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On a Roll

Practice, especially on his putting, has taken Han to new heights

October 08, 2002|PETER YOON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To Seung Su Han, it seemed like a pretty good deal at the time.

Han's father, Mun Sug, said earlier this year he would quit smoking if Seung Su practiced putting every day. Han, 16, had been thinking about working more on his putting anyway.

So Han, a sophomore at Chino Hills Ayala High, went to work. Every day, he practiced putting balls into a cup on the artificial grass surface covering his backyard patio. Shortly thereafter, it was Han who was smoking. He won a national junior tournament, then another.

By the end of the summer, Han had four victories in national tournaments, including two in junior major championships. The torrid stretch put him in select company: Only Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson had ever won four American Junior Golf Assn. tournaments in one calendar year. Han vaulted from No. 190 to No. 10 in the Golfweek Magazine junior rankings.

Last week, the AJGA selected Han national boys' player of the year.

All because of a deal with his father.

"I never practiced at home, ever," Han said. "Now I practice every day."

The thought of working on his putting first came to Han after he played in the AJGA Thunderbird International at the end of May. Han's partner in the first round, Casey Wittenberg, shot a 65 by consistently making putts.

Han, who shot 75 and ended up tied for 14th after the three-round tournament, couldn't get Wittenberg's putting display out of his head.

"I was shocked," Han said. "He was making every putt. He hits it and it goes in, every time. It made me want to practice putting."

Don Brown, Han's private coach, has seen this sort of thing before. Brown, who teaches at Harbor Golf Center in Torrance, said most young players dwell on adding distance and working on perfecting their swings. Putting is often an afterthought, but those who discover the importance of mastering the short game often find immediate results.

"That's what happened with Seung Su," Brown said. "Now when he goes to a tournament, I kind of expect him to play well."

Two weeks after the Thunderbird tournament, Han made a 30-foot birdie putt on the final hole to win the Chrysler Boys championship at Cardinal Golf Club in Greensboro, N.C., a major championship. After opening with a 76, Han shot 65, 68 and 66. He made 17 birdies in four rounds, including three on the last four holes.

Two weeks later, he had 18 birdies in three rounds, shot 66-67-69 and set a tournament scoring record at the ClubCorp Junior at Mission Hills. The following week, he shot 68-71-71-66 with 20 birdies in four rounds to win his second major title, the EDS Boys Championship at Oakmont Country Club in Corinth, Texas.

A week later, Han made nine birdies in 16 holes and defeated James Vargas, the top-ranked junior in the nation, in a Canon Cup singles match at Conway Farms Golf Club in Lake Forest, Ill. He capped the summer on Aug. 23-25 with a 16-birdie performance in rounds of 69-69-67 to win the Ping Phoenix Junior at Karsten Golf Course in Tempe, Ariz.

"I played way better than I expected," Han said. "This summer was a surprise to me."

Not a total surprise, however.

Han, who moved to Chino Hills from South Korea two years ago and has been playing golf for about 4 1/2 years, qualified for the 2001 U.S. Amateur at 14. He won a 16-and-under AJGA tournament last November.

"He hits the ball extremely straight," Brown said. "His swing fluctuates. He knows how to get the club square at impact, no matter what."

Han went by the name Steve when he moved to the United States, but switched back to using his Korean name after South Korea made the semifinals of the World Cup.

Becoming the first Korean to win the AJGA player of the year award is a far greater honor to Han than sharing a record with Woods and Mickelson. School remains his top priority. He moved from Korea for more opportunities in golfand, he said, because the education system for top athletes in Korea is not up to par.

"There, you either play sports or go to school," Han said. "Not both."

He said he has no plans to turn professional until he finishes college and will take up to a month at a time away from the golf course when his school workload gets heavy.

"Some people are scared that if they don't practice, they're going to lose their swing," Han said. "I used to be like that, but sometimes I feel like I just don't want to play, so I don't."

Except for those putting sessions on the patio.

Han said he'll keep his end of the deal, even if his father hasn't. Mun Sug was able to quit smoking for only two months.

"Maybe I'll make another deal with him," Seung Su said. The rest of the junior golfers sure hope not.

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