YANTAI, SHANDONG, CHINA—Korea’s Todd Baek is hoping a strong performance at this week’s Yantai Championship will not only boost his quest for a top-five finish on this year’s PGA TOUR Series-China Order of Merit and a return to the Web.com Tour but also give him a fighting chance to catch runaway leader Charlie Saxon.
Baek, 26, finished fifth in the Order of Merit in the Tour’s inaugural season in 2014 and went on to play two full years on the Web.com Tour in 2015 and 2016, the year Saxon finished second in his first season in China to earn a place on last year’s ‘Path to the PGA TOUR’.
Baek is now in third place with RMB 367,650 from six events due in large to his victory in May’s Haikou Championship and will play his first two rounds at Yantai Nanshan Mashanzai Golf Club with Chinese amateur Yechun “Carl” Yuan and American Joseph Gunerman, joint runner-up at last month’s Kunming Championship.
However, Saxon already has RMB 758,335 following two wins and a runner-up finish, so Baek will need more than one victory to catch the American as the Tour enters a three-week stretch of events.
“Charlie has been playing unbelievable this year, with two wins and a second place on this Tour. However, we still have seven more events after this week, so I think I still have a chance. He has been playing awesome, which is great to see, but we’ll see how it goes,” said Baek, who believes the Tour’s general standard of play has risen drastically since 2014.
“This year, there are definitely more better players [than in 2014]. They all can play so everyone has a chance to win. Then it just takes a couple of good weeks out here to move up the Order of Merit, so I think I still have a good chance.”
Born in Korea, raised in New Zealand and now based in the U.S.A., Baek arrived in Yantai well rested and is happy to be back in Shandong province, where he won the Chateau Junding Penglai Open in 2014, a victory that proved crucial in qualifying for the Web.com Tour.
“I took three weeks off in Korea. I didn’t go all the way back home to San Diego, just had some time off and caught up on some rest. It was nice to go back. I practiced, not as much as I would have liked, but it was good,” said Baek, who has taken a liking to the Ian Woosnam-designed course in Yantai.
“I feel pretty confident. I like the way the course sets up. You have to drive it well out here, don’t have to hit it far, but you have to keep it in play. The greens are rolling good, so I think it should be a good week for me.”
American Jeffrey Kang, who speaks fluent Korean and is good friends with Baek, is fourth on the Order of Merit despite recently failing to match the form shown when he won the season-opening Chengdu Championship by five shots.
After finishing outside the top 35 in his previous two Tour events, Kang spent the last few weeks working on his game and is optimistic he’ll be back in contention soon.
“I feel pretty good. I’ve been working on my putting a lot. I just haven’t been as sharp the last couple of events, so hopefully that changes,” said Kang, who turned 27 last month.
“That’s the goal. I just want to make some more putts and I should be back on track. I feel pretty good.”
Every tournament on this year’s PGA TOUR Series-China offers RMB 1.5 million, a 25-percent increase over purse levels from 2016.
The PGA TOUR established PGA TOUR Series-China in 2014 as its third international developmental tour, following in the footsteps of PGA TOUR Latinoamerica and the Mackenzie Tour – PGA TOUR Canada. Since its inception, PGA TOUR Series-China players have received Official World Golf Ranking points for top finishes at official tournaments.