Huh makes history by winning 2012 PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year award

December 05, 2012
Larry Dorman,

There was something special about John Huh receiving the PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year award on Tuesday.

It wasn't just that Huh was the most deserving choice among a strong list of rookies that included other first-time TOUR winners Jonas Blixt and Ted Potter Jr., though he was. Not only did Huh win the Mayakoba Golf Classic in just his fifth start of 2012, he came from seven strokes off the pace to tie Australian veteran Robert Allenby and then won in a dramatic eight-hole playoff.

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Not even the way Huh ended the year -- with four top-10 finishes, as the only rookie to make it to the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola and just the fifth to do so since the inception of the FedExCup and, at 22, the youngest since Sergio Garcia at 21 in 2007 -- qualified as the defining element.

Part of it was written between the two lines of his typically modest reaction upon learning he had been chosen the TOUR's top rookie.

"It's a great honor to have this award, especially as a Korean," Huh said. "It's really hard to explain just how I feel right now."

Huh's use of the phrase, "especially as a Korean," is significant. He made history as the first player of Korean descent to be so honored by his PGA TOUR peers.

Although born in New York, Huh spent just two months here before returning with his parents to their country of origin. He lived his first 12 years in South Korea, and remembers hearing about K.J. Choi's first two TOUR victories on Korean TV in 2001.

His family returned to the States when Huh was 13, and he learned the basics here, first at a Chicago-area municipal course and then in Los Angeles, mainly at Hansen Dam, a muni where he met his current caddie Zeke Salas, then an assistant pro. Salas told Golf Digest in September that Huh was one of several young players who hung around at Hansen, and he was the one he at first thought had "no chance."

"There were at least three other people at that time at that golf course I thought would go on to have professional golf careers," Salas said. "Not John by any means."

That opinion changed when Huh made it to the Round of 16 at the 2007 U.S. Junior Amateur. Salas could see just how competitive this kid was. He worked tirelessly on his game, scraping together what he could for the $125 entry fee into Pepsi Twilight Tour events. Both his parents worked odd jobs, and his older brother left college to get a job to help fund John's golf.

During the hardscrabble days, Huh built the confidence there to go back to South Korea to compete for a spot on the Korean Tour. He was playing there when Y.E Yang shocked the golf world by beating Tiger Woods head-to-head in the PGA Championship at Hazeltine. He remembers what he thought when Yang hit the soaring 205-yard shot with a hybrid over the flag at the 72nd hole to set up the birdie that broke Woods's string of 14 victories with the 54-hole lead at a major.

"It was an unbelievable feeling," Huh said. "It really gave us hope that we can play and that we can beat anybody and that we can represent the best players in the world."

Identifying with his ancestral homeland is one way to honor his parents, to give back to his family for the sacrifices they made to help him get where he is, for making it possible for him to play for three years on the Korean Tour, where, as an 18-year-old, he was also named Rookie of the Year.

"All I can say, it really helped me 100 percent," he said of playing the Korean circuit in 2009-11 after being ruled academically ineligible at Cal State Northridge because he lacked two core curriculum courses. "I didn't really have a place to play, so I choose to go to Korea. I think it really gave me all of the experience that I possibly can experience on TOUR.

"And I really took all of the positive things that I saw over in Korea and took everything this year and I used it really wisely."

Huh has no problem grasping the larger significance of things. He knows that his success in 2012, combined with the PGA TOUR Qualifying School results from the past two years, makes this moment in time about more than just him.

What happened over the weekend at PGA West at the Nicklaus Tournament Course and the PGA Stadium Course is that 25-year-old Dong-hwan Lee of Seoul, South Korea, shot 25-under-par over six rounds to win the event. Lee, who closed with a 5-under-par 67, was one of three Koreans among the top 25 finishers. The others, Jin Park, 23, from Seoul, shot 22 under to tie for seventh and 17-year-old Si Woo Kim, also from Seoul, shot 18 under to tie for 20th.

Six players of Korean descent, Huh included, have joined the PGA TOUR in the past two years. Counting the teenage Kim -- who will be limited to sponsor's exemptions and Monday qualifying until his status becomes official when he turns 18 in June -- this brings to 10 the number of Koreans with PGA TOUR cards for 2013.

And two years further down the road some of those same players could be competing for the International team when the Presidents Cup is played in South Korea for the first time.

Whether this latest spike in promising young Korean players on the PGA TOUR will blossom into a trend or wither into a statistical blip won't be determined for years. Differing theories still abound about what has prevented Asian males from succeeding at the elite levels of pro golf in numbers remotely comparable to women. They range from the mandatory two-year military obligation for Korean men to the lack of playing opportunities for young players in Japan to everything in between.

Still, the success gap in professional golf between Asian women and Asian men is a chasm. Eight of the top 10 women players in the world are Asian, with Asians comprising 59 percent of the Top 100 in the Rolex Women's World Golf Rankings. There are no Asian men among the top 10 in the Official World Golf Rankings, and just nine among the top 100.

Hiroyuki Fujita of Japan, at No. 43, is the highest ranked Asian player in the world. Down a few rungs at No. 47, is Choi. Next, at 65, is Sang-moon Bae of South Korea. And at No. 71, with an American flag next to his name, is John Huh, three spots below Kevin Na, another U.S.-born son of Korean parents.

Na and Huh developed a friendship during the past year after Na reached out to the rookie, offering whatever advice and counsel he could to help feel more comfortable on TOUR. Huh would like to pay that forward with some of the rookies he meets next season.

"Hopefully I can help other Koreans, if I could," he said. "But not only Koreans, but any player who comes up to me and asks me, I would really appreciate and try to help them out as possibly I can."

An intense competitor whose favorite quote is, "The pain of sacrifice is nothing compared to the pain of regret," John Huh "would really appreciate" the opportunity to help some rookies out. That's a special Rookie of the Year.

Larry Dorman is a free-lance columnist for PGATOUR.COM. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.