Setting the stage: Justin Suh's optimism fueled his path to PGA TOUR
September 14, 2022
By Kevin Prise , PGATOUR.COM
Justin Suh interview after winning the Korn Ferry Tour Championship
As they embarked on professional careers soaked with potential, four players shared the stage at the 2019 Travelers Championship in Connecticut.
Three of them -- Collin Morikawa, Viktor Hovland and Matthew Wolff -- went on to win PGA TOUR titles more rapidly than anyone could have expected. The transition to the TOUR is rarely that easy.
The fourth member of the group learned that first-hand.
The resume that Justin Suh compiled at the University of Southern California could more than hold its own with his three peers.
Six months atop the world amateur rankings. A Pac-12 Player of the Year award. And a spot on the All-American first team.
But what wasn’t known when the moderator alluded to the bright future that lay ahead for the four players is that Suh was nursing a wrist injury that would send his swing off-kilter. That malady, and a global pandemic, delayed his path to the PGA TOUR.
While Morikawa and Wolff both won on TOUR within weeks of that press conference, and Hovland earned his TOUR card via that year’s Korn Ferry Tour Finals, Suh failed to advance out of the first stage of Korn Ferry Tour Q-School.
He is known for a relentless optimism, but even he could not find a silver lining.
“It sucks,” he said. “Absolutely sucks.”
There was no chance at redemption the next year, as Q-School was one of the many tournaments canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic. While his peers were on the PGA TOUR, he spent time on PGA TOUR Latinoamerica and was a regular at Monday qualifiers. Suddenly, the path seemed undefined.
But this is where that optimism was so valuable, allowing him to keep working even as his future was full of uncertainty.
Progress was made last fall, when he earned Korn Ferry Tour status via Q-School. The season got off to an inauspicious start but as the spring came, Suh’s talent began to shine through. There was a stretch of nine events where his worst finish was T27. The consistency continued into the summer and then he saved his best for last, earning his first professional title at the season-ending Korn Ferry Tour Championship presented by United Leasing & Finance.
With top-25s in two-thirds of his 24 starts, including 10 top-10s, Suh finished atop the Korn Ferry Tour’s season-long points race, which earned him fully-exempt status and spots in THE PLAYERS Championship and the first U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club, not far from where he was a collegiate star. At this week’s Fortinet Championship, the San Jose, California, native is making his first start as a PGA TOUR member just 90 miles from his hometown.(Elise Tallent/PGA TOUR)
“Justin is one of the happiest people that I’ve ever met in my entire life,” said longtime friend and fellow TOUR player Joseph Bramlett, who won the Korn Ferry Tour Championship a year before Suh did. The two now live in Las Vegas and practice together almost every day when they’re home.
“I haven’t once seen him feel sorry for himself. I haven’t once seen him dejected. The kid just shows up every day with a great attitude, and it’s impressive.”
Suh wasn’t about to let his early struggles, including that Q-School misstep, derail him. He’d been building toward a professional golf career since his dad first put a plastic club in his hand around the age of 4.
Suh followed in the footsteps of his older sister Hannah, an acclaimed junior golfer who eventually played for Cal. She’d get a lesson, then teach him what she had been taught. They’d spend hours competing at the course, with stakes like push-ups or the “five bucks we saved up.” This environment kept Suh from ever getting burnt out, he figures.
Her success also fueled him.
“I was always left at home when she was flying to all these tournaments,” Suh laughed. “I remember that was one of the goals; I wanted where my parents would fly me out to play a golf tournament. That was the one goal.”
Suh moved from California to Georgia when he was 6 – his parents are in the restaurant business, and they had an opportunity there – and then back to California at age 8.
Competitive by nature and physically well-rounded, Suh has a pure love for the game – he fondly recalls crucial putts and momentum swings in Junior Golf Association of Northern California events – Suh fulfilled his first golf goal and flew to compete at some of the biggest junior events. He got on the radar of several college coaches across the country, including USC’s Chris Zambri, and the interest was reciprocal.
“He’s got to be one of the more, if not the most skilled, mentally that I’ve ever coached,” Zambri said. “He doesn’t go down any negative roads, which is interesting to be around as another human being; most of us turn down those roads often. I enjoyed witnessing that and just learning from it personally.
“There’s a difference between being a positive person and being mentally skilled, dealing with pressure well, and he does it all.”
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After all those secondhand lessons from his sister, Justin’s golf sense was well developed into his collegiate career, but there was one area he needed to refine.
He needed to hit the ball higher to compete on the longer, tougher course setups that he encountered in college golf. He and instructor Bill Johnson – Justin’s swing coach to this day – went about building a swing to maximize long-term potential and success.
“He had an interesting swing,” Zambri said about Suh before college. “He was a steep low-ball hitter, and we decided he might need to change that, and he just dove in. He made that commitment, where a lot of people don’t have the foresight to buy into something like that; it might hurt their score the next handful of times they play.
“He waited a bit to really dive in, until tournaments were over, then he just dove in and never looked back.”
It led Suh to become a two-time First Team All-American and the world’s No. 1 amateur. It led him to a seat at a table alongside Hovland, Morikawa and Wolff in Connecticut. He just had a speed bump on the road to the biggest stage – and perhaps he’ll be stronger for it.
“It’s not who I am,” Suh said of keeping the setbacks from overtaking him. “I’ve always just lived my life and whatever happens, happens; control what I can control, and I just needed to get better. I couldn’t do anything about those guys being so successful early; I just knew I had to get better.
“I worked hard, worked on the right stuff, asked a lot of people what to work on, got gradually better, and I’m grateful I’m in the position I’m in now.”
While a fierce competitor, Suh also enjoys the sweeter side of life. He fondly recalls his parents’ ice cream machine and was such a regular at a Korean barbecue restaurant in Los Angeles that his picture is on the wall.I haven’t once seen him feel sorry for himself. I haven’t once seen him dejected. The kid just shows up every day with a great attitude, and it’s impressive
In high school, he’d play pickup basketball into the darkness. Kobe Bryant is one of his sports heroes, and he embraces the “Mamba Mentality.” He lived in a house with the tennis team in college, and he enjoys an occasional pickleball game and a hike – although he admits it can be tricky to find time for outdoor adventuring on the road, and that he’s in search of a new hobby.
His favorite part of winning the Korn Ferry Tour Championship wasn’t the trophy, or the fully-exempt TOUR status, or the access to some of golf’s biggest events. It was winning a bet with Bramlett – last year’s Korn Ferry Tour Championship winner.
“We played for dinner this week, so he owes me a dinner,” said a beaming Suh. “Something expensive. Something really expensive.”
Success might have been expected, but it’s not given, and Suh knows that. That’s why, after clinching his TOUR card in August, his voice broke as he recorded a selfie video for social media. Reflecting on his journey, all the way back to those days chasing his sister with a plastic club in his hands, and the people who supported him along the way made him emotional.
His voice broke, if just a touch.
“It was a moment of being overwhelmed with emotions,” Suh said afterward. “It was a moment to reflect on what I’ve done and what I’ve achieved, and to be officially #TOURBound was a big moment.
“Since the day I started playing golf, it was always the dream.”