CROMWELL, Conn. – More than any other tournament on the PGA Tour, the Travelers Championship is where you go if you want to see future stars of the game. Two years ago at TPC River Highlands, Collin Morikawa, Matthew Wolff and Viktor Hovland (all PGA Tour winners now) accepted sponsor exemptions and played here as new pros.
Jon Rahm, the 2021 U.S. Open winner and new world No. 1, played here on a sponsor exemption in 2015 and a first-year pro named Rickie Fowler, who is now a five-time PGA Tour winner and expectant father, played here on a sponsor exemption in 2009.
This year, the young stud to watch is John Pak, and he has loads of pedigree. If you haven’t been following college golf, Pak, who is 22, just graduated from Florida State and is this year’s winner of the Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan and Fred Haskins awards. That made him the consensus player of the year. In addition, he finished with the lowest scoring average in Florida State history (better than Brooks Koepka or Daniel Berger), won eight times while playing for the Seminoles and was a member of the winning 2019 and 2021 Walker Cup teams.
Making his second PGA Tour start, Pak birdied three of his first six holes Thursday morning in perfect scoring conditions. Then, he cooled off and was 1 over the rest of the way before signing for a 68 on the par-70 course.
“It got a little windy on the back nine and started swirling, so I struggled hitting the right shots,” he said. “I’ll work on that for tomorrow.”
Pak is from Scotch Plains, New Jersey, which is only about 130 miles southwest of TPC River Highlands, but this week marks the first time he’s ever played this course. He feels comfortable on the tree-lined layout but admits that the last few months have been dizzying and that he is looking forward to getting into a routine, having structure and starting to practice more regularly.
“It’s been a little overwhelming, to be honest,” he said. “I like to practice a lot, and I haven’t had time to practice and work on my game. I’m slowly starting to settle in to where I should be. I’m going to courses and don’t know where I should be, but I’m getting used to it.”
Koepka arranged for Pak and some Florida State staffers to ride on a private plane to Dublin, Ohio, in early June so Pak could pick up his Jack Nicklaus award from the Golden Bear himself during the Memorial Tournament.
Thank you @BKoepka for your support! Providing first class transportation for @johnnydpak, @FSUGolf & @SeminoleBooster to receive the prestigious @jacknicklaus Award was incredibly generous! Very special day. #GoNoles #OneTribe pic.twitter.com/FoFIxxTOLQ
— Michael Alford (@SeminoleAlford) June 6, 2021
However, Pak said he hasn’t talked with Koepka about what to expect from life on the PGA Tour. He played with Florida State alum Hank Lebioda two weeks ago, and Lebioda offered some advice. He also said that if Pak has questions, he should reach out for help.
“I thought that was cool and really nice of him,” Pak said.
It’s unfair to judge Pak’s game against the pros, statistically, based on just three rounds on the PGA Tour. However, from an eye-test perspective, he already chips and putts like a pro. He has touch around the greens and can make the ball dance with a wedge. Pak is not long by PGA Tour standards, but he is effective off the tee. What he needs is more power and more experience, especially on the courses he will be playing. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to get that.
For instance, Pak hit driver off the tee on the uphill second hole and found the left side of the fairway. Many pros play either a driving iron, hybrid or fairway wood. Unfortunately, Pak’s tee shot wound up too close to the green to make a full swing, and his half-swing wedge shot went long, leading to a bogey. However, he recovered on the next hole, hitting an approach shot from 134 yards to 17 feet and making the birdie putt.
College awards and honors won’t win John Pak this golf tournament. Birdies will, lots of them. He will start Friday seven shots off Kramer Hickok’s lead at 7 under, but Pak is mature, confident and already looks like someone who thinks he belongs on the big stage.
Two years ago, Morikawa, Wolff and Hovland had that look before the start of the Travelers Championship. We knew they would be good, probably soon. Pak appears to be the next young player poised to use the Travelers Championship as a springboard to stardom.