Another week, another first-time winner on the PGA Tour by a player not even ranked in the world top-100.
This time, it was 31-year old Korean Sung Kang, who scored his maiden PGA Tour title with a 23-under-par week at the AT&T Byron Nelson, edging Matt Every and Scott Piercy by two strokes. Kang signed for a 4-under 67 final round.
It was the third stroke-play PGA Tour event in a row where the winner was a first-time champion, who entered in suspect form and with little fanfare. There have already been nine first-time winners on the season – the vast majority comprised of journeymen, and not up and coming future stars.
Kang had been leading at Trinity Forest, which was hosting the AT&T Byron Nelson for just the second time, since a sizzling second-round 10-under 61. After storms in Dallas cut Saturday’s action short, Kang was forced to come out early on Sunday to clean up his third round, which he did well enough to secure a three-stroke lead over Every – a former back-to-back Arnold Palmer Invitational winner whose past four years have been an absolute nightmare.
Kang’s lead going into the final set did not last long as he played his first seven holes in even-par, which on an extremely low-scoring venue like Trinity Forest, is akin to 3- or 4-over par at most courses. During that time, several in the chasing pack edged closer, while Every briefly slid past him after carding birdies on five of his first six holes.
However, a birdie on No. 8 seemed to kick-start Kang’s final push as he followed with two more birdies on Nos. 9 and 10 to regain the lead. A bogey on the 12th momentarily set up a tight four-man battle between Kang, Every, Piercy, and world No. 3 Brooks Koepka, the man who will in next week’s PGA Championship field at Bethpage Black as the defending champion.
Sunday’s closing stretch, however, ended up being the opposite of Sunday’s opening stretch. While Every, Piercy, and Koepka all failed to make much happen (Piercy and Koepka played the last five holes in 1-under, Every was even-par), Kang carded a hat trick of birdies on Nos. 14, 15, and 16 to essentially clinch the title. A closing bogey was completely irrelevant.
Kang was not in good form coming into the week as he’d missed the cut in his previous two starts, and posted T47-T18-T42 in the three-start stretch before two MCs. But like Max Homa last week, and C.T. Pan three weeks ago (there was a team-event in-between those two tournaments), good form and name recognition mattered little, if at all, as they were able to find their game quickly.
Final Top-10 Leaderboard
Pos-Player-To Par (Rd 4)
1. Sung Kang -23 (-4)
2. Scott Piercy -21 (-7)
2. Matt Every -21 (-5)
4. Brooks Koepka -20 (-6)
5. Peter Uihlein -17 (-7)
5. Kiradech Aphibarnrat -17 (-7)
5. Rory Sabbatini -17 (-4)
5. Tyler Duncan -17 (-4)
5. Matt Jones -17 (-4)
10. Justin Harding -16 (-6)
10. Sebastian Munoz -16 (-3)
12. Pat Perez, Padraig Harrington -15
20. Henrik Stenson -13
23. Hideki Matsuyama, Thomas Pieters -12
29. Jordan Spieth -11
35. Alex Noren, Kevin Na, C.T. Pan -10
43. Aaron Wise, Ryan Palmer -9
53. Kevin Tway, Rafa Cabrera Bello -8
59. Keith Mitchell, Abraham Ancer -7
63. Patrick Reed, Branden Grace -6
69. Ryan Moore -4
How Sung Kang Won the AT&T Byron Nelson
Sitting on the lead after three days for the second time in his career, Kang admitted that he slept very little on Saturday night. Making things even more difficult was the fact that he would have to come out much earlier than the 54-hole leader typically would on Sunday, since he had to play the final 10 holes of his third round.
Despite the extra pressure, and extra work, Kang stayed composed and came out victorious.
He was very up-and-down in round four, alternating two poor stretches with two sterling ones.
Kang’s accuracy was seemingly there for his entire final round as he hit 12 of 14 fairways and 14 of 18 greens. His only real struggle occurred around the greens, which has been his Achilles heel for much of his career.
For the week, Kang’s 25 birdies was tied for second-best in the field, while finishing with just six bogeys. His best weapon was his putter as his 10.3 strokes gained on the field on the greens ranked second. His 23-under-par final score tied the tournament record, set by Aaron Wise at last year’s edition – also at Trinity Forest.
Driving: 294.0 yards (13th)
Fairways: 48/56, 85.7% (27th)
Greens: 57/72, 79.2% (49th)
Putts/GIR: 1.614 (3rd)
Scoring: 2 Eagles, 25 Birdies, 39 Pars, 6 Bogeys
What It Means For Sung Kang
Kang was already qualified for next week’s PGA Championship – just the second time in his career, but this victory should give him considerably more confidence as he aims for his best major championship finish, which was previously a T18 at the 2016 U.S. Open.
However, it should be noted that Kang has never been a player who goes on a run of any kind.
In 11 previous career top-10s, only once has he posted a second consecutive finish inside the field’s 10 best. In fact in four top-10s over the past two seasons, his next outings have resulted in T54, MC, T20, and T47, respectively.
With the victory, Kang rises from 138th to 75th in the Official World Golf Rankings, just one spot short of his career high.
Cuts Made: 13
Wins: 1 (AT&T Byron Nelson)
Additional Top 10s: 2
Money: $2,370,122 (17th)
Points: 878 (21st)
World Rank Before/After: 140/75
Scoring was low on Sunday, but while nobody touched the 10-under 61 Kang put together on Friday, four players posted a 7-under 64.
The most notable of those was Piercy, who went bogey-free in that round while playing in the final Sunday threesome with Kang and Every.
At one point, Piercy was within one of Kang for three holes on the back-nine, but as solid as he had been playing, he could only muster pars for the final four holes.
Not only did Piercy fail to card a single bogey on Sunday, he did not bogey a single hole the entire tournament.
The 40-year old Las Vegas native also led the field for the week in strokes gained: approach-the-green, strokes gained: tee-to-green, and scrambling, while finishing second in driving accuracy.
Given all that, it seems shocking that he did not win.
Another player to record a 7-under 64 on Sunday – also without a blemish, was Peter Uihlein.
The 29-year-old American who spent his early professional career in Europe had something of a breakout season in 2018, but has regressed badly in 2019.
In fact, in 13 starts since the calendar flipped to 2019, his only finish inside the top 60 was a T22 in the opposite-field Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship, back in March.
His T5 in Dallas this week might be exactly what helps him get back on track.
Kiradech Aphibarnrat also carded a bogey-free 64 to finish T5, which should help his confidence heading into New York for next week’s major.
Aphibarnrat, who has had a hit or miss season thus far (thee top 5s, and not much else) finished outside the top 50 for the week in strokes gained: off-the-tee (61st), approach-the-green (54th), around-the-green (66th), and tee-to-green (68th), but he was so unbelievable with his putter (1st) that he finished fifth in strokes gained: total.
For the week, he gained a staggering 14 strokes on the field on the greens.
Not a lot of high scores were posted on Sunday, but those who did saw their standing drop precipitously.
The worst score in the field was a 2-over 73, posted by four players. One of those was by Patrick Reed, who is continuing to find life on the PGA Tour difficult the season after winning a green jacket.
Reed’s five Sunday bogeys were one more than he had in the first three rounds combined.
Losing more than five strokes to the field on the greens, Reed’s 73 dropped him 27 spots down the final leaderboard, into a share of 63rd place. Reed is still looking for his first top-10 since last October.
Matching both Reed’s final score and the final standing was South Africa’s Branden Grace. One year ago, Grace finished T3 at Trinity Forest after a final-round 9-under 62, but it was a much different story on Sunday this year. Like Reed, most of Grace’s troubles came with his putter, where he ranked 69th for the week. The 30-year-old has two top-10s on the season, but has been awful in every other start. He is hoping things will somehow come together at the PGA Championship next week, an event where he finished solo-3rd in 2015 and T4 in 2016.
Keith Mitchell was a popular pre-game pick, but his week in Dallas did not go the way he’d hoped. Starting Sunday on the back nine, Mitchell’s round went into the gutter on his fifth hole, the par-5 14th, when a wayward second-shot led to a penalty which led to a triple-bogey-8. He rebounded somewhat from there, playing only one more hole over-par, but a 1-over 72 was one of the worst scores in the Sunday field. He dropped 23 spots down the final leaderboard, into a tie for 59th place.
Jordan Spieth: Running in Place
Dallas native Jordan Spieth famously contended in this event in 2010 at the age of 16, and was hoping that a good week at home might help turn around his nightmare season. He played well in his first three days, posting rounds of 68, 67, 67 respectively, but again, he was unable to put four rounds together.
On Sunday, he cancelled out his four birdies with four bogeys to shoot an even-par 71, the worst result of anyone who finished in the top 34. Three of those four birdies were followed by a bogey on the very next hole.
At most tournaments, finishing the week at 11-under-par would be considered excellent, but here it was only good for a T29.
Spieth will be playing next week’s PGA Championship, and with a victory would become just the sixth player in PGA Tour history to achieve the career Grand Slam. At just 25 years old, it is difficult to put into words just how impressive that would be. However, after yet another disappointing week (he has yet to post even a top-20 this season), his game looks nowhere near major ready.
A Dream Come True
“Just dream come true. I mean when I just started playing golf I really dream about this, winning PGA TOUR event and finally happened. I got in 2011, probably my 6th year and played over a hundred events and finally got one. Feels great.”
– Sung Kang
Working as a Team
“I told my caddy it’s going to be long day for everyone so at some point someone is going to be getting tired and miss shots. Going to be some point it’s going to happen. I told him I don’t want to be too focused all day and then — that I’m going to save any energy.
“I just talked to him we’re going to have some fun. Talk a lot of fun stuff. And when we get to the ball we’re going to start really working on it. We tried to really put all the effort when we got to the ball and it worked out beautifully.”
– Sung Kang
What’s in the Bag (WITB)
The 31-year old Korean won his maiden title playing a mix of Titleist (metal woods, wedges, putter, ball) and Mizuno (irons).
Driver: Titleist TS3 (8.5°)
3-Wood: Titleist TS2 (13.5°)
5-Wood: Titleist TS3 (18°)
Irons: Mizuno JPX 919 (4-W)
Wedges: Titleist Vokey SM7 (52°, 56°, 60°)
Putter: Scotty Cameron Tour Fastback
Ball: Titleist Pro V1x
Shoes: FootJoy Icon
Final Scores, Money & Points
AT&T Byron Nelson | Trinity Forest Golf Club | Dallas, TX | May 9-12, 2019