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Yang lowest-ranked ever to reach U.S. Am final

Gunn Yang (center) celebrates his U.S. Amateur semifinal victory over Fred Wedel. (USGA)

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JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – The teetering-on-the-edge chip from the rock wall.

The what-were-you-thinking? 5-iron from the fairway bunker, over water, to set up a conceded eagle.

The cold-blooded wedge shot to 5 feet for a closeout birdie.

Forget the rankings – the No. 619 and No. 776 players in the world can put on quite a show, too.

With his thrilling 19-hole victory Saturday over Fred Wedel at Atlanta Athletic Club, San Diego State sophomore Gunn Yang became the lowest-ranked player ever to reach the U.S. Amateur final.

Not that rankings matter anymore.

The 20-year-old will face Canada’s Corey Conners, 22, in Sunday’s scheduled 36-hole final. By advancing to the championship match, both players have already secured spots in the 2015 Masters and U.S. Open.

In 2011, the USGA tweaked its qualification process to grant the top 50 players in the World Amateur Ranking an automatic exemption into the U.S. Amateur. It was trumpeted as a move that would improve the quality of the field, and indeed it has – since 2011, four of the six finalists have been ranked inside the top 50 worldwide. Last year was a battle between No. 2 Matt Fitzpatrick and No. 13 Oliver Goss.

That’s not the case this year.

Anything can happen in 18-hole match play, of course, and just about everything has over the past six days here at Atlanta Athletic Club. Of the eight quarterfinalists, none was ranked inside the top 35. Three were ranked outside the top 600.

“At this point, the ranking doesn’t really matter,” said Conners, who is No. 44. “There are so many good players.”

Virginia coach Bowen Sergeant has the unique perspective of playing the Am in both 2010 and ’12 – before and after the top-50 exemption rule. The biggest difference, he said, was how difficult it became to reach match play; the 36-hole stroke-play cut was four shots lower in 2012 than in ’10.

“If you’re good enough to get to this point,” he said, “then you’re good enough to have one more good day of golf.”

Said Wedel, a Pepperdine junior: “The rankings are just a number. A lot can change in a year.”

And, apparently, in a week.

Yang and Wedel may have been outside the top 600, but their shot-making during Saturday’s semifinal showdown was worthy of the top spot in the world order.

With the crowd swelling to about 500, only six of their 19 holes played were halved. They were a combined 6 under for their first seven holes. On No. 10, they traded conceded birdies after both players stuffed their approaches inside a foot.

All square on the par-3 17th, Wedel’s tee shot was held up in the wind, the ball landing short and right of the green and trickling back toward the water. Somehow, the ball stayed up on the rock wall, but he faced such an awkward stance that he worried about falling back into the pond. He played one of the most remarkable shots of the tournament, his chip with a turned-down sand wedge scooting over the grassy collar and nestling within 3 feet, but he shoved the putt to go 1 down heading to the last.

Both players found the fairway bunker on the par-5 18th. With a 1-up advantage and his opponent in a similar predicament, Yang inexplicably attempted to go for the green from 220 yards. His 5-iron shot came out too low and never had a chance, splashing into themiddle of the pond fronting the green.

“That was embarrassing,” he said afterward.

Why didn’t Yang lay up?

“It’s a tough shot for you or me, maybe,” said his local caddie, Richard Grice, “but (219) is not a lay-up distance. He plays aggressively. I’ve had to recalibrate my strategic thinking to his specific play.”

Even more aggressive was what came next. After watching his opponent seemingly sink his chances, and about 10 yards closer, Wedel smashed a 5-iron that cleared everything and landed about 10 feet from the cup to send the match to extras.

The momentum proved short-lived. After a big drive, Yang hit sand wedge from 114 yards – the same distance he had in regulation – to within 5 feet. The birdie gave him the victory in 19 holes.

“I lost the (18th), but the next hole I won it. So what?” Yang said, smiling.

Yang may be outside the top 750 in the world, but he is a raw product who is just now beginning to realize his awesome potential. Plagued by back issues since 2008, he finally went under the knife last May, when doctors felt his body had properly matured. Playing catch-up, he has competed in only four college events with San Diego State, and he’s been relegated to mostly local Southern California tournaments during the summer.

A sterling résumé or not, Yang finished birdie-birdie-birdie here to defeat world No. 1 Ollie Schniederjans in the Round of 16.  

“Who is that guy?” Schniederjans asked after the round.

Well, statistically speaking, he’s the 776th-ranked player in the world.

By now, though, we know better than that.