Wednesday, February 28, 2024

By Chuah Choo Chiang

Pictures credit Getty Images

In golf, they say timing is everything and golf’s glory hunters from Asia have been in perfect synch and harmony in making the quantum leap from the Korn Ferry Tour to the ultra-competitive and rewarding PGA Tour.

With five tournaments remaining in the regular season which rewards the top-25 players with PGA Tour cards and another 25 available at the Korn Ferry Tour Finals which comprises of three events, China’s Carl Yuan and Korean duo Byeong Hun An and newcomer Seonghyeong Kim have safely secured their dream cards.

The talented trio must now be gleefully rubbing their hands in anticipation of next season’s PGA Tour following Commissioner Jay Monahan’s announcement of “substantial changes” last week which will see eight tournaments enjoying greatly enhanced purses, revised field sizes for the FedExCup Playoffs, and a reimagined fall schedule that will feature up to three no-cut, limited-field international events.

If there wasn’t already enough motivation for other Asian hopefuls still in the chase for their pot of gold and more importantly, the opportunity to etch their names into golf’s history pages, the time is now ripe for the likes of China’s Marty Zecheng Dou and highly-rated, Kevin Yu of Chinese Taipei to press on in their bids to secure their cards, with Dou and Yu hovering around the top-25.

As it stands, the established Asian stars have continued to blaze a new trail, with Japanese hero Hideki Matsuyama winning twice already this season to equal K.J. Choi’s record of eight PGA TOUR victories by an Asian golfer, and Korea’s Sungjae Im and K.H. Lee each winning once to raise their career tally to two wins.

And there was also India’s Anirban Lahiri’s an eye-catching runner-up finish at The Players Championship in March to pocket a handsome US$2.18 million, his biggest career pay cheque yet. Si Woo Kim, a three-time Tour winner, and C.T. Pan of Chinese Taipei have also performed well to virtually seal their places in the FedExCup Playoffs this August, which no Asian has yet to hold aloft the ultimate prize on Tour.

In broad strokes, next year’s FedExCup Playoffs will feature revised field sizes. The top 70 will make the first event of the Playoffs, the FedEx St. Jude Championship at TPC Southwind in Memphis. The top 50 will qualify for the BMW Championship, and the top 30, as usual, will compete for the FedExCup at the Tour Championship at East Lake.

The rewards awaiting those who perform at the highest level against the best fields in the game are staggering, with massive purse increases being announced for 2023. The season-long FedExCup prize pot currently offers US$75 million in bonus pool, with US$18 million alone going to the winner.

While there will be more money than ever to shoot for, Rory McIlroy, a 21-time PGA Tour winner, was spot on by saying the PGA Tour is very much about playing for “legacy” as well as decades-old tournaments that make up the annual Tour schedule comprise of legendary names such as Snead, Palmer, Nicklaus, Watsons and of course, Woods as champions in many of those events. “It’s very important to me. It means a lot, going back to history and tradition and putting your name on trophies that have the legends of the game on them,” said McIlroy, a four-time major winner.

The likes of Yuan, An and Kim will have the same opportunity to chase golf history, as well the millions of dollars on offer.

For China’s Yuan, his promotion onto the PGA Tour is well deserved following a huge sacrifice to put country before self last year. He was in the mix for a PGA Tour card but cut short his campaign to represent China in the Tokyo Olympics. With grit, determination and an abundance of talent, the 25-year-old needed just seven tournaments to become the first golfer from this season’s Korn Ferry Tour class to secure Tour-bound status.

“I know I have the ability … I shouldn’t be afraid to dream big,” said Yuan, who won once and posted three other top-10s to surpass the projected points threshold and currently ranks No. 1. “I had a pretty good year last year, a few high finishes, played some good golf and gained a lot of confidence. I had no regrets playing in the Olympics. It meant a lot to me personally as it is every athlete’s goal to be in the Olympics,” added the University of Washington alum, who will become only the third mainland Chinese golfer after Dou and Xinjun Zhang to hold a PGA Tour card.

Ranked as high as 29th in the world and once a regular name in the top-100, An, 30, saw his world collapse briefly when he lost his PGA Tour card last year but said it was a timely wake-up call. He rededicated himself to the game with new coach Sean Foley and in his third start on the Korn Ferry Tour claimed victory which helped seal a quick return to the main Tour.

“The motivation is always in me. I always want to be best golfer in the world,” said An, a member of the 2019 Presidents Cup. “That’s what everyone is playing for. I had a terrible season (in 2021) and then it kind of hit me, and I’m like okay, let’s try to spend more time into golf and see what it feels like to work harder.”

Monahan revealed plans to return to a calendar-year schedule from 2024, saying: “These changes will further strengthen the FedExCup and create a strong, coordinated global schedule and offering a more compelling product for our players, fans and partners.

“On the PGA Tour, our members compete for the opportunity to add their names to history books, and, yes, significant financial benefits, without having to wrestle with any sort of moral ambiguity. And pure competition creates relevancy and context, which is what fans need and expect in order to invest their time in a sport and in a player. That’s the beauty of the PGA Tour.”

It can be certain Asia’s flagbearers will be chasing their own slice of history as well.

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