After two rounds at the Fortinet Championship, Sahith Theegala is tied with South Korea’s S.H. Kim for the lead.
You may think the next biggest story is Justin Thomas, finally finding form two weeks before the Ryder Cup, and putting together rounds of 69 to 67 to jump into contention in a tie for 6th at eight under.
However, it’s the man who sits in solo third as the weekend begins who may be the most surprising.
Sangmoon Bae, Kim’s fellow countryman and best friend, is in contention to win on the PGA Tour for the first time in eight years.
Before the current crop of Korean stars such as Tom Kim, Sungjae Im, Si Woo Kim and more, Bae was the next big thing for men’s Korean golf.
He won the 2013 HP Byron Nelson Championship and then had a banner year in 2014-15 when he won the Frys.com Open (now the Fortinet Championship) and earned a spot on the International Presidents Cup team.
But then his career hit a massive speed bump in the form of required military service for all South Korean males between the ages of 18 and 35. At 29, seemingly at the start of the peak of his career, Bae returned to South Korea after the Presidents Cup for a two-year conscription.
He tried in the courts to receive an exemption, but the only ways were to medal in the Olympics or earn a gold medal in the Asian Games. With the Olympics still a year away from reintroducing golf as a sport, Bae was forced to put his PGA Tour career on pause.
Luckily, the PGA Tour added a “mandatory obligation” exemption under the major medical and family crisis exemption. He would have a certain number of starts when he returned to the PGA Tour in 2017-18 to re-earn his status.
Understandably, Bae was rustly after his return to the Tour, finishing better than T45 just once and missing 11 cuts in 17 events. He lost his PGA Tour card and had to regain it through the Korn Ferry Tour Finals.
The next five years on the PGA Tour were similarly unkind to Bae and he entered this week’s Fortinet Championship playing the season under a past winner exemption with low status. Making his first start since the Barbasol Championship in July, Bae is 226th on the FedEx Cup points list.
But returning to the site of his last PGA Tour victory, the now 37-year-old seems to have found something with his ball-striking.
“I struggled the last couple years. Then after Barbasol I practiced at home. I was working on ball flight, not the swing,” Bae said after a second-round 66. “So I think that that was my problem the last couple years… So I figure out how the ball goes and then just focus on my like impact and the follow-through and ball flight. That makes probably just the easier game plan.”
Bae’s journey back to the top page of a PGA Tour leaderboard serves as a cautious reminder of what awaits his younger Korean counterparts. While K.J. Choi, who won 8 times in his PGA Tour career, and Y.E. Yang, the first Asian player to win a major, both completed their service before beginning their careers, S.H. Kim, Tom Kim, Sungjae Im and Si Woo Kim have all yet to complete their service.