By Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM Columnist
PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – It helps to be quick on the uptake out on the PGA TOUR, where opportunities can vanish quicker than a pile of chips on a Vegas blackjack table. So here’s one sure thing about 26-year-old Sang-Moon Bae, the second-year TOUR pro who snatched a share of the second-round lead with a 65 at the Northern Trust Open in his first visit to Riviera Country Club: He is Pahlee beh oon dah!
That’s Korean for “Fast learner.” They call him “Moon” on TOUR, and it’s fitting, both for obvious reasons and because his career trajectory could one day resemble that of the Saturn V Rocket that launched the moonshot.
Right now, Moon is sitting on the launching pad, engines rumbling. He is coming off a strong rookie season that included a tie for fifth at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship -- where he beat former Accenture champion Ian Poulter, 4-and-3, the then reigning Masters champ Charl Schwartzel, 1-up, and Australian veteran John Senden, 1-up, before losing to Rory McIlroy, then No. 2 and current No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking.
Three weeks later he finished T-2 at the Transitions Championship, losing to then No. 1-ranked Luke Donald in a four-way playoff that included Jim Furyk and Robert Garrigus.
That’s fast company for the rookie, but no surprise for those who knew him. Consider what got Moon where he is: Born in Dae Gu, South Korea, he picked up the game at 11, turned pro at 17 and won his first event at 19 on the Korean Tour – the first of a total of 11 times he would win on the Korean, Asian and Japan professional tours.
When he joined the Japan Tour in 2009, he spoke no Japanese. One year later, he was fluent. About the only thing that has taken him two tries was PGA TOUR Qualifying School, where he failed in 2009 but graduated cum laude in 2010, shooting a final-round 66 to finish T-11 after starting day right on the number to qualify among the top 25.
That closed the deal for Bae and convinced Nick Raffaele, VP of Sports Marketing for Callaway Golf, that Bae was the genuine article, something he had pretty much known from his first exposure to Bae the year before and had been told earlier than that by the Callaway Golf Korea team of Tom Lee and Eugene Lee.
“The relationship he had with Tom and Eugene was important, and then he first came to Carlsbad to the Performance Center, I immediately noticed that he’s a good iron player and a great putter,” Raffaele said. “I knew then and there, watching him, that we needed him. Then what he did at Q-School (in 2011), to be on the number and shoot 66 in the final round -- he needed to do it and he did it. I sat down that night at the hotel and gave him his contract.”
Acclimating to life in the U.S. can be difficult in itself for any newcomer, but doing it while also trying to get used to the level of competition on the PGA TOUR can be particularly daunting. Once again, Bae is ahead of the curve. He has learned enough English to sit alone at the dais, eschewing an interpreter, and does his level best to answer everything tossed his way.
He first apologized for his English before even starting to describe what he did to the largely defenseless Riviera course on a warm, windless Friday morning.
“I can't speak English very well,” he said, smiling. “Please understand. I feel like I played very well today. I hit a bunch of good shots. I made many good putts, but I missed a couple short putts on hole No. 5 and 7. But it was not a big problem.”
Not a big problem at all. He started attacking the course from the outset, beginning at the 10thhole, his first, where he wedged his ball from 70 yards up the throat of the thin green, 6-feet from the hole and made it for his first of nine birdies. He wedged it inside three feet for birdie at No. 11, inside three feet again for birdie at No. 12, and made a 23-footer at the 13th for his fourth straight.
He failed to get up and down from the left side of the 15th, missing a four-footer for his first of three bogeys, but bounced back with a 20-footer for birdie at the 18th to start another run of four straight birdies. After a bogey at the fifth, he bounced back with his final birdie at the sixth before bogeying the second.
“You know, these greens are a little tricky and soft and a little bumpy,” Bae said. “So playing is not easy. I don't know pairing for tomorrow, but you know, many good players on the PGA TOUR, so it's very competitive. Just I will play my game.”
His manager, Jim Kelly of World Sport Group, likes Bae’s chances. Whatever happens, he thinks Bae won’t back down from the opportunity.
“He’s got tremendous heart,” Kelly said, “and that ability that you just can’t teach – to put the pedal to metal, be aggressive, and not let off. He won’t change his gameplan. He makes a lot of birdies, and he’ll keep trying.”
The opportunity is there. If Bae is hoping to get his first PGA TOUR win in his first trip to the storied Riviera Country Club, he’ll have to seize the moment, just as he’s done along the road that lead to the position he’s in.
Larry Dorman is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.