While Asia slept, the golf world was wide awake and so were some of the continent’s most talented players, who had a front row seat for all the unexpected drama at the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black outside New York City.
The windswept course on Long Island played host to the second Major championship of the year and what seemed like a coronation for defending champion Brooks Koepka turned into a drama worthy of the Broadway footlights some 35 miles west in midtown Manhattan.
Koepka started the final round seven strokes ahead of Dustin Johnson and two largely unknown players in Harold Varner III and Luke List as well as a 23-year-old Thai upstart who would go on to capture the imagination of golf fans globally.
Jazz Janewattananond’s presence in the PGA championship was notable because he left broadcasters tongue tied thanks to one of the longest names ever in a Major golf championship. But by the time the tournament was over, the Bangkok native would leave an indelible impression that easily transcended the 15 letters in his surname.
One stroke back of the pack tied at second was Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama and with South Korea’s Sun Kang two back of him, it made for an unprecedented three Asians on the front page of the leaderboard going into the final day of a Major golf championship.
Still, catching the seemingly robotic Koepka would be next to impossible. Of the last seven Majors, he has won three and finished one stroke behind the victorious Tiger Woods at the Masters one month ago.
Things seemed to be going to form as well and after a birdie on the 10th hole, Koepka had a six-stroke lead on Johnson with eight holes to play. But one stroke back of Johnson, and in sole possession of third place, was the man some of the broadcasters had taken to calling JJ to save themselves the embarrassment of mispronouncing Janewattananond’s name.
Lead broadcaster Jim Nantz was undaunted though and gamely had the name right, while his partner in the booth, six-time Major winner Nick Faldo, marveled at the youngster’s composure.
“With this wind becoming a gale, this is a brutally difficult golf course right now,” said Faldo. “For Jazz to be at even par on the back nine in only his second Major championship is quite remarkable.”
Never mind that the prize money for second place was close to US$1.2 million while third was $750,000 – which would have far, far surpassed Jazz’s winnings to date – but the top four finishers in the event also automatically qualified for next year’s Masters as well.
The hype train surrounding Jazz had begun the day before when a number of media outlets did lengthy profiles on the number 72 ranked golfer in the world who, amongst other things, wears braces and stands all of 5’9” and weighs 150 pounds.
A three-time winner on the Asian Tour, Jazz was in the field thanks to a special invitation from the PGA of America and at the age of 14 was the youngest player ever to make a cut on the Asian Tour and subsequently turned pro at 15.
Also duly noted was his two-week break from golf when he was 16 to fulfill his Buddhist duty, like most Thais, and spend time as a monk.
— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) May 18, 2019
“I didn’t expect it to be better for myself,” he said. “But it turns out it makes me more peaceful, not trying as hard on the golf course because there is so many other big things around our lives.”
That inner peace would serve him well as the winds and pressure swirled all around during the final round of the PGA on Sunday afternoon. After making a long par putt on 11, he was now one of the few entertaining sidelights as Koepka, playing one hole behind Jazz, methodically drained all the drama out of the event.
But any professional golfer will tell you that there is nothing more daunting than the back nine on Sunday at a Major. Combine that with the raging winds and a course that is extremely difficult on the most placid day, and drama would soon come calling.
After a birdie on number 10, Koepka would follow with four straight bogeys and by the time Johnson sank his birdie putt on 15, the seven-stroke lead was now down to one.
Jazz would hardly fare better as he would play the next six holes in seven-over par and by the time he teed off on the 18th, he had stumbled from -5 to +2. Both the TV cameras and a top 10 finish were now long gone.
Koepka would regroup and pull it together, but just barely. His final round of +4 still left him two shots up on Johnson, who shot a one-under par 69 to finish sole second. Regardless of the back nine drama, Koepka has now established himself as the best golfer in the world.
Winning four of the last eight Majors is the type of thing that only Tiger in his prime has done and makes Koepka a big favorite at the US Open next month.
As for Jazz, his tune was not totally off note. He would finish a disappointing tied for 14th and take home $200,000 for his efforts as well as much needed ranking points that will hopefully boost him into the top 50 and a spot at the US Open.
It was one of the best showings for Asian golfers at a Major with Kang finishing sole seventh and five others finishing within the top 41.
It certainly bodes well for the future of golf here – and all that jazz.
Tim Noonan is a writer based in Bangkok and Toyko, covering sports and culture. Follow him on twitter @T_NoonanEast