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.”
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.”