As I said in yesterday’s post, I first saw Sang-Moon Bae at the 2012 Accenture Match Play Championship in Marana, Arizona, a northern suburb of Tucson. I was on the half-empty range speaking with his U.S. agent who was beside himself with this young man’s career possibilities. And as he excitedly burbled on, we watch Bae hitting balls.
I was within 20 feet of him and as I said yesterday, “His energy seems to just flow into the ball and transform it into a work of art against the sky.”
What I didn’t say was how he did in the tournament. This guy is no pretender. In his first match, he beat the great match play champion, Ian Poulter, 4&3; next was Masters Champion, Charl Schwartzel, 1up and then, Aussie, John Senden who was specifically working on playing with more freedom, also 1up. It finally took none other than Rory McIlroy to take him out in the 4th round, 3&2.
But this was not luck either. He turned pro in 2004 and beginning in 2006, he went on to win 11 tournaments on the Asian, Korean and Japanese Tours including three wins on the latter that included the Japan Open. These three tournaments gave him enough world ranking points to get him into the Accenture. His three stellar match victories there affirmed that he was no lucky waif from the Asian Tours; the guy could play.
But I must admit that as Sunday’s fourth round of the HP Byron Nelson Championship began, I didn’t think that he had much of a chance against PGA Tour superstar and winner of the PGA Championship, Keegan Bradly. After all, Bradley had shot 60 in the first round and was licking his chops that the wind was going to be blowing, creating havoc for the field chasing him.
I did note that Bae had shot three 66s, but it was more a statistical tidbit than any real chance to beat Bradley.
But Bae did go on to beat Bradley by two strokes and it all began with Bradley’s bogey on the 3rd hole and Bae’s birdie. That gave him a 1-stroke lead…and then he birdied 5, 6 and 7 to gain a 4-shot edge. That did not close the door on Bradley, but it made clear the possibility that Bae could actually win. To his credit, Bradley fought on:
I was down 4 early on. I chipped away and got it back to even with four to play, which is all that I could have asked for. And when I made that putt on 15, I was pretty confident that I was going to win this tournament.
That was a birdie to Bae’s bogey. But then Bradley bogeyed the par-3 17th by rifling a 6-iron over the green:
One of the reasons why I can’t be disappointed is because I hit that right down my line, right — perfect. I just hit it too good; I ripped it through the wind. I hit 6‑iron. I never would have hit 7. If it lands — it was right down my line. Just one of those shots that maybe I was jacked up, maybe I hit it too good, maybe the wind died. Could have been bad luck, you never know.
But I hit a great chip, a perfect putt. I read it wrong.
He also missed a short putt for birdie on 16 that was on the same line and inside Bae’s successful birdie putt. That was the end in Bradley’s mind:
I love being in contention so I figured if I could hang and hang and hang, somehow I would find a way, but just that putt on 16 was the end of it [and the bogey on 17 sealed Bae’s 2-stroke win].
I missed that putt on 16, which was very disappointing and Moon hit great shots on 17 and 18, 18 especially [for solid closing pars].
Bae summed it up this way:
I had a great time today. The course was really tough out there. Actually the winds were really strong, but I told myself, hang in there and just keep trying, keep trying, focus on my game.
That’s it. That’s what I did.
There was a slightly awkward moment as he came off the 18th green. Byron Nelson’s widow, Peggy, is there to greet the players and most of them give her a hug. And it looked like Bae wouldn’t or didn’t want to give her a hug. But it wasn’t that at all:
It’s like a dream. It’s something I’ve always dreamed of, winning on the PGA TOUR. I’ve won 11 times abroad, so it was surreal to have Mrs. Nelson there and with all the history, it was kind of — I was in awe, actually, so almost I didn’t know how to react. It was awkward because, you know, it’s such a special moment.
So he politely bowed and she bowed back and he bowed again. He will learn to be more comfortable in the American culture because he’s now planning on moving to Dallas:
Definitely! I love this place! (Laughter.) I would move to Dallas tomorrow! (Laughter.)
Actually I have apartment in LA, so I will move to Dallas. Easy traveling everywhere.
Contributing factors would be that K.J. Choi and Y.E. Yang live in Dallas and are both mentors and Bae’s Korean-American peer, John Huh lives in Dallas too.
Bae earned this win on his second year on the Tour, the same time frame when he started winning tournaments while living in Japan:
The way I find success in the second year is the first year I’m learning the courses, the conditions, sort of just the environment, getting used to living in a new country.
The second year, that’s what I have confidence to, okay, now I play well, now I know the courses, I’m more accustomed, more comfortable. Probably a lot of people don’t realize it about international players, that they need that adjustment period before they can really feel comfortable and play well.
But he wastes no time in becoming acculturated. His idiomatic English is coming right along and he learned Japanese the two years he lived there:
I still think I have a long way to go on both languages. Japanese was easier to learn, but I can’t read and write in Japanese, I can just speak.
I have confidence that my English will get better and the more confidence I get, then I like speaking!
Who knows how many more tournaments Sang-Moon Bae will win? But with his 11 international victories, his stellar match victories in the Accenture and an intelligence that helped him to gain fluency in three tough languages, it is no fluke that he won this one.