A Korean influence at PGA Tour opener

By Doug FergusonJanuary 7, 2010, 6:25 pm
SBS Championship

KAPALUA, Hawaii – Y.E. Yang referred to it as a miracle – and he wasn’t talking about his PGA Championship victory over Tiger Woods.

Instead, he was surprised to hear in May that Seoul Broadcasting System had signed up to sponsor the season-opening tournament at Kapalua, the first time a South Korean company had agreed to sponsor a PGA Tour event.

“I have been wondering when a Korean company would be sponsoring a PGA event,” Yang said Wednesday through his interpreter. “I didn’t think it would be quite in the near future when I first landed on the PGA Tour. Miraculously this year, SBS has signed a 10-year deal to sponsor the opening event.”

The timing could not have been better, with Yang becoming the first Asian-born man to win a major.

Yang, a late bloomer from South Korea who didn’t take up golf until he was 19, had already qualified for the SBS Championship with a victory last March in the Honda Classic. He arrived on Maui as one of the biggest names in the winners-only field, at least as far as the sponsor and many of its clients are concerned.

During a Monday night party, when amateurs get to pick a player for the pro-am, Yang’s name wasn’t available, already set aside for the chairman of SBS and his group. The 37-year-old Yang can barely get from the range to the putting green to the clubhouse without being stopped for autographs and pictures.

For Yang, it feels like 2009 never ended, and for good reason.

During a whirlwind finish to an unforgettable year, he went from the World Cup in China to southern California for the Chevron World Challenge, then a brief stop at his home in Dallas before going to South Korea to be honored. He spent five days in his homeland before returning to Dallas – and a round of golf with former President George W. Bush – and then across the ocean to Maui.

“I wouldn’t say I’m in the best shape,” Yang said. “I’m fairly rested and ready to go on with this new season. However, it feels like it’s a continued season.”

It’s not the worst feeling, for sure.

Yang made history on so many fronts at Hazeltine in August. As well as being the first Asian to win a major, he did the unthinkable in the final round by rallying from two shots behind to defeat Woods, who had never lost a major when leading on the last day.

It was a boon for Asian golf and was part of a big year for South Korea. Beyong-Hun An won the U.S. Amateur, earning exemptions to the first three majors of the year, while Chang-won Han won the first Asian Amateur title and earned an automatic invitation to the Masters in April.

Even so, nothing was bigger than Yang taking down Woods – they call him “Tiger Killer” in Korea – and hoisting his golf bag over his head to celebrate on the 18th green at Hazeltine.

“He did it in style,” Geoff Ogilvy said. “He couldn’t do it any better than that, beating Tiger on the last day of a major. No one had managed to do it so far. Great to watch, cool character. Everyone on tour respects his game and was pretty excited that he is going to be around with us for a long time.”

The same can’t be said for Woods, at least not at the moment.

Even as the season gets under way Thursday in the warmth and beauty of Hawaii, optimism is checked by uncertainty about when Woods will return from a sex scandal that led him to take an indefinite break from golf.

Phil Mickelson also is skipping the season opener for the ninth straight year, waiting until San Diego to make his debut. That leaves only 28 players in the field, matching the tournament record for the smallest field.

For Yang, he is wistful about the absence of another player – K.J. Choi, who failed to win a PGA Tour event last year for the first time since 2004.

While Yang gets the attention as the first player from Asia to win a major, Choi blazed the trail. The year Yang won his first professional tournament, Choi was winning the first of his seven PGA Tour titles.

“At that time, K.J. was playing in a league of gods, you might say,” Yang said. “I was winning tournaments with Korean professionals, while K.J. was playing against the world’s top-ranked players. K.J. inspired a lot of players, not just myself, that Koreans can also play in the PGA Tour.”

Australia’s Ogilvy is the defending champion at Kapalua, a rare occasion when he is the only player in the field to have won on the Plantation Course. Only seven players are back for a second straight year at this tournament exclusively for last year’s PGA Tour winners.

It all creates a sense of uncertainty about 2010.

“This could be wide open,” Steve Stricker said. “I have a feeling Tiger will be back. He doesn’t need many events to get back to the top spot, whether it be in the FedEx Cup or money list or whatever.

“I hope that he’s back sooner than later. But it does have that feel to start the season that it’s wide open.”

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Berger more than ready to rebound at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:54 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Daniel Berger hopes that this year he gets to be on the other end of a viral moment at the Travelers Championship.

Berger was a hard-luck runner-up last year at TPC River Highlands, a spectator as Jordan Spieth holed a bunker shot to defeat him in a playoff. It was the second straight year that the 25-year-old came up just short outside Hartford, as he carried a three-shot lead into the 2016 event before fading to a tie for fifth.

While he wasn’t lacking any motivation after last year’s close call, Berger got another dose last week at the U.S. Open when he joined Tony Finau as a surprise participant in the final group Sunday, only to shoot a 73 and drift to a T-6 finish.

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“It was one of the best experiences of my professional golf career so far. I feel like I’m going to be in such a better place next time I’m in that position, having felt those emotions and kind of gone through it,” Berger said. “There was a lot of reflection after that because I felt like I played good enough to get it done Sunday. I didn’t make as many putts as I wanted to, but I hit a lot of really good putts. And that’s really all you can do.”

Berger missed the cut earlier this month to end his quest for three straight titles in Memphis, but his otherwise consistent season has now included six top-20 finishes since January. After working his way into contention last week and still with a score to settle at TPC River Highlands, he’s eager to get back to work against another star-studded field.

“I think all these experiences you just learn from,” Berger said. “I think last week, having learned from that, I think that’s even going to make me a little better this week. So I’m excited to get going.”

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Rory tired of the near-misses, determined to close

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:46 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Rory McIlroy has returned to the Travelers Championship with an eye on bumping up his winning percentage.

McIlroy stormed from the back of the pack to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, but that remains his lone worldwide win since the 2016 Tour Championship. It speaks to McIlroy’s considerable ability and lofty expectations that, even with a number of other high finishes this season, he is left unsatisfied.

“I feel like I’ve had five realistic chances to win this year, and I’ve been able to close out one of them. That’s a bit disappointing, I guess,” McIlroy said. “But at least I’ve given myself five chances to win golf tournaments, which is much more than I did last year.”

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The most memorable of McIlroy’s near-misses is likely the Masters, when he played alongside Patrick Reed in Sunday’s final group but struggled en route to a T-5 finish. But more frustrating in the Ulsterman’s eyes were his runner-up at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, when he led by two shots with eight holes to go, and a second-place showing behind Francesco Molinari at the BMW PGA Championship in May.

“There’s been some good golf in there,” he said. “I feel like I let Dubai and Wentworth get away a little bit.”

He’ll have a chance to rectify that trend this week at TPC River Highlands, where he finished T-17 last year in his tournament debut and liked the course and the tournament enough to keep it on his schedule. It comes on the heels of a missed cut at the U.S. Open, when he was 10 over through 11 holes and never got on track. McIlroy views that result as more of an aberration during a season in which he has had plenty of chances to contend on the weekend.

“I didn’t necessarily play that badly last week. I feel like if I play similarly this week, I might have a good chance to win,” McIlroy said. “I think when you play in conditions like that, it magnifies parts of your game that maybe don’t stack up quite as good as the rest of your game, and it magnified a couple of things for me that I worked on over the weekend.”

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Sunday run at Shinnecock gave Reed even more confidence

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:08 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While many big names are just coming around to the notion that the Travelers Championship is worth adding to the schedule, Patrick Reed has been making TPC River Highlands one of his favorite haunts for years.

Reed will make his seventh straight appearance outside Hartford, where he tied for fifth last year and was T-11 the year before that. He is eager to get back to the grind after a stressful week at the U.S. Open, both because of his past success here and because it will offer him a chance to build on a near-miss at Shinnecock Hills.

Reed started the final round three shots off the lead, but he quickly stormed toward the top of the leaderboard and became one of Brooks Koepka’s chief threats after birdies on five of his first seven holes. Reed couldn’t maintain the momentum in the middle of the round, carding three subsequent bogeys, and ultimately tied for fourth.

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It was a bittersweet result, but Reed is focusing on the positives after taking a couple days to reflect.

“If you would have told me that I had a chance to win coming down Sunday, I would have been pleased,” Reed said. “I felt like I just made too many careless mistakes towards the end, and because of that, you’re not going to win at any major making careless mistakes, especially on Sunday.”

Reed broke through for his first major title at the Masters, and he has now finished fourth or better in three straight majors dating back to a runner-up at the PGA last summer. With another chance to add to that record next month in Scotland, he hopes to carry the energy from last week’s close call into this week’s event on a course where he feels right at home.

“It just gives me confidence, more than anything,” Reed said. “Of course I would have loved to have closed it out and win, but it was a great week all in all, and there’s a lot of stuff I can take from it moving forward. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

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Koepka back to work, looking to add to trophy collection

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 8:53 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Days after ensuring the U.S. Open trophy remained in his possession for another year, Brooks Koepka went back to work.

Koepka flew home to Florida after successfully defending his title at Shinnecock Hills, celebrating the victory Monday night with Dustin Johnson, Paulina Gretzky, swing coach Claude Harmon III and a handful of close friends. But he didn’t fully unwind because of a decision to honor his commitment to the Travelers Championship, becoming the first player to tee it up the week after a U.S. Open win since Justin Rose in 2013.

Koepka withdrew from the Travelers pro-am, but he flew north to Connecticut on Wednesday and arrived to TPC River Highlands around 3 p.m., quickly heading to the driving range to get in a light practice session.

“It still hasn’t sunk in, to be honest with you,” Koepka said. “I’m still focused on this week. It was just like, ‘All right, if I can get through this week, then I’m going to be hanging with my buddies next week.’ I know then maybe it’ll sink in, and I’ll get to reflect on it a little bit more.”

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Koepka’s plans next week with friends in Boston meant this week’s event outside Hartford made logistical sense. But he was also motivated to play this week because, plainly, he hasn’t had that many playing opportunities this year after missing nearly four months with a wrist injury.

“I’ve had so many months at home being on the couch. I don’t need to spend any more time on the couch,” Koepka said. “As far as skipping, it never crossed my mind.”

Koepka’s legacy was undoubtedly bolstered by his win at Shinnecock, as he became the first player in nearly 30 years to successfully defend a U.S. Open title. But he has only one other PGA Tour win to his credit, that being the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, and his goal for the rest of the season is to make 2018 his first year with multiple trophies on the mantle.

“If you’re out here for more than probably 15 events, it gives you a little better chance to win a couple times. Being on the sidelines isn’t fun,” Koepka said. “Keep doing what we’re doing and just try to win multiple times every year. I feel like I have the talent. I just never did it for whatever reason. Always felt like we ran into a buzzsaw. So just keep plugging away.”