Han joins influx of South Korean talent at Masters

Han joins influx of South Korean talent at Masters

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — When Y.E. Yang won Asia’s first major title at last summer’s PGA Championship, Han Chang-won couldn’t even celebrate.

He was too busy finishing a tournament of his own.

The 19-year-old is the latest to join the influx of Asian talent, particularly from South Korea. Han won the inaugural Asian Amateur Championship to qualify for this week’s Masters, where he will be joined by fellow South Koreans Yang, K.J. Choi and U.S. Amateur champion An Byeong-hun.

“I’m very happy,” Han said Tuesday. “Not only for myself, but also for the golf associations throughout Korea.”

Golf has long been popular in Asia, and it has produced a few successful players over the years – Japan’s Isao Aoki finished second to Jack Nicklaus at the 1980 U.S. Open. But no Asian had won a major before Yang, and the development of the men’s game had lagged behind the women in South Korea.

But that is starting to change.

Not only did Han win the Asian Amateur, but fellow South Koreans Eric Chun and Kim Meen-whee finished second and third in the 116-player field. A fourth South Korean, Park Il-hwan, just missed the top 10. The Asian Amateur is sponsored in part by Augusta National Golf Club and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club to spur development in golf’s fastest-growing market, with the trip to the Masters the biggest perk for the winner.

With its length and premium on accuracy, Augusta National is daunting even for veterans, let alone those who’ve never seen it before. No wonder no amateur has made the cut the last four years.

Han did his best to prepare long-distance. He bought a DVD of the 2001 tournament, which Tiger Woods won to complete the “Tiger Slam.” He read magazine articles. He pored over Web sites detailing Augusta National’s design.

Nothing quite prepared him for that first glimpse of Augusta National in person, however.

“It’s more than I imagined coming here,” Han said. “Yesterday, when I was playing, I was very, very nervous with the amount of crowd that I saw. As I played and got used to the crowd, I think I will do well. And my goal is to make the cut.”

Han said he felt a little more at ease Tuesday, when he played a practice round with Choi and An. Han will be paired with 2007 Masters champion Zach Johnson and Sweden’s Henrik Stenson for the first two rounds.

“(Choi) has been very helpful around the course because he’s been here before and he’s a veteran, and he showed me a lot as far as course knowledge is concerned,” Han said.

While Chun is at Northwestern – he won the Big Ten title last year, the first freshman to do so since Steve Stricker in 1986 – and An plans to start at Berkeley this fall, Han said he will go to college in South Korea.

As for a professional career, that’s down the road.

“I have no plans of turning pro at this time,” he said. “My goal is to play the best I can right now.”

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