JONES CREEK, Ga. – Watch Gunn Yang for seven consecutive days, and you, too, would predict big things. From his bold shot-making to his closer’s mentality to his raw power, it’s mind-boggling that his current world ranking (776) is closer to 1,000 than 10.
That position will skyrocket, of course, after his stunning U.S. Amateur victory Sunday over Corey Conners in the 36-hole final at Atlanta Athletic Club. Even so, recent history suggests that we’d be wise to view Yang’s accomplishment for what it is – a remarkable, improbable, singular achievement – than for what it might mean tomorrow.
San Diego State coach Ryan Donovan said that his biggest dilemma moving forward was not just getting his player back on scholarship – Yang’s money was cut after the spring season, partly as a motivator – but keeping the 20-year-old redshirt sophomore from turning pro early.
“It’s going to be a game-changer,” Donovan said.
But don’t be so sure. Winning the U.S. Amateur doesn’t always guarantee greatness.
In fact, since 2000, U.S. Am champs have gone on to capture only three titles on the PGA Tour (all by Ryan Moore), nine on the Web.com circuit and six on the Euro Tour. In that sense, the Havemeyer has actually begun to resemble college football’s Heisman Trophy, in that it doesn’t always ensure pro-level success. Over that same span (2000-13), only one Heisman winner has won an NFL playoff game: quarterback Tim Tebow, who is currently out of the league.
Sure, the future still looks bright for players such as Peter Uihlein (24 years old) and Matt Fitzpatrick (19), but over the past decade and a half there have been more U.S. Am duds (Jeff Quinney, Bubba Dickerson, Nick Flanagan) than studs.
So why haven’t more Amateur winners gone on to better pro careers? Here are a couple of likely explanations:
• Most obviously, it is more difficult to win a 72-hole stroke-play event against 155 other players than to defeat six guys in 18-hole match play. Though the Am requires a sustained stretch of high-level golf, luck certainly plays a role.
• There is internal pressure to meet (and exceed) the heightened expectations.
• The era of U.S. Am winners like Arnie, Jack, Phil and Tiger appears over. With the PGA Tour’s wraparound schedule and changes to Q-School, many of the elite amateur players are turning pro after NCAAs in June (unless they choose to represent the U.S. at the Walker Cup in odd-numbered years).
Armed with all of the necessary tools (size, speed, length, strong work ethic), it’s certainly conceivable that Yang will go on to reach great heights. But last week may also prove to be an aberration, a red-hot week in which he downed five top-100 players and captured the most prestigious title in amateur golf in his first USGA event.
After all, the swiftness of his turnaround makes you wonder. Here is a kid who only three weeks ago withdrew from an event because he was 6 over after nine holes, who finished T-87 in his most recent college event, who had played so poorly in two seasons that he lost his scholarship and who underwent back surgery last May.
All of that in a 1 1/2-year span, and now Yang is in possession of a trophy so large that it won’t fit in his bedroom back home in San Diego.
Whether he ever adds to that collection is worth watching.