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Where EAST meets the Northwest

FORE! Collin Morikawa tees off on the 17th hole during the first round of the Travelers Championship golf tournament at TPC River Highlands on June 25, 2020, in Cromwell, Connecticut. The Professional Golfers’ Association quietly resumed play last month. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

PGA RESTART. Sung Kang of South Korea watches his tee shot from the 15th hole during the first round of the Travelers Championship golf tournament at TPC River Highlands on June 25, 2020, in Cromwell, Connecticut. The Professional Golfers’ Association quietly resumed play last month. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

PGA RESUMES. Sungjae Im of South Korea lines up his putt on the 15th green during the first round of the RBC Heritage golf tournament on June 18, 2020 in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

From The Asian Reporter, V30, #08 (July 6, 2020), pages 9 & 10.

Morikawa leads Asian golfers in PGA restart

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

As other professional sports leagues prepare to start, or resume, their seasons this month, one league quietly returned to play in June. Very quietly. The Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) picked up where it left off in March, playing three tournaments in front of empty, silent galleries. While no athletes with Asian roots won those tournaments, several notable finishes highlight the present and future of eastern PGA stars.

When COVID-19 shut down the world in early March, the PGA had just completed the Arnold Palmer Invitational on March 8. At that tournament, athletes with Asian roots were all over the top ten. South Korean Sungjae Im, age 22, finished in third place, fizzling during the weekend after a promising start. So far this season, Sungjae had already won the Honda Classic in March and finished second in the Sanderson Farms Championship last September.

Behind Sungjae at the Arnold Palmer Invitational sat two other South Korea-born participants: New Zealand’s Danny Lee tied for fifth place and Sung Kang, who was tied for ninth with Harris English and Collin Morikawa.

Lee was born in South Korea, but became a citizen of New Zealand after his parents moved there when he was eight years old. Now in his eighth year on the PGA Tour, Lee has just one win, back in 2015, and he notched his first second-place finish this season. Sung Kang has been on the PGA Tour one year longer than Lee, collecting his first win at the AT&T Byron Nelson in 2019.

Morikawa, a Japanese American with Chinese roots, is the newcomer of the bunch but he’s got a promising future. Previously ranked as the world’s top amateur, Morikawa has been on the PGA Tour for just a year, but already picked up his first Tour win in 2019, in just his eighth start, qualifying him for this season too.

After the Palmer Invitational, the league paused along with the rest of the sports world to adjust to COVID-19. The PGA cancelled or postponed 12 tournaments, and the season resumed on June 11 with the postponed Charles Schwab Challenge.

The Charles Schwab Challenge was played to an empty gallery to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but the absence of spectators didn’t prevent a dramatic finish. A tightly packed final round left two players tied at the top of the leaderboard and six more within two shots of the lead. The two tied for first were Collin Morikawa and Daniel Berger.

Berger had finished in the top ten of the last three tournaments before the break, including a fourth-place finish at the Honda Classic. And Morikawa, in addition to his ninth-place finish before the break, had made 22 consecutive cuts, the best rookie streak since Tiger Woods.

At the Charles Schwab Challenge, Morikawa had his chances to put away the win, both before and after the playoff hole. He missed a six-foot birdie on the 18th hole for the win, and then flubbed a three-foot putt on the first playoff hole to give Berger the victory.

In the next tournament, the RBC Heritage, Berger followed up his win with a third-place finish, but no Asian or Asian-American players put up competitive scores. Morikawa kept his cut streak alive, finishing in a tie for 64th, two strokes ahead of Danny Lee, who finished in a tie for 70th.

The best performance by a player with Asian roots came from Taiwan’s C.T. Pan. On the Tour since 2017, Pan earned his first win in 2019 — at the RBC Heritage. But he didn’t play nearly as well this year on the same course, shooting a nine under to finish tied for 52nd.

June’s final tournament was the Travelers Championship, where a new group of Asian and Asian-American golfers showed their talent, and others fell by the wayside. One of the bigger disappointments was Collin Morikawa, who finally missed his first cut; C.T. Pan and Danny Lee joined him below the cut line.

Several South Korean golfers had good finishes. Sung Kang and Sungjae Im made the cut but finished in 46th and 58th, respectively. However, Sungjae Im’s season has been strong enough so far that he sits in third place in the FedEx Cup rankings despite the weak finish.

Tied with Sung was another South Korean golfer, Byeong Hun An, in his sixth year on the PGA Tour. And sitting right outside the top ten were South Korea’s Seung-Yul Noh and Si Woo Kim, who both shot thirteen strokes under par to tie for 11th, their best finishes this season.

But the best performance from a golfer with Asian roots came from Kevin Na, the outstanding Korean-American golfer whose name has graced this column before. Na already notched his fourth career PGA victory this season way back in October, his third straight year with a Tour win.

At the Travelers Championship, Na displayed excellent consistency, shooting a 66 on each of the first two days, to sit five shots off the pace. He shot a 65 on Saturday, the fifth-best score on the day, but he was still stuck five shots back. It would take a great Sunday from him and a bad day by the leaders to allow him to make up that ground.

Na had started each of the first three rounds with a strong front nine, picking up two strokes each time. But on Sunday, he couldn’t keep up that pace, balancing a first-hole birdie with a bogey on seven. Even three birdies down the stretch, including a 23-foot putt on the 18th hole, couldn’t close the gap, so Na ended his day in fifth place, three shots behind tournament winner Dustin Johnson.

Just like Sungjae Im, Na is sure to appear on the leaderboard again this season and perhaps even finish atop one. Even if neither one does, young players like Collin Morikawa and a bunch of talented South Koreans will ensure that Asian-American sports fans will have plenty of golfers to follow this PGA season — and beyond.

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