Bae all but disappeared after winning his first PGA Tour event at the Byron Nelson Championship in the spring of 2013. In his 36 starts since then, he had not registered even a top 10. But as he went into the new season, the 28-year-old from South Korea had one big goal on his mind.
The Presidents Cup is going to South Korea one year from now. Bae doesn’t want to be watching on television, calling it his “biggest goal”.
On the verge of falling out of the top 200 in the world, Bae gave himself plenty of hope. Equipped with a four-shot lead going into the final round of the Frys.com Open, he expanded his lead to as many as six shots and then held on for a two-shot victory over Steven Bowditch at Silverado.
Bae closed with a 1-over 73, the first player since Ben Crane at the St Jude Classic in June to win with a final round over par.
“There’s always pressure on Sunday because other players behind me are charging, so I tried to maintain my focus and play my own game,” Bae said. He made three bogeys in a four-hole stretch on the back nine, but two solid saves allowed him to play the par-5 18th with a two-shot lead.
He finished at 15-under 273. Bowditch closed with a 67 and finished about an hour ahead of Bae at 13-under 275.
Hunter Mahan tried to make it interesting when he holed out with a sand wedge from 91 yards for eagle on the 13th hole to get within three shots of Bae. Mahan hit a poor chip that led to bogey on the 15th, and a bunker shot that barely crept onto the fringe kept him from a birdie on the par-5 16th. Mahan closed with a 70 and tied for third with Retief Goosen, Hideki Matsuyama, Martin Laird and Bryce Molder.
Matsuyama finished with two birdies, and tied for third for the second straight year at the Frys.com Open.
The victory gets Bae a return visit to the Masters. He first qualified in 2012 when he cracked the world’s top 50. Back then, his biggest achievement was at the Korea Open, where he played in the final group with Rory McIlroy and closed with a 67 to beat him.
Goosen played with Bae in the opening two rounds and knew what he was up against on Sunday.
“He hit the ball very well and his putter was super hot,” Goosen said. “I knew he was going to be tough to catch this weekend the way he was striking it. He’s not really going to make many mistakes.”
Bae made his share, but by then it was too late to matter. The lesson from Silverado was that it’s not all that easy to play with the lead, even a big one.
“Sometimes I felt excited too much and sometimes nervous, and sometimes a little lost focus,” Bae said.
Bae had a trio of three-putt bogeys — two from just off the green — on the 11th, 13th and 14th holes. He made a 15-foot birdie putt on the 12th to ease his nerves. He still had a two-shot lead nearing the finish, which included par 5s on the 16th and 18th.
He hit into a nasty lie in the rough off the tee, gouged it out and then played his wedge too strong. It took one hop and went into the rough. If there was one shot that won him the tournament, it might have been that chip. It came out perfectly to about 2 feet for a simple par.
“I think it was the hardest chip today,” Bae said. “It was a really, really good up-and-down.”
He made an easier up-and-down from behind the 17th green, giving him a two-shot lead playing the par-5 closing hole.
Before long, he was getting the trophy from Silverado host Johnny Miller and thinking ahead to next year. Bae cracks the top 90 in the world ranking, though he likely will have to get into the top 50 to make the President’s Cup team.