Having conquered Japan, Sang-Moon Bae is making a splash on the PGA Tour

Sunday January 29th, 2012
Sang-Moon Bae won the Japanese Tour money list last year.
Kohjiro Kinno/SI

SAN DIEGO -- As I write this, PGA Tour rookie Sang-Moon Bae is having a good week at the Farmers Insurance Open. I know very little about Bae, beyond the fact that sang is Sino-Korean for "benevolence" and moon is a variant of myung or myeong, which mean "clever" or "bright," the secondary meaning of which provides a clue to the Anglicized spelling, as in "bright moon." (Bae, of course, is Korean for "inspiration" or, if you favor the b-y-e spelling, "goodbye.")

Knowing so little about Bae, I sent an emergency email to an old friend in Tokyo, the veteran golf writer, Duke "No Relation to Ryo" Ishikawa.

Duke immediately shot back a splendid email informing me that Bae is the Korean who won last year's Japan Open and topped the money list on the Japanese PGA Tour. "The same story was written in the year 2010," Duke added, "but the player was different.

"For Koreans," Duke went on, "the Japanese tour is just a bus stop on the way to Broadway or Hollywood. You get off the bus with 14 clubs in Tokyo. Then you beat all the Japanese and make enough money to buy a bus ticket to the next stop, which is the world's strongest and richest tour."

Let's continue in the popular Q&A format that relieves me of the responsibility of crafting sentences:

Why are Korean golfers so successful in Japan?
One reason is our weak fields. The Japan tour doesn't have good-enough players. That's why many of our old-timers still have playing privileges on the regular tour. Massy Kuramoto and Kiyoshi Murota (who finished third last year at the U.S. Senior PGA Championship) will be 57 this year, but Murota still plays 16 regular tour events and Kuramoto plays 12. Isao Aoki, the first Japanese player to win on the PGA Tour, will be 70 this summer, but he played six tournaments in 2011.

Senior events?
No, regular JPGA events. We ought to call it the "Old Timers Tour." Aoki is older than my old friend Hale Irwin; he's the same age as Tom Weiskopf. Murota and Kuramoto, they're the same age as the Shark and two years older than Sir Faldo.

Sir Faldo is here at Torrey Pines.
Playing the tournament?

No, cracking wise for CBS.
That's OK, he's old.

Any other reasons why Korean golfers go to Japan?
The bigger reason is we have too easy courses almost every single week. Many of the courses were designed by a Japanese architect whose results have never been good. He gets the re-design job for many Japan Open courses -- not because he's good, but because he's a director of the Japanese Golf Association. It's all under the table, the negotiations are on the dark side. But that's why many foreign golfers agree with the Australian, Paul Sheehan, who complains that the Japan Open plays similar courses every year.

I know that golf is popular in Japan, but is it treated as a serious sport?
No, and that is the third reason. When you play at a Japanese private club, one female caddie still carries four bags the whole 18 holes.

You don't mean "carry," do you? They've got those motorized trollies that rattle along over buried tracks.
Yes, but one female caddie for four players. Then we have to stop for lunch after nine holes. You eat steak and drink a big glass of beer, like you're at Oktoberfest in Munich. It takes nearly an hour. How can you keep your concentration for the afternoon round?

Do you have to have a caddie?
I carry a PING Mantis bag myself, because it saves time and I make better scores. But most courses still charge me the normal caddie fee. I tell them that in England even Winston Churchill and Lloyd George carried their own bags, but Japanese never understand. The courses provide caddies to all golfers because they believe that's the best treatment.

You sound pretty glum. Do you think the Japanese tour will bounce back in the years ahead?
I don't know. Ryo Ishikawa is still twenty, but we see so many younger and better players like Tom Lewis, Patrick Cantley, Bud Cauley, Harris English, that whole bunch. It's because many old courses here don't like to open their doors to local kids. Plus there are no municipal-type courses in Japan. I'm very pessimistic about the future of golf in Japan.

Duke concluded by writing, "Anyway, I really want to see the Korean, Bae, win at Torrey Pines this week. Because he is our recent champion."

Post Script: Duke may not get his wish, but at least Bae is having a good week. He's currently tied for fourth heading into the final round.

 

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