(REUTERS) - South Korea's Bae Sang-moon returns to the PGA Tour on Thursday after a two-year absence for military service, as the new season begins in northern California.
Less than 100 hours after the old season wrapped up with the Presidents Cup in New Jersey, the 2017-18 campaign starts with the Safeway Open at Silverado Resort in the Napa wine country north of San Francisco.
It will be the first of 49 official money events on the schedule. Bae has not played on the PGA Tour since the 2015 Presidents Cup in his home country of South Korea.
The two-time PGA Tour winner stepped away from golf to complete his mandatory stint in the South Korean military.
He spent his time as a rifleman in the army, honouring the requirement for all able-bodied Korean men between the ages of 18 and 35 to undertake military service.
Bae, 31, returned to competition three weeks ago in his homeland at the Donghae Open, an event co-sanctioned by the Asian Tour and Korean PGA, where he was understandably rusty and missed the cut.
He has time on his side on the PGA Tour, however, with guaranteed exempt status, which provides him with a tour card for a minimum of two years, thanks to his victory at Silverado in 2014.
The tour tweaked its regulations for Bae, so that his two-season exemption as a winner would be delayed until his return from military service.
Also competing this week is Phil Mickelson, who has not won since the 2013 British Open, but thinks another victory might be just around the corner. Mickelson is coming off a strong performance at the Presidents Cup, where he won three of his four matches on the victorious American team.
"It was really a special week, something I'll cherish," he told reporters on Wednesday. He should feel at home this week in his home state of California, where he has secured 11 of his 42 PGA Tour victories.
"I'm really excited to play because I've been playing well. I think I'm going to have a good chance," he said. "My game is back to where I'm wanting it to be. I've got the opportunity to start the new season with a bit of momentum."
Mickelson is the only member of the U.S. Presidents Cup team competing, while two players from the losing International team, Canadian Adam Hadwin and Argentine Emiliano Grillo, will be in action.
The Safeway Open is the first of eight official tournaments over the next seven weeks as the tour visits four countries outside the U.S. - Malaysia, South Korea, China and Mexico - before shutting down for the final six weeks of the year.