The Ride Of His Life, Bumps And All
The ride on the Korean subway system from northern Seoul to Bundang in the south is 32 stops, usually two transfers. It can take two hours, but usually not more than 90 minutes. The cars are impeccably clean and quiet, the doors hermetically seal more than close, and the clientele isn't a distraction, equal parts business-suited types and earphones-sharing teens. It is a pleasant-enough ride for junior executives on their way in and out of the city center. But it is not the sort of trip a professional golfer takes to go practice every day.
But John Huh didn't mind the ride, doesn't want you to make a big deal about it, dismisses the incongruity of it all. Yet that is the essence of his story, one inexplicable development after the other. For the PGA Tour's leading Rookie of the Year candidate, his style, his looks, his physique and his presence are decidedly unremarkable. But his results, like his resolve and his family's persistence, are just the opposite.
Born in the United States to Korean parents, Huh is just 22 and has been a professional since he was 18, but no one predicted a first year on the PGA Tour like this one. In less than nine months he has gone from barely having status to finding parking spaces with his name on them for courtesy cars that until recently he didn't have a license to drive. He has earned more than $2.2 million, won an eight-hole playoff and jumped 482 spots in the World Golf Ranking.
In another, more logical universe, John Huh never would have happened. None of his story makes sense. Players with a victory in their rookie year on the PGA Tour usually didn't get there as the last man to qualify at the first and final stages of Q school. Players with a victory in their rookie year on the PGA Tour didn't opt out of their senior year of high school golf because of the finances, or learn the game by hitting scavenged range balls next to the pro's lesson tee just so they might overhear some tips they couldn't afford. Players on the PGA Tour don't come from households with immigrant parents who work in the kitchen of tiny Korean restaurants or as self-taught handymen. Players on the PGA Tour generally weren't brought up in small apartments with a brother who left college to support the family and help pay golf entry fees. But this has been John Huh's bumpy ride.
Huh, whose attitude exudes the diligence and nonplussed confidence of a video gamer beating the latest version of Call of Duty on the first day out of the box, has never minded the ride. You do what you have to do, he says. It's what he learned from his father, from his mother, from his brother. Each sacrificed so the family had food, a place to stay, money for John to play junior events and then the mini-tours and then in Korea, all before he turned 21. Now, John has moved himself and his family into a 5,500-square-foot home in Dallas, the first house they have owned in more than a decade.
"If something I do can help my family, I have to do it," Huh says in a tone that is all earnest. He has clearly spent more time in his life speaking Korean than English, and he's still learning how to do interviews. But he'll need to get used to it. He's quickly becoming golf's best story.
Though he was born in New York, Huh and his family returned to Korea when he was 2 months old. There his father, Oksik, who owned a fabric business, taught his sons all kinds of sports from baseball and soccer to tae kwon do and golf. But the business failed, and after the family moved back to the United States when John was 12, he would ride his bike to Vernon Hills, a Chicagoland muny, and get the occasional free lesson from local pro Chu-Han Lee at Sportsman's Country Club. Huh won a local tournament sponsored by the Korea Times as a 13-year-old, qualifying him for a big junior tournament in Japan. He won that tournament, too, and that changed everything. "From there, I started being more serious about golf," he says. "I started to feel like maybe I could be a professional golfer."
It was then that the family decided to move to California to support John's talent, which doesn't sound like all that unusual a decision. And then you realize Huh's parents weren't doctors or lawyers or airline pilots. When Oksik brought his family to America he could get work only in odd jobs, once training himself to be an assistant sushi chef. But the work wasn't always steady. His wife, Sook Chan, worked part-time in the back rooms of Korean restaurants. Even Huh's brother, James, who left college when the family moved west, worked at a clothing store in downtown Los Angeles to help support John's golf. Oksik doesn't speak much English, but through John, he dismisses the idea that his situation was a hardship. "Our life was no different than any immigrants'," he says. "We were like any parents working to help our children have a better life."