Local stars shine in opening round of PGA Tour event in S. Korea

October 17, 2019
PGA 최경주 [AP=연합뉴스]

PGA 최경주 [AP=연합뉴스]

Much to the delight of local fans, there was a fair bit of South Korean flavor on the first page of the leaderboard at the country’s lone PGA Tour event that opened here Thursday.

South Korean An Byeong-hun is the leader after the first round of the CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges in Jeju Island, thanks to a bogey-free round of 64.

Korean Tour players Hwang Jung-gon (67) and Lee Soo-min (68) were also in the top 10, joined there by the reigning PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, Im Sung-jae, who also shot a 68.

Three other South Koreans fired 69s — Lee Kyoung-hoon, Choi Kyoung-ju and Kim Si-woo, all of the PGA Tour — to tie for 15th place.

That’s seven golfers from the home country inside the top 20. No South Korean has won the CJ Cup, which began in 2017 as the lone PGA Tour event each fall. Two Americans, Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka, have won the first two editions.

An tried to temper expectations, saying it was only one round and there are other great players in the 78-player field.

“Obviously, everyone out here has a chance to win,” An said. “I’ve been thinking all along that it’d be great to have a South Korean player win this tournament this year.”

Of the seven inside the top 20 after the first round, Choi and Kim are the only players with PGA Tour titles.

Choi, affectionately known as K.J. Choi, is a 49-year-old veteran with eight career wins. Though his last win came in 2011 and his last top-10 finish was six months ago, Choi is trying to turn back the clock this week.

“The course was in great shape and the wind didn’t blow as hard as I’d feared,” Choi said. “So it was a relatively easy round to play. I had a good feel for my shots, and my putter was working well all round. If I can hang tough, I think I’ll be able to finish in the top 10.”

Im, the reigning PGA Tour Rookie of the Year who hails from Jeju, said he fed off the support from his family and friends.

“I drove well today and my short game was pretty solid,” Im said. “I was able to make pars where I could have ended up with bogeys.”

Im said he was not as pleased with his iron shots, particularly his distance control, but sounded confident he could fix the issue right away.

“If I can address that and keep playing like this the next three rounds, I should be in contention come Sunday,” Im said.

Lee Soo-min, who has a European Tour title from three years ago, said he had to keep his emotions in check early on because, “I was a bit too excited to be playing at a PGA Tour tournament.”

“I made some key pars to settle down, and I played my game on the back nine,” said Lee, whose round had five birdies and a bogey. “It may be tough to win, but I want to do well here because it’s being held at home. It’s a long course but I don’t think I am at a disadvantage here. I think I can push for a top-10 finish.”

Lee Kyoung-hoon, who has missed four straight cuts to begin the 2019-2020 PGA Tour season, said his putter came to the rescue when he missed his spots with irons.

“If the weather holds up, I’ll try to shoot four-under on each of the next three days,” Lee said. “That should put me in a good spot.”