What happens when a player's only source of golf education is taking lessons from his 18-handicap mother and watching YouTube clips of Tiger Woods and Adam Scott? We give you Sang-Moon Bae, possessor of one of the handsomest swings on the PGA Tour and winner of the HP Byron Nelson Championship in May.
Growing up in South Korea, Bae had no professional instruction and little competition until he turned pro at age 18. But "Moon," as he is called by his small clutch of friends in America, has proved that non-traditional routes to swing excellence still exist.
After tearing up the Japan Golf Tour in 2011, Bae joined the PGA Tour last year. He has since won $2.9 million. Not bad for a guy who learned largely through his computer screen. "Moon is one of the few players who other players stop to watch," says Rick Smith, who began helping Bae with his swing at the Phoenix Open earlier this year. "When he's on, his ball-striking is spectacular. His balance, athleticism and hand-eye coordination are fantastic. And his swing has almost no compensations. It's the type of swing everyone's eyes are drawn to."
Smith says that Bae tinkers with his setup and swing constantly, but in a curious way. "He experiments, but only to find ways to get back to being simple and correct," Smith says. "He's a disciplined guy and prefers a disciplined approach. He's a fanatic about his grip, posture, alignment and ball position. And we work on a lot of three-quarter swings to help develop his shotmaking and imagination."
Bae says two thoughts rule his swing. "I try to have a wide arc swinging back and then make a full follow-through. When I do those two things, a lot of speed happens in between. I want a lot of speed and to be aggressive. I learned that watching Tiger."
Smith says Bae's only poor tendencies are to swing excessively in to out and to push his pelvis toward the ball during the swing. "He's addressed those things well," Smith says. "Stabilizing his pelvis helps him keep his chest down through impact, which reduces some of that in-to-out shape."
Bae's goal is to contend in more tournaments, and there's little to distract him. He has shared an apartment with a friend in Los Angeles since the beginning of 2012, and is only now looking into finding a permanent home, in Dallas. He's an obsessive player/practicer, to such an extent that he took three weeks off in July only at Smith's urging. "I eat, sleep and play golf," Bae says. "Sometimes some good Korean food at night, when I can find it."