in Korea, LPGA players, the Korean ladies are dominating the LPGA Tour,” Kim added on Sunday. “I always wanted to represent Korea very well.”
One of my favorite trivia questions is to ask people how many times KJ Choi won on the PGA Tour. The answer is eight. It’s a head-turning number even for the most die-hard golf fans. His success inspired a younger generation, a fact Kim quickly referenced after his historic win. But, will that young talent ever match the consistency and longevity of their trailblazer?
Kim just became the youngest Players champion after earning his Tour card at 17. Ben An is now a cut-making machine who was the youngest U.S. Amateur champion ever. Sang Moon Bae returns from military service this November. The PGA Tour will have a new tournament in South Korea this fall as well. And I still can’t shake the sound of that stinger from Noh.
Is it just a tease, or are we on the verge of developing a new golf star that will connect a new global market for the men’s game? After this past weekend, there is too much noise for it to be on the horizon.
The Other Winner
Each week, we identify a player who, while not winning, took something big away from the previous week.
Brendan Steele – The guy who should be in your fantasy lineup almost every week right now, Steele did more than just make his 18th consecutive cut in an individual event. His T6 at The Players pushed him back into the top 10 in FedEx Cup points, but it also represented a big-boy finish that had been lacking from his resume. It was his first-ever finish inside the top 10 in a major, Players, WGC or FedEx Cup Playoffs event.