AVONDALE, La. – Seung-Yul Noh flirted with disaster late Saturday. His final drive of the day splashed down in the bunker, only a few feet from a pond, and he sighed deeply upon learning it was safe.
His par, and bogey-free start secure – the Noh-Noh still intact – the 22-year-old Korean is now on the verge of joining elite company and becoming the latest under-25 winner on the PGA Tour.
After another blemish-free day at TPC Louisiana, Noh’s 7-under 65 Saturday was good enough for a two-shot lead at the Zurich Classic, an event that could soon produce a first-time winner for the seventh time in a decade.
If he can la-di-da his way around TPC Louisiana again Sunday, Noh will become the first player since Charles Howell III (2010) to play all 72 holes without a dropped shot. Even more historic: If he wins in bogey-free fashion, he’d be the first since Lee Trevino in 1974.
“I’m very ready for tomorrow,” he said.
All that matters now, of course, is that he’s staked to his first-ever 54-hole lead on Tour. At 18-under 198, he is two clear of Keegan Bradley. Robert Streb is another shot behind.
No player this week has put on an iron clinic quite like Noh, who has hit at least 14 greens in each round. On Saturday he was practically throwing darts, landing 10 approach shots within 15 feet of the cup. On the back nine, when he came home in 32 to extend his lead to two, he stuck iron shots within 10 feet on Nos. 15, 16 and 17.
When asked about his iron play, Noh offered a sheepish grin. “Just this week,” he said, though the stats tell a different story: He is ranked 24th on Tour in greens hit, and he is in the top 10 in proximity to the hole from both 100-125 yards and 175-200.
“His iron play is off the charts right now,” said caddie Scott Sajtinac, in his first week looping for Noh. The veteran caddie, who has worked in the past for Trevor Immelman and Stuart Appleby, said he has been impressed by Noh ever since the kid landed on Tour full-time in 2012.
“Everybody knows he’s good,” Sajtinac said. “He’s the real deal. It’s just coming together this week.”
If Noh can close the deal Sunday – a tough task for 54-hole leaders this season, with just 10 of 22 players holding on to win – he will become the fourth under-25 winner this season, joining Harris English (24), Russell Henley (now 25) and Patrick Reed (23).
Inexperience hasn’t proved an obstacle to Noh in the past, however. In 2010, he became the second-youngest winner in European Tour history when the then-18-year-old captured the Malaysian Open. That year he also topped the Asian Tour Order of Merit, and the next season he earned his PGA Tour card via Q-School.
Noh had a promising rookie campaign, finishing 49th in earnings, but he struggled immensely in 2013. By finishing outside the top 150 in FedEx Cup points, Noh was briefly sent back down to the minors, but he won one of the Web.com Tour’s Final Series events to regain his playing privileges.
“It was a very good experience,” he said. “I learned from that time.”
This season has been steady, unspectacular, with just one top 10 in 13 tries. Earlier this month, after a wrist-related WD from Houston, Noh returned to Korea for two weeks with his parents and a friend. He emerged “very clean” mentally and excited about resuming his season.
A good thing, because few players on Tour are as amped up – or, now, as hungry – as his closest pursuer. Two shots behind, the 27-year-old Bradley says this is an arena in which he thrives. In this sense he’s very much like his pal Phil Mickelson – in the heat of competition, Bradley’s stride becomes more purposeful, his drives fly farther, his emotion boils over.
“When I’m not in contention, it’s no fun,” he said Saturday after a 7-under 65. “I love waking up and feeling that energy, getting to the first tee and the biggest crowds. There is a lot on the line tomorrow.”
Not least an opportunity for Bradley, one of the game’s best American players, to break through for his first win in 20 months. In the past half year, he has switched coaches, from Jim McLean to Chuck Cook, and insists now that their work together is merely “maintenance.”
Bradley was unsure whether he’d be able to even tee it up Friday, after a late-night bout with food poisoning. “About 40 minutes from my tee time I was having some issues, let’s put it that way,” he said.
Watching him Friday you’d never know the trouble that bubbled within – he made five birdies and a highlight-reel eagle, his 66 sending him within a half dozen of the lead heading into the weekend.
“I’m most proud this week of where I’ve been mentally on the golf course and the calm I’ve felt,” he said.
Sajtinac said that Noh needs that same “calm focus” to prevail Sunday, but that attribute “only comes with age.”
Or, you know, another bogey-free round.