CHARLOTTE, N.C. — He was away from golf for two years, and his world ranking plummeted lower than it had been at any point in his career.
For Sangmoon Bae, the re-entry has not gone as well as he would have liked.
Bae started well enough at the Wells Fargo Championship until his five birdies were wasted by five bogeys, and he ended up missing the cut for the ninth time in 13 starts on the PGA Tour this year. He knows the game that took him to 13 wins worldwide, including two on the PGA Tour and a spot in the Presidents Cup, is still in there.
"I think my game is a lot better than before. My swing is better," Bae said. "I've kind of lost my feel how to play golf. Not how to swing — I forgot how to play golf."
Bae was in the final match at home in South Korea in 2015 at the Presidents Cup, and he flubbed a chip on the 18th hole that was the International team's last chance to win the trophy. That was his final competition before he faced two-year mandatory military service.
He was the second-best player from South Korea in the world ranking (No. 88) going into the Presidents Cup. When he returned, he was No. 1,869 in the world.
Bae, who lost an appeal to extend his work permit to play golf, was in the Army with kids some 10 years younger than him.
"I wasn't able to play there because I was a rifleman," he said. "I had a five- or six-day holiday every month, but Korea is really cold in the winter. Five days is not enough to play and I was happy in that time to hang out with my family. I didn't have to think about the military."
He had never shot a rifle before he joined the Army.
"I learned. I was good at it," he said with a laugh. "We didn't shoot every day, it was more training. We had a lot of running, working out and military theory, so we studied. We wake at 6 a.m. every day, the same schedule."
"Not as good as it is here," he said with another laugh from the Quail Hollow Club locker room.
The world ranking wasn't a concern, it was keeping his job. Bae said he had 27 events to try to earn back his card. He played 17 times and made five cuts but did well enough to get into the Web.com Tour Finals. After a tie for sixth in the second event at Canterbury, he won the Boise Open to secure his card.
"I made an 8-foot putt on the last hole, and that meant a lot," he said. "That was a championship putt. That gave me a strong mind. It was like: 'Oh, the game is back. I'm ready to play on the PGA Tour next year.' I went to Napa — I had won that tournament — and had so much confidence. But I didn't play well that week."
Bae said his mistake was not going to the Web.com Tour Championship after his win at Boise for a chance to win the postseason money title, which would have made him fully exempt for the year. Now, his priority depends on his performance, and his performance has been lacking.
One problem is seeing too many coaches. Bae says he saw five or six coaches last year, some for only one session on the range.
"Too many swing thoughts," he said. "I have better swing thoughts now — not millions, just a couple of them."
He moved from Dallas to Las Vegas, where he said it was easier to practice at the TPC Summerlin. He also has found more entertainment in Las Vegas, and he has a group of friends for practice. That includes Women's PGA champion Danielle Kang, her brother and Inbee Park and her husband.
He is in the field at the AT&T Byron Nelson this week, hopeful he can get it turned around. Bae has made only four cuts in 14 starts this year and is No. 212 in the FedEx Cup standings. He needs to be in the top 200 to at least return to the Web.com Tour Finals.
"I'm trying not to think of negative things. I'm trying to think of good golf," he said. "I hope to play well on tournament days, not practice rounds. I need to focus on how I play, not how I swing. Golf is a mental game. I need to work on my swing but do half and half. That balance is a little off right now."