He tied the course record in the second round. He separated himself from the field entering the weekend. And he went into Sunday a little bit fatigued and facing an early tee time, all the while wearing a target on his back.
It did not go well two years ago. Kang played conservative those last 36 holes, watched Russell Henley make 10 birdies in the final round, and had to settle for second place. It was his best result on the PGA TOUR, but the lesson was a cruel one.
And yet oh so valuable.
What Kang learned two years ago, he put into action Sunday at Trinity Forest.
Knowing the scores were going to be low in the soft, windless conditions making this course defenseless, Kang knew he could not play conservative. And knowing it would be a long day – thanks to Saturday’s rain delay, he woke up early Sunday to play the remaining nine holes of his third round, followed by 18 more in the final round – Kang was determined to prevent fatigue (both mentally and physically) from impacting his score.
So he asked caddie Jason Shortall to keep the between-shot banter light, to “just keep telling me about the funny things and that I can laugh and forget about the golf for awhile,” said the 31-year-old South Korean.
The payoff came on the back nine, as Kang eventually broke away from playing partners Matt Every and Scott Piercy to win his first TOUR event in 159 career starts, shooting a final-round 4-under 67 to win by two. That victory moves Kang to 21st in the FedExCup standings and also improves his resume as a potential International Team member for this year’s Presidents Cup.
“Dream come true,” said Kang, who lives in Coppell, Texas, about 30 minutes from Trinity Forest. “When I just started playing golf, I really dream about this, winning PGA TOUR event and it finally happened.”
Kang set up his victory after tying the course record with a 61 on Friday. Two years ago, he shot a second-round 63 that tied the course record at the Golf Club of Houston and gave him a six-shot lead. But he shot 71-72 that weekend.
Anything in the 70s this weekend in South Dallas would not be good enough. So Kang started the back nine of his third round Sunday morning with three birdies in his first five holes, leading to a 68 that gave him a three-shot lead over Every and five on Piercy and Brooks Koepka.
Once the leaders teed off in the final round, it didn’t take long for Kang to be caught. Piercy birdied six of his first eight holes; Every was 4 under on his first six holes. Meanwhile, Kang was even par on his first seven holes and lost the lead.
This time, he was determined not to be left in the dust.
He rolled in an 8-foot birdie putt at the eighth, nearly holed his approach shot at the ninth, then birdied the 10th with a 14-footer to reclaim the lead.
A poor tee shot at the par-3 12th left him in thick rough, and he hacked out into a greenside bunker. But he bounced back from that bogey with another three-birdie run, starting with a two-putt birdie at the par-5 14th and a 22-1/2 foot birdie putt at the par-4 15th. Piercy had a similar line on a longer putt, and Shortall raced over to check it once Piercy struck the ball. When Every bogeyed, Kang led by two.
“I knew that was going to be the most important putt for this week,” Kang said. “… I had a read from him and I was really going to make this one in. This probably will give me the trophy. I really focused. I just saw the picture and went in.”
It was the par-4 16th where Kang then put the tournament away. He and Every both had approach shots inside 100 yards from the same side of the fairway. Kang stuck his to 7 feet, setting up his third straight birdie; Every could not match, finishing 28 feet from the pin.
“I kind of gassed it a little coming in on 15,” Every said. “Couple of those left pins, I like to fade it, wind off to the left, just disaster left, which is not a good set-up for me. I could have hit better shots.”
But Every, looking for his first TOUR victory since his second consecutive Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard victory in 2015, was impressed by what he saw from Kang. They were paired for all 72 holes this week.
“Sung played really good,” Every said. “It would have been tough to beat him.”
Kang now becomes the 10th different Korean player to win on the PGA TOUR. The best of them, K.J. Choi, an eight-time winner, gave Kang a call going into the weekend.
“Just play your game. Don’t change anything,” Kang recalled.
Things, however, will change now. They always do for first-time TOUR winners.