AVONDALE, La. – It’s never been harder to win on the PGA Tour, a belief reinforced Sunday as another talented yet unproven player stared down one of the game’s single-name stars.
Russell Henley clipped Rory McIlroy.
Matt Every undermined Adam Scott.
Steven Bowditch stiff-armed Matt Kuchar.
So this, it seems, was Keegan Bradley’s turn.
On a windy Sunday at TPC Louisiana, Seung-Yul Noh offered even more proof that tournament favorites are useful in barroom conversation, little else. The South Korean’s unflinching, unyielding play in the final round gave him a two-shot victory at the Zurich Classic – a tournament that, in recent years, has churned out as many maiden winners as bowls of jambalaya.
Seven of the past 10 winners here have been of the first-time variety, Noh the most heralded. At 22, he is the fourth under-25 winner this season – following Harris English, Patrick Reed and Henley – as the Tour transitions from an era of Tiger-led domination to one rife with young, hungry, talented kids with no scar tissue.
Noh’s old swing coach, Sean Foley, used to joke that his pupil’s nickname was "Soon You’ll Know" – as in, how good he is.
In 2010, Noh became the second-youngest winner on the European Tour when the then-18-year-old captured the Malaysian Open. That year he topped the Asian Tour money list, and the next fall he earned his PGA Tour card via Q-School.
After an auspicious 2012 debut, in which he finished inside the top 50 in earnings, Noh was sent back down to golf’s Triple-A to earn back his card, which he did, in the Web.com Tour’s Final Series.
Likewise, his 2014 form has been largely uninspiring, but his four days here reaffirmed why so many, for so long, have been gushing about his superstar potential. He led the field in proximity to the hole and was 11th in strokes gained-putting.
“People knew he was gonna be good,” said Scott Sajtinac, Noh’s caddie, “and to finally get a win under your belt will send him in the right direction.”
Already possessing one of the sweetest swings in the game, Noh matched that ball-striking prowess with a steady hand in the 30-mph winds Sunday at TPC Louisiana.
Two shots clear of Bradley at the start of the day, Noh had the chance to become the first player in 40 years to win a tournament while going bogey-free. That bid ended rather abruptly, when he pumped his tee shot way right on the first hole and made his first bogey of the week. By the third hole, Noh had regained the lead by himself, an advantage he never relinquished.
Indeed, nearly every time he stumbled, he soon regained his footing:
His bogey on 1 was followed by seven consecutive pars.
His short miss on 12 was negated by a follow-up birdie on 13.
Another missed tiddler on 15 was erased by a kick-in birdie on 16.
The Tour keeps such a statistic – bounce back – that measures how often a player is over par on a hole and then under par on the following hole. Essentially, it measures a player’s ability to withstand a few punches to the gut. Noh doesn’t have a gut – he’s generously listed at 165 pounds – but don’t let his slight frame fool you.
The leader in bounce back this season, the guy who rebounds better than any other player on Tour ... is Seung-Yul Noh, at 30.77 percent.
So, yes, add it all up, and it was good enough Sunday for a 1-under 71 and a two-shot victory over Andrew Svoboda (69) and Robert Streb (70). In the process, Noh also stared down Bradley, one of the game’s grittiest competitors, and beat the 2011 PGA champion by four strokes.
“He’s just steely,” Sajtinac said of Noh, with whom he has just begun working. “These young guys that are winning right now, they’re just rock-solid under the pump. It’s hard to do, being in control of everything.
“He was unflappable. He just stays the same. You look at the guys who are contending week-in, week-out on the PGA Tour, they’re unflappable.”
After tapping in for the win, Noh was bum-rushed on the final green by Y.E. Yang and Charlie Wi, both of whom were wielding Bud Light bottles. Noh didn’t fight the beer barrage, tilting back his head and basking in the suds.
Said Wi, who has known Noh for the past five years: “His game always has been very strong, solid. I thought his demeanor today was awesome. I would have been rattled and nervous, but he sure didn’t look that way.”
Because he wasn’t, or so he says. Since his “very disappointing” 2013 season, Noh insists that he’s mentally stronger, that he doesn’t get nervous. Not anymore.
“He’s wise beyond his years for a 22-year-old,” Sajtinac said. “It was hard out there. You had to mind your Ps and Qs, and he did it the whole way around essentially. The kid is gonna be good.”
Ask Keegan and Co. Noh is already there.