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January 28 2011

3:28 AM

Kang ups the learning curve

LA JOLLA, Calif. -- Sunghoon Kang entered his rookie season on the PGA TOUR trying to learn from top-tier players like Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk and his countryman, K.J. Choi.

After Kang shot 64 on the North Course in the first round of the Farmers Insurance Open, though, the 24-year-old South Korean suddenly finds himself holding the advantage over those same talented pros.

On Friday, Kang will enter just the fourth round of his PGA TOUR career with a one-stroke lead over Alex Prugh and Rickie Fowler, who was earning rookie of the year honors in the States last season while Kang was doing the same in Korea. Mickelson is three strokes behind while Woods trails by five.

Kang is trying hard not to get caught up in the situation, though. If he's in the same spot on Saturday, maybe. But right now, he's sticking to more modest goals.

"I don't really think about it," Kang said. "I'm really excited to be playing with them right now.  There's Tiger, Phil, and really they are all really my goals.  I always was trying to be like them.  I'm really just happy with playing with them.  I don't really try to beat them or something.  I'm trying to learn from them all the time.

"I know they are really good, and I'll (be) trying to learn from them for this year especially and really trying to have fun.  I don't want to put any pressure on me, so I'm really just trying to have fun."

Thursday certainly was enjoyable. Kang made six birdies and one eagle while dropping no shots to par. He played the par 5s in 4 under -- which was considerably better than Woods, who didn't make a birdie on any of the four.

"Actually, this course, all the par 5s are reachable, so I really tried to keep to the fairways and it worked really well," Kang said. " And I really had a good chance on par 5s. I made two birdies and 1 eagle. So I think I really have done well on par 5s today. That's why I played very well today."

Kang's eagle came at the 14th hole as he played the back nine in 31. He had 220 yards to the pin and hit a hybrid just next to the pin and through the green. Not to worry, Kang chipped in from there.

Kang was definitely hitting on all cylinders in the first round, finding 9 of 14 fairways, 14 of 18 greens and using just 27 putts. But he is wary of the South Course, traditionally the more challenging of the two, on Friday.

"I think the South course is way more difficult because the greens are way firmer and the course is a little bit longer," Kang said. "So still the fairways are pretty wide, so I can hit it pretty hard with the driver.  I think if I hit my irons pretty good tomorrow, I think I'll still have a good round.

"I think I've really got to hit the right spot on the green, because the greens are really hard out there.  So I have to use the undulations to get it close to the hole."

Kang started playing golf in 1996. His father, Heenam, was a single digit handicapper and Kang starting accompanying him to the course.

"I thought it just looked pretty fun," Kang said simply. "I told my dad I want to try golfing, and that's why I started.  … I went out to the golf course and it was so beautiful. Everything's really green, and little bit of wind and everything's perfect. So I really felt great on that day, and I told my dad I really want to play golf, and he supports me a lot."

With his father's blessing, Kang went to Dallas in 2002 to follow his dream of playing the PGA TOUR and started taking lessons from Hank Haney. It's there that Kang learned to speak English so well. He took lessons from Haney for five years but as the instructor became more involved with Tiger Woods, Kang gravitated toward a California teaching pro named Don Brown.

Kang, who was a semifinalist at the U.S. Junior and U.S. Amateur Public Links, turned pro in 2007 at the age of 20. His older brother, Sungdo, is his caddy. There's a seven-year difference in their ages and Sungdo has been a stabilizing influence for his sibling.

"Even I kind of get angry or something, and he helps me a lot with that," Kang said. "He doesn't really want to push me too hard.  In whatever I do, he really tries to understand me.  I think we have a good relationship because he's my brother."

If Kang continues to play well over the next three days, Sungdo's counsel could be a big benefit for the young pro.

"Even (if) I play with Tiger and Phil, I know they're so much better than me right now, so I'm really trying to learn from them," Kang said. "I really want to learn how they play and how they do around the greens and how they work the ball and how they practice, and how their pre shot routines are. I really want to learn. Yeah, I just want to learn."

On Thursday, though, Kang was the one giving lessons. – Helen Ross

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