Bae started well enough at the Wells Fargo Championship until his five birdies were wasted by five bogeys, and he ended up missing the cut for the ninth time in 13 starts on the PGA Tour this year. He knows the game that took him to 13 wins worldwide, including two on the PGA Tour and a spot in the Presidents Cup, is still in there.
"I think my game is a lot better than before. My swing is better," Bae said. "I've kind of lost my feel how to play golf. Not how to swing — I forgot how to play golf." Bae was in the final match at home in South Korea in 2015 at the Presidents Cup, and he flubbed a chip on the 18th hole that was the International team's last chance to win the trophy. That was his final competition before he faced two-year mandatory military service.
He was the second-best player from South Korea in the world ranking (No. 88) going into the Presidents Cup. When he returned, he was No. 1,869 in the world. Bae, who lost an appeal to extend his work permit to play golf, was in the Army with kids some 10 years younger than him.
"I wasn't able to play there because I was a rifleman," he said. "I had a five- or six-day holiday every month, but Korea is really cold in the winter. Five days is not enough to play and I was happy in that time to hang out with my family. I didn't have to think about the military."
He had never shot a rifle before he joined the Army. "I learned. I was good at it," he said with a laugh. "We didn't shoot every day, it was more training. We had a lot of running, working out and military theory, so we studied. We wake at 6 a.m. every day, the same schedule."
The food? "Not as good as it is here," he said with another laugh from the Quail Hollow Club locker room. The world ranking wasn't a concern, it was keeping his job. Bae said he had 27 events to try to earn back his card. He played 17 times and made five cuts but did well enough to get into the Web.com Tour Finals. After a tie for sixth in the second event at Canterbury, he won the Boise Open to secure his card.
"I made an 8-foot putt on the last hole, and that meant a lot," he said. "That was a championship putt. That gave me a strong mind. It was like: 'Oh, the game is back. I'm ready to play on the PGA Tour next year.' I went to Napa — I had won that tournament — and had so much confidence. But I didn't play well that week."
Bae said his mistake was not going to the Web.com Tour Championship after his win at Boise for a chance to win the postseason money title, which would have made him fully exempt for the year. Now, his priority depends on his performance, and his performance has been lacking.
One problem is seeing too many coaches. Bae says he saw five or six coaches last year, some for only one session on the range. "Too many swing thoughts," he said. "I have better swing thoughts now — not millions, just a couple of them."
He moved from Dallas to Las Vegas, where he said it was easier to practice at the TPC Summerlin. He also has found more entertainment in Las Vegas, and he has a group of friends for practice. That includes Women's PGA champion Danielle Kang, her brother and Inbee Park and her husband.
He is in the field at the AT&T Byron Nelson this week, hopeful he can get it turned around. Bae has made only four cuts in 14 starts this year and is No. 212 in the FedEx Cup standings. He needs to be in the top 200 to at least return to the Web.com Tour Finals.
"I'm trying not to think of negative things. I'm trying to think of good golf," he said. "I hope to play well on tournament days, not practice rounds. I need to focus on how I play, not how I swing. Golf is a mental game. I need to work on my swing but do half and half. That balance is a little off right now."
KIRK RECOVERY Chris Kirk turns 34 on Wednesday and feels as though he is starting over in what he calls a "new and better chapter in my life." Kirk posted a message on Twitter revealing he has dealt with alcohol abuse and depression and thought he could control it on his own.
"But after multiple relapses, I have come to realize that I can't fix this on my own," Kirk said. "I will be taking an indefinite leave from the PGA Tour to deal with these issues. I don't know when I will be back, but for now I need my full focus on being the man my family deserves."
Kirk is a four-time winner on the PGA Tour, his most recent victory at Colonial in 2015. That was the year he holed a 15-foot birdie putt on the 18th in South Korea that was the most pivotal in a one-point victory for the Americans.
"It takes a great deal of courage to talk publicly about issues such as mental health and substance abuse, and the entire PGA Tour family stands with Chris Kirk in taking this difficult first step toward his recovery and well-being," PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan said.
MCILROY PERSPECTIVE Rory McIlroy won his first major at Congressional in the 2011 U.S. Open when he built a three-shot lead after one round and went on to win by eight shots. That would seem to give him better perspective than most when it comes to what Tiger Woods did at Pebble Beach in the 2000 U.S. Open, winning by nearly twice that many shots. Woods was the only player under par and won by 15.
"I wouldn't have given it a thought," McIlroy said. McIlroy says the only comparison — he led by eight after 54 holes, Woods led by 10 — is that it allowed him to savor the last hour. McIlroy also won the PGA Championship by eight shots in 2012 at Kiawah Island.
"I remember at Kiawah the last few holes thinking, 'Geez, I'm about to become a multiple major champion,'" he said. He also nearly lost a big lead. McIlroy recalls being six shots clear on the back nine in Dubai as he went after his first professional victory. He had to make a nervy 5-footer on the last hole to win by one shot. He says that served him well.
"If you're in that position, you know anything can happen," he said. "And if you're five or six behind with six to play, anything can happen and you have to stay positive." DIVOTS Stewart Cink has withdrawn from the PGA Championship because of back issues that have been bothering him for the last three months. He says he is taking time away and hopes to return this summer. ... Golf Channel has added another college tournament to its TV schedule, signing a partnership with Maridoe Golf Club in Texas to create the Maridoe Collegiate Invitational that will be held in September 2020. That gives Golf Channel five college tournaments. ... Three of the four past champions at Bethpage Black will be at the PGA Championship. The exception is Nick Watney, who won The Barclays in 2012. He fell short of qualifying, in part because of timing. With the move to May, the PGA Championship money list used for qualifying began with the 2018 Players Championship. Watney was runner-up at Quail Hollow the week before.
STAT OF THE WEEK Max Homa (No. 417) became the fifth player in the last nine years to win the Wells Fargo Championship when ranked outside the top 100 in the world. FINAL WORD "He's smart, he knows how to play, he knows how to win. That's not going to leave you." — Jack Nicklaus on Tiger Woods.