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Name like a question, but rookie Huh has answers in startling tour start

by | CBSSports.com Senior Golf Columnist

Despite finishing second last week, Huh was all smiles after another top-10 finish. (Getty Images)  
Despite finishing second last week, Huh was all smiles after another top-10 finish. (Getty Images)  

His pairings partners in the final trio Sunday could not have been more dissimilar in terms of career achievements, longevity and, as it turned out, oxygen intake.

One was a 21-year-old rookie, playing in the Texas Open for the first time, and the second was a savvy veteran of the PGA Tour wars, with multiple wins and a major championship trophy on his mantel.

Which is likely why Matt Every was as surprised as the rest of us at what he witnessed over the final 18 holes at TPC San Antonio as he played alongside Ben Curtis, who turns 35 next month, and newcomer John Huh, the second-youngest exempt player on the U.S. tour.

"I never thought he was nervous, not once," Every said of Huh's poise. "You could tell Ben was a little nervous. But Huh, you could see it in his body language."

Or not see it, as it were.

Because if there was a lick of stress, it wasn't obvious to anybody, which only adds to the buzz surrounding the guy nicknamed the Question Mark, who seems more like Allen Iverson in spiked shoes.

You know, like The Answer.

Curtis won the tournament, claiming his fourth tour title, but the energetic rookie made the biggest impression, nearly winning for the second time this year after claiming his first title seven weeks earlier at the Mayakoba Classic in Cancun.

Huh not only is his name, but the natural reaction to his seemingly storybook trajectory over the past six months. Like its spelling, he has this tour thing nailed backward and forward.

The surname is personally perfect, really, because there's a sense of naivety that radiates from Huh, who was born in New York, spent his early years in South Korea, then came back to the States when he was 12 and took up the game in earnest. If he is aware of the context of his accomplishments, and the immensity of the stages he's playing on, it's anything but obvious.

Zurich Classic of New Orleans

"He is wonderfully refreshing in that so far, nothing has gotten to him," said CBS analyst Peter Kostis, who worked the tournament last week. "It's like the only pressure he senses is from the next shot."

If even that. Chasing Curtis on the back nine, Huh had two crucial birdie putts lip out of the cup late in the round, and in each instance, he stood there and ... laughed. He and Every eventually finished in a tie for second, two shots back, marking the fifth time Huh finished in the top 15 in his freshman year.

It's as though Huh is a few dimples shy of blissfully oblivious, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

"I would say that's pretty accurate," Every laughed.

We're all flat clueless as it relates to Huh's entertaining story, which you couldn't dream up without having a paid membership to the Screenwriters Guild. With his third top-10 finish this year, Huh on Monday climbed to No. 90 in the world ranking, which represents an almost laughable jump of 710 spots since May 1.

But hang on, since the quantum-leap quantifications have just begun. In May 2010, just shy of two years ago, he was ranked No. 1,348 in the world and toiling in relative anonymity on lesser tours in Asia.

There's no such thing as an overnight success story, but this is close enough to qualify as a gimme.

After moving to Southern California's San Fernando Valley area from Chicago at age 15, Huh fashioned a fairly forgettable high school career and honed his game at a raft of well-worn municipal courses in the Los Angeles area, including Hansen Dam, Brookside and Griffith Park.

"No, I am not a country club guy," he laughed.

Huh tried to enroll at equally proletariat Cal State Northridge but hadn't completed the core classes required under NCAA rules. He was 18, knew what he wanted to do for a living, and wanted to get started.

"So I just decided to turn pro," he said Tuesday. "I figured I could maybe find a place to play in Asia."

A year later, he beat national hero K.J. Choi to win his first event at age 19, played in Korea and on the OneAsia tours and in 2010 rolled up six top-10 finishes against decent competition. After learning that the PGA Tour was considering a plan to effectively eliminate Qualifying School as a direct path to the PGA Tour, he talked to his dad, they forked over the entry money and John entered last fall.

"With the changes, we didn't know if we would get another chance," Huh said.

It keeps getting better. Huh birdied five of the last 13 holes to advance on the number from his first-stage qualifier in Beaumont, Calif. He made it by three shots at second stage, earning a berth in the Q-school finale outside Palm Springs.

When Huh bogeyed the last hole at the finals to finish T27 -- only the top 25 and ties were ensured PGA Tour cards for the 2012 season -- he thought he was toast. But because two players had already secured '12 status through other means, they did not count against the 25-spot total. Huh had his key to the kingdom, and it has been Disneyesque ever since.

Incredibly, he stands at No. 20 on the U.S. Ryder Cup list, though he has never played in a major. Q-school graduate Rickie Fowler made the 2010 Ryder Cup team as a rookie, but as a captain's pick.

With Huh making so many headlines with his everymanic play, it's certainly causing some to look with suspicion on the tour's plan to detonate Q-school as a primary access point after this year.

"He could be the poster child for the people who do not like the changes," Kostis said. "He could conceivably go from Q-school to the Ryder Cup in one year."

It's already an implausible tale, especially in this age. Huh has never before seen the courses he's playing, and neither has his caddie, Zeke Salas, the former pro at Hansen Dam.

"The strength of my game is my driver," Huh said. "When you are in the fairway, you have a good chance of playing well anywhere."

There's a heretical notion to most of the bomb-and-gouge generation, but like everybody says, he's definitely a guy on his own track, albeit somewhat unaware of the magnitude of the moment.

"I would definitely agree with that," Every laughed.

What tension? Last week, Huh was a wind-blown 9 over after eight holes of the opening round, then torched the toughest course of the year with 16 birdies and one bogey the rest of the way.

Uh Huh.

Hey, name cracks will be headline heaven with this kid.

In that regard, Huh once was bothered when folks made light of his surname, though he now understands that it has terrific potential as a marketing hook.

Personally, after his strong start, most of the questions have been answered. So, maybe we've had the punctuation in his story wrong all along.

Question Mark is now an exclamation point.


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