By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- A year ago, Sang-moon Bae was watching on TV as K.J. Choi beat David Toms in a playoff at THE PLAYERS Championship.
On Tuesday, the 26-year-old was playing a practice round with the defending champion on the same Stadium Course.
Bae, who is a rookie on the PGA TOUR this year, comes to THE PLAYERS Championship ranked 39th in the FedExCup with just under $1 million in earnings. He already has two top-10s, a playoff loss at the Transitions Championship in March and a tie for fifth at the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship where he lost in the quarterfinals to world No. 1 Rory McIlroy.
Bae earned his PGA TOUR card in December, finishing 11th at the qualifying tournament after a solid season on the Japan Tour where he won three times. He became fluent in Japanese last year and has made a concerted effort to learn English since coming to the United States in January.
"I'm still learning," Bae said shyly, handling the entire interview on Wednesday without a translator. "I can't speak it very well. I study very hard -- read a book, listen on the TV and watch.
Then he smiled. "I can speak Korean very well," said Bae, known as Moon to his friends.
Bae has been struck by the firm greens and tricky wind at TPC Sawgrass. "This course is very hard," he said. The 17th hole has been of particular interest to him, as it is for most first-timers -- players and fans alike.
"These courses are amazing," Bae said. "The 17th hole is a very small green, a lot smaller than on the TV. Yesterday was not much windy, so excited. I will do my best this week."
Bae said he hopes to make par or birdie every day this week on the signature hole with the island green. He found dry land the first time he played the 17th hole, ran over and made the putt.
"That's why he didn't hit any more (shots)," said Steven Cho, who is Bae's personal assistant. “He wanted to keep his confidence up."
Bae is visiting a new city and learning the nuances of a new course every week on the PGA TOUR. So far the young man, who has 11 international victories, has handled his rookie season well.
"PGA TOUR is a very competitive," he said. "Many good players are here. Every course is amazing, nice, many galleriues. It's my dream. I'm learning everywhere. I'm a rookie so i will do my best always."