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.”

U.S. Amateur: Articles, videos and photos

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.”

Getty Images

Punch shot: Predictions for the 147th Open

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 18, 2018, 4:00 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – In advance of the 147th Open Championship, GolfChannel.com writers sound off on burning questions as players ready for a fast and firm test at Carnoustie. Here’s what our writers think about myriad topics:

The Monday morning headline will be …

REX HOGGARD: “Survival.” This one is easy. It always is at Carnoustie, which is widely considered The Open’s most demanding major championship test. Monday’s headline will be that the champion - pick a champion, any one will do - “survived” another dramatic Open. You don’t dominate Carnoustie; you endure.

RYAN LAVNER: “DJ Bashes Way to Victory at Carnoustie.” If somehow a two-win season could be disappointing, it has been for DJ. He’s first in scoring average, birdie average, par-4 scoring, par-5 scoring, strokes gained: tee to green and proximity from the rough. Those last two stats are the most important, especially here at Carnoustie, with these dry conditions. The game’s preeminent long-and-straight driver, there’s a better-than-decent chance he rolls.

MERCER BAGGS: “Rahm Tough: Spaniard charges to Open victory.” Jon Rahm will claim him maiden major title this week by powering his way through the winds and fescue at Carnoustie.

JAY COFFIN: “Thomas wins second major, ascends to world No. 1 again.” Shortly after The Open last year, Thomas rolled through the end of the PGA Tour season. This is the time of year he likes best. Despite a poor Open record the last two years, he’s not remotely concerned. He’s a tad miffed he didn’t win in France two weeks ago and comes to Carnoustie refreshed, with a gameplan, and ready to pounce.

Who or what will be the biggest surprise?

HOGGARD: Style of play. Given Carnoustie’s reputation as a brute, the surprise will be how the champion arrives at his lofty perch. Unlike previous editions at Carnoustie, this week’s dry conditions will promote more aggressive play off the tee and the winner will defy the norm and power his way to victory.

LAVNER: Tiger Woods. This is Woods’ best chance to win a major this year, and here’s believing he contends. His greatest strengths are his iron game and scrambling, and both aspects will be tested to the extreme at Carnoustie, helping separate him from some of the pretenders. With even a little cooperation from his putter, he should be in the mix.

BAGGS: Padraig Harrington. He had a good opening round last week at the Scottish Open and has some good vibes being the 2007 Open champion at Carnoustie. He won’t contend for four rounds, but a few days in the mix would be a nice surprise.

COFFIN: Alex Noren. Perhaps someone ranked 11th in the world shouldn’t be a surprise, but with so much focus on some of the bigger, household names, don’t be surprised when Noren is in contention on Sunday. He hasn’t finished worse than 25th since early May and won two weeks ago in France. He also tied for sixth place last year at Royal Birkdale.

Who or what will be the biggest disappointment?

HOGGARD: Jordan Spieth. Although he was brilliant on his way to victory last year at Royal Birkdale, Spieth is not the same player for this week’s championship, the byproduct of a balky putter that has eroded his confidence. Spieth said giving back the claret jug this week was hard, but his finish will be even tougher.

LAVNER: Weather. This might sound a little sadistic, but one of the unique joys of covering this tournament is to watch the best in the world battle conditions they face only once a year – the bone-chilling cold, the sideways rain, the howling wind. It doesn’t appear as though that’ll happen this year. With only a few hours of light rain expected, and no crazy winds in the forecast, the biggest challenge for these stars will be judging the bounces on the hard, baked-out turf.

BAGGS: Jordan Spieth. The defending champion is still trying to find his winning form and Carnoustie doesn’t seem the place to do that. As much as he says he loves playing in strong winds, there should be enough danger around here to frustrate Spieth into a missed cut.

COFFIN: Rory McIlroy. I hope I’m wrong on this, because the game is better when Rory is in contention at majors. Putting always has been his issue and seemingly always will be. While there isn’t as much of a premium placed on putting this week because of slower greens, he may still have to hit it close. Super close.

What will be the winning score?

HOGGARD: 10 under. The last two Opens played at Carnoustie were won with 7-under and 6-over totals, but this week’s conditions will favor more aggressive play and lower scores. Expect to see plenty of birdies, but the great equalizer will come on Sunday when wind gusts are forecast to reach 25 mph.

LAVNER: 15 under. An Open at Carnoustie has never produced a winner lower than 9 under (Tom Watson in 1975), but never have the conditions been this susceptible to low scores. Sure, the fairway bunkers are still a one-shot penalty, but today’s big hitters can fly them. The thin, wispy rough isn’t much of a deterrent. And the wind isn’t expected to really whip until the final day.

BAGGS: 12 under. We aren’t going to see the same kind of weather we have previously witnessed at Carnoustie, and that’s a shame. Any players who catch relatively benign conditions should be able to go low, as long as they can properly navigate the fairway rollout.

COFFIN: 14 under. Walked into a local golf shop in the town of Carnoustie wearing a Golf Channel logo and the man behind the counter said, “It’ll take 14 under to win this week.” Well, he’s been here for years and seen Carnoustie host The Open twice before. He knows more about it than I do, so I’ll stick with his number.

@kharms27 on Instagram

Watch: Na plays backwards flop and practices lefty

By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 3:16 pm

Fresh off his victory at The Greenbrier, Kevin Na is taking a quite-literally-backwards approach to his Open prep.

Caddie Kenny Harms has been sharing videos of Na's early work at Carnoustie.

This one shows Na standing in a bunker and playing a flop shot over his own head (as opposed to someone else's):

While it's unlikely he'll have a need for that exact shot this week, it's far more likely a player may have to think about turning his club over and playing from the wrong side of the ball, like so:

Na has made 4 of 6 cuts at The Open and will look to improve on his best career finish, currently a T-22 in 2016 at Royal Troon.

Getty Images

McIlroy growing 'comfortable' on Open courses

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 1:45 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – For a player who once complained about the vagaries of links golf, Rory McIlroy enters this Open with a dazzling record in the sport’s oldest championship.

Though he missed the 2015 event because of an ankle injury, McIlroy has now posted three consecutive top-5 finishes in the year’s third major.

“It’s surprising a little bit that my best form in major championships has been this tournament,” he said Wednesday, “but at the same time I’ve grown up these courses, and I’m comfortable on them. I think going to courses on The Open rota that I’ve played quite a lot. I think that helps. You have a comfort level with the golf course, and you’ve built up enough experience to know where to hit and where not to hit it.”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

McIlroy still regrets what happened in 2015, when he “did something slightly silly” and injured his ankle while playing soccer a few weeks before the event. That came a year after he triumphed at Royal Liverpool.

“Since 2010, I couldn’t wait to play The Open at St. Andrews,” he said. “I thought that was one of my best chances to win a major.”

He tied for 42nd at Carnoustie in 2007, earning low-amateur honors.  

@radiosarks on Twitter

Height of irony: Phil putts in front of 'rules' sign

By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 1:36 pm

A picture is worth 1,000 words and potentially two strokes for playing a moving ball under Rule 14-5 but not Rule 1-2.

Phil Mickelson has been having some fun during his Open prep at Carnoustie hitting flop shots over human beings, but the irony of this photo below is too obvious to go over anyone's head.

Mickelson also tried tapping down fescue two weeks ago at The Greenbrier, incurring another two-shot penalty.

And so we're left to wonder about what Phil asked himself back at Shinnecock Hills: "The real question is, ‘What am I going to do next?’”