The Korean brigade KH Lee, Tom Kim, Si Woo Kim and Sungjae Im at the Presidents Cup. Inset: Hideki Matsuyama. Pic: Getty Images
Tis the season to be jolly, fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la … Asian golfers have been merry, fa-la-la-la, la-la-la-la … (Writer’s note: Lines to be hummed in the tune of the famous Christmas carol)
Indeed, it has been a happy year to remember for Asian golf following standout performances and historic achievements by the game’s best from the Far East as they continue to stamp their mark on the globe’s elite playground, the PGA Tour.
From Tom Kim to Sungjae Im and Hideki Matsuyama to K.H. Lee, there were many more birdies than bogeys for the region’s finest as they made it a memorable 2022. On the Korn Ferry Tour, Carl Yuan and Kevin Yu led a strong contingent of five Asians making the grade onto the PGA TOUR and even 53-year-old Asian legend, Thongchai Jaidee got into the act with a maiden victory on PGA TOUR Champions as he became the first Thai winner on the over-50 circuit.
Outside the ropes, new and enhanced partnerships announced this month between the PGA TOUR DP World Tour with Japan Golf Tour, Korea PGA and Professional Golf Tour of India will mean that the region’s top talents will enjoy career pathways to get themselves onto the globe’s leading international golf leagues.
The big story of the year surely belongs to the 20-year-old Tom Kim.
Who can forget his stunning rise as he charmed the golf world with his youthful bravado, boundless energy and massive talent by winning twice at the Wyndham Championship and Shriners Children’s Open and became only the sixth player in history to do so before turning 21, even younger than a certain Tiger Woods to achieve the rare feat.
There was also the raw emotion on full display at the Presidents Cup at Quail Hollow Club where Kim, who at 15th is the highest ranked Asian in the world now, stood out as the brightest amongst the stars on parade where he produced an array of clutch shots matched by fist-pumping and cap throwing celebrations that breathed life into the International Team. His captain, Trevor Immelman hailed Kim as “a tremendous gift to our sport.”
The past 12 months has no doubt been a whirlwind for the boy whose English name was derived from Thomas the Tank Engine, a children’s book and cartoon character which he adored as a kid. “I mean, I’m playing on the PGA Tour as a 20-year-old. I’m a five-year-old at Disneyland for sure,” said Kim.
The Korean juggernaut also saw the likes of Sungjae Im, K.H. Lee and Si Woo Kim joining in the show, with smooth-swinging Im coming agonisingly close to becoming the first Asian to lift the PGA Tour’s ultimate prize, the FedExCup. At the season-ending Tour Championship, the 24-year-old finished tied second behind winner Rory McIlroy to post the best ever finish by an Asian golfer.
With eight other top-10s including three runner-up finishes, Im was richly rewarded with a bountiful US$5.5 million to raise his career haul to US$17 million since bursting onto the PGA Tour in 2019. He also held his first ever lead at a major en route to finishing T8 at the Masters Tournament for his second top-10 at Augusta National in three years. To cap his year, Im also tied the knot in December.
K.H. Lee was the other big winner in 2022 as he successfully defended his AT&T Byron Nelson title, joining golf greats Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson as the only other players to successfully defend the tournament. He did so in style by shooting a career best 9-under 63 in the final round for a one-stroke victory over hometown hero Jordan Spieth.
“It’s amazing feeling. So I can’t believe, still feels like dreaming,” said a delighted Lee, who later qualified for his first Tour Championship in August to make it a record of three Asians qualifying for the lucrative FedExCup season-finale.
A back injury hampered Japanese superstar Hideki Matsuyama during the early portion of the year but not before he equalled the record of most wins by an Asian golfer where he notched his eighth career title at the Sony Open in Hawaii in January. He fought from being five shots back with nine holes remaining to beat Russell Henley in a playoff, courtesy of a stunning 3 wood approach from 276 yards that landed three feet of the flag for his winning eagle putt. It was one of the best shots of the year.
Korea’s K.J. Choi, who also has eight wins, remembered the first time he saw Matsuyama play: “He had a special golfing skill and was different from others. He had techniques which was unique,” said Choi. “It is important he doesn’t get injured. That’s the top thing. If he keeps his condition, he definitely can win more events. I always think athletes are here to break records. I’m happy Hideki achieved what I have fulfilled,” said Choi, who was the first Korean to earn a PGA TOUR card in 1999.
While a star-studded U.S. Team secured its 12th victory in the Presidents Cup following a 17.5 – 12.5 victory in September, the International Team savoured some small victories which augur well for the future. A record of four Koreans – Tom Kim, Si Woo Kim, Sungjae Im, and K.H. Lee – made the team and showed they can become the backbone of future International Teams by being involved in 7.5 of the total points won during the week.
The emergence of Asia’s rising stars through the Korn Ferry Tour in 2022 will see young talents Marty Dou and Carl Yuan proudly flying the flag for China on the PGA TOUR in the New Year while Kevin Yu, a former world amateur No. 1, will join close friend and mentor C.T. Pan as representatives from Chinese Taipei. Korean rookie S.H. Kim and Byeong Hun An also earned PGA Tour cards via the pathway circuit to ensure Asia will continue to be strongly represented in 2023.
An, who was ranked in the world’s top-50 until losing his PGA TOUR card in 2021, summed up the Asian spirit as new challenges await. “The motivation is always in me. I always want to be best golfer in the world. That’s what everyone is playing for,” he said.
Note: The writer is senior director, marketing and communications – APAC for the PGA TOUR and is based in Malaysia.