Yang completes improbable journey to U.S. Am title

By Ryan LavnerAugust 18, 2014, 12:34 am

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Every player enters the U.S. Amateur with dreams of staying for all nine days.

Gunn Yang was more realistic. After surveying the stacked field list, he packed light, stuffing only four shirts and three pairs of shorts in his suitcase.

“I didn’t want to make my luggage too heavy,” he joked.

But let’s face it, Yang didn’t expect to be in town this long, let alone capture the most prestigious title in amateur golf.

After a marathon Sunday at Atlanta Athletic Club, Yang became one of the most implausible winners in U.S. Amateur history, defeating Canadian Corey Conners, 2 and 1, in the scheduled 36-hole final.

“When I made it to match play, I told myself that maybe I can do this,” said Yang, who never trailed during the championship match. “I was just trying to go through every single match and trying to play my game and see how it goes. And I got the trophy.”

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Consider the odds: 6,803 entrants were whittled down to 312 qualifiers who advanced to the 64-man match-play bracket that was trimmed to two finalists, and the player who emerged victorious was Yang, a little-known 20-year-old from South Korea. This is a player who has played only four college events and lost his golf scholarship at San Diego State because of poor performance; who is only 15 months removed from back surgery; who withdrew from an event only three weeks ago because of shoddy play; and who, incredibly, is ranked No. 776 in the world, the lowest ever to hoist the Havemeyer Trophy.

“Obviously I want to go crazy,” he said, “but I’m doing an interview right now. I can’t go crazy right here. But I’m really happy about it.”

And so ended one of the most unpredictable U.S. Amateurs in recent memory, a theme that was established early on Thursday.

During the second round, half of the 32 remaining players were ranked inside the top 100 in the world, a group that didn’t even include a four-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion (Nathan Smith), the newly crowned Publinx winner (Byron Meth), a highly accomplished member of the Canadian national team (Garrett Rank) and the 2013 Southern Am champ (Zach Olsen). All of the pieces for an intriguing championship were in place, especially with 12 of the top 100 players going head-to-head in the Round of 32. Except by the end of the two-round doubleheader, only four remained.

That’s just the luck of the draw, perhaps, but it’s also worth noting the evolution of this event. Since 2011, when the USGA first offered the top 50 players in the world an exemption, the field has undoubtedly gotten deeper with the influx of international players who would otherwise have no reason to travel across the pond. That’s positive. (Especially now that seven of the last 12 winners have been international.)

More often than not, though, those elite players effectively negate each other, one by one, undone either by an off day or the vagaries of 18-hole match play. So it was that after combining to play 176 holes and 12 matches over five days, the only players remaining were No. 44 Conners, a U.S. Am semifinalist a year ago, and No. 776 Yang, playing in his first USGA championship.

Also at work now at this event is the changing dynamics of the pro game. Many of the top players from the 2013-14 college golf season are already three months into their pro careers, and it’s hard to blame them. The PGA Tour’s wraparound schedule and subsequent changes to Q-School have given college kids much to debate after NCAAs in June: Should they join the play-for-pay ranks and snatch as many sponsor exemptions as they can, trying to crack the season-ending Tour Finals? Or do they defer their decision until after the summer, with the U.S. Am offering both Masters and U.S. Open berths to the finalists?  

Conners, 22, chose the latter route after graduating from Kent State in May, opting for another summer on the Canadian national team. His commitment was rewarded with berths in the first two majors of 2015.

Yang’s long-term future seems even more dubious, given his virtually non-existent résumé and medical history.

Prior to this week, he was an unknown commodity to just about everyone – even his college coach.

Born in South Korea, Yang moved to Australia when he was 12 and played amateur golf for five years before moving to the States. He attended Torrey Pines High School in San Diego and earned a scholarship to play at the hometown university, even without the usual credentials. He is now a redshirt sophomore.

“We like to look for guys who we feel have a big ceiling ahead of them and a lot of room to grow,” San Diego State coach Ryan Donovan said. “Most of the time you miss, but every once in a while you hit on one.

“For a program like us, we try to take more chances on those guys. We’re maybe not the biggest school in the country. We’re maybe not getting the top kid. But we like to find the guy who is a little rough around the edges, a little more blue collar.”

Prior to this week, the flier hadn’t panned out. Plagued by back issues since 2008, Yang underwent laser endoscopic spinal surgery in May 2013 to fix a herniated disk. His back will tighten up on occasion, even now, and Yang says he’s only about “90 percent” physically. With only four events on his record and a scoring average north of 74, Yang’s scholarship was taken away after the spring season. Donovan hoped the demotion would inspire his young player to maximize his talent.  

“I was mad,” Yang said. “I was so mad.”

Here’s guessing you’ll be back under scholarship in the fall, yes?

“I better!” he said. “Or else I’m going to transfer.”

A few weeks ago, Yang was so lost that he withdrew from the California State Open during the first round. After working on his game for five days, he played in the Southern California Golf Association Match Play Championship and lost in the quarterfinals.  

Fast-forward to the U.S. Am, and just to reach the semifinals Yang was forced to defeat players who were, in order, ranked No. 37 (Seth Reeves), No. 23 (Paul Howard), No. 1 (Ollie Schniederjans) and No. 100 (Cameron Young). Compared to that gauntlet, Conners had a relative cakewalk: After dispatching 2013 U.S. Junior champion Scottie Scheffler in the opener, he beat only one other top-100 player this week, Virginia senior Denny McCarthy, whom he topped, 1 up, in the semis.  

Yang’s semifinal matchup here against unheralded Fred Wedel was the best of the week, a showdown of improbable stories: Yang with no big-stage chops, and then Wedel, who was was trying to figure out golf and life on his own, with money tight and a father who has been bedridden since Fred was 10 years old. What ensued was a fascinating, high-stakes game of 1-on-1 between two players ranked outside the top 600.

Alas, this 36-hole final lacked those pyrotechnics.  

Worn down after seven days of nonstop stress, both players combined to make only eight birdies in 35 holes. Five holes were halved with bogey. Including the usual concessions, both Yang (2) and Conners (3) were over par for the day.  

So for a while Sunday it looked like a glorified pillow fight, ugly golf on the biggest stage, until Yang took aim at the soft greens after a 1-hour, 37-minute rain delay. He sank an 18-foot birdie putt on 14. He stuffed another short iron to 5 feet on 16. His tee shot on 17 flew straight over the flag, coming to rest 18 feet away.  

“He didn’t really have any weaknesses out there,” Conners said. “He didn’t give me any openings to climb through.”

When the 17th hole was halved with par, with his place in history secure, Yang punctuated his victory with a few fist pumps and a primal scream.  

“I think it’s a great story for golf,” Donovan said. “Somebody who isn’t that guy with the big résumé, and now he can say that he’s got a fair shot just like everybody else. You can change your life, really, in one week. It’s going to be a game-changer.”

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.

Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.

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Fleetwood rallies to defend Abu Dhabi title

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 12:48 pm

The 2018 European Tour season has begun just as the 2017 one ended: with Tommy Fleetwood's name atop the standings.

Facing the most difficult conditions of the week, Fleetwood charged down the stretch to shoot a 7-under 65 in the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, good enough for a two-shot win and a successful title defense.

Abu Dhabi was the start of Fleetwood's resurgence a year ago, the first of two European Tour victories en route to the season-long Race to Dubai title. This time around the Englishman started the final round two shots off the lead but rallied with six birdies over his final nine holes to reclaim the trophy.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood was five shots behind countryman Ross Fisher when he made the turn, but he birdied the par-5 10th and then added four birdies in a five-hole stretch from Nos. 12-16. The decisive shot came on the final hole, when his pitch from the left rough nestled within a few feet of the hole for a closing birdie.

Fleetwood's 22-under total left him two shots ahead of Fisher and four shots clear of Rory McIlroy and Matthew Fitzpatrick. After entering the week ranked No. 18, Fleetwood is expected to move to at least No. 12 in the world when the new rankings are published.