Rabalais: Steady Seung-Yul Noh played well beyond his years

Seung-Yul Noh is doused with beer on the 18th green after winning the Zurich Classic at TPC Louisiana in Avondale on Sunday, April 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Bill Haber) Show caption
Seung-Yul Noh is doused with beer on the 18th green after winning the Zurich Classic at TPC Louisiana in Avondale on Sunday, April 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)

The list of recent winners in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans has read less like a “Who’s Who” and more like a “Who Dat?”

This year’s champion, Seung-Yul Noh, certainly fits the sketch-artist profile. At one point during Sunday’s coverage, CBS fittingly slapped a “Hello, my name is …” graphic on the screen as Noh played the 12th hole. A side trip to FoxSports.com’s website showed a Zurich Classic leaderboard with mug shots of contenders on it. In Noh’s place, there was a gray silhouette with a question mark in the middle.

But though he may be a Noh-name to most golf fans, this 22-year-old kid from South Korea is a champion fans around here can proudly get behind.

Start with the fact he showed a mental toughness Sunday seemingly beyond his years, clinging to a lead in tough, nerve-jangling conditions.

A gusting wind blew Spanish moss out of the trees Sunday at TPC Louisiana, threatening to flop like a mousy toupee on Tripod the alligator’s head in the pond at 17. It made the flags atop the big grandstands around TPC Louisiana snap and flap, sounding like huge kettles of popcorn.

It was the kind of blustery day that would have stripped Winnie the Pooh’s words right off their pages, and they certainly seemed fierce enough to blow a slightly built young golfer like Noh right off the top of the leaderboard. Oh, bother.

Early in Sunday’s final round, that’s exactly what it looked like would happen.

On the first hole, Noh’s opening drive was a Roman candle shot high and right into the woods. He hacked out his second from under a leaning tree, hit a nervy chip onto the green past the hole and lipped out for a bogey, his first of the tournament.

Meanwhile, playing partner and 2011 PGA champion Keegan Bradley coolly parred, then birdied the par-5 second while Noh settled for par there, all moments after Robert Streb eagled No. 2. Suddenly, Noh’s two-stroke Saturday night lead had evaporated, and he found himself in the whirlpool of a three-way tie with almost an entire round to go.

Noh wouldn’t go away. He peeled off a steady stream of pars while Streb fired and fell back. It was Bradley the major champion who cracked, going bogey-triple bogey on Nos. 5 and 6. After a birdie on 8, Noh stuffed a second shot to 4 feet on No. 10 for a birdie, then responded to a bogey on 12 thanks to his big break of the tournament.

After striping a tee shot through the green on the drivable par-4 13th, Noh’s ball snaked onto the downslope of a bunker 80 feet behind the hole. His second shot came out hot and would have likely been over the green — but it squarely hit the flagstick instead and screeched to a stop 4 feet from the cup for a calming birdie.

He may just be 22 and hardly a grizzled vet, but Noh has know-how. He said back in 2008 on the Asian Tour — when he was rookie of the year at 16 — he also held a 54-hole, no-bogey lead. He lost then, but he learned.

“This week (was) like (a) different situation,” he said.

Indeed. By the time he reached the 18th hole he had survived all the sharks — and the alligators — and comfortably parred in for a two-stroke win that puts him in The Players in two weeks, the PGA Championship in August and the Masters next April.

“When I started playing golf at 7, I always dreamed of playing the PGA Tour or playing in any major, especially the Masters,” Noh said.

Noh’s win may not be a dream, but at least a diversion for his countrymen.

South Korea has been in despair since an April 16 ferry disaster claimed more than 200 lives. That prompted the nation’s prime minister to resign Sunday.

Now there’s no way someone winning a golf tournament on the other side of the world could ever compensate for such a human tragedy. But if just for a moment Noh lifted a few spirits, then it was quite a noble victory indeed.

“Hopefully,” said Noh, who was about to return to the U.S. from Korea when the ferry sank, “they’ll be happy for the Korean guy. And hopefully (I) win next week.”

If you’ve already achieved one dream, why not dream bigger? So to Noh we say (in Korean), “chuka-hehyo”: congratulations. And very well done.