TULSA, Okla.(AP) Byeong-Hun An moved to the United States in pursuit of a better golf game.
He left his life and his mother half a world away and moved to a country where he didn’t speak the language to learn the game he’d first tried out by chance one day while his father was hitting balls at the driving range.
At 17, he entered the 109th U.S. Amateur in hopes of making it through the stroke-play qualifying portion and into match play. He left with the trophy, the youngest ever to do so.
“It was a good decision, I think. Thanks to my dad telling me to come over here to play golf. It was definitely worth it,” An said. “I guess I’ll have to try to win the bigger ones now.”
An will get a chance to play in just about all the bigger ones. He earns an exemption into next year’s U.S. Open and British Open and, if tradition holds, he’ll be invited to play in the Masters, too. Not bad for a kid who’s still a senior in high school.
“I can’t believe it. I just won,” said An, who was missing the first week of school at Bradenton (Fla.) Preparatory Academy to play in the tournament. “I’ve said it before, but my goal was to make it to the first round and then somehow I made it this far. I think I got lucky.”
An defeated Clemson senior Ben Martin 7 and 5 in the 36-hole final on a brutal Sunday at Southern Hills Country Club, the site of the 2007 PGA Championship. He was 9 over on the day, but that still put him well ahead of the struggling Martin.
An is the second straight champion born in South Korea. He moved to Florida 3 1/2 years ago to work on his game at the IMG Academy. He had won only one tournament since he started playing at age 6.
Now, he’ll take home the Havemeyer Trophy to put alongside the Olympic table tennis medals won by both of his parents at the 1988 Seoul Games. And it’ll be great timing: In about 10 days, his mom is planning to visit from China for the first time since January.
His dad, Jae, spent the week caddying for him and providing advice – sometimes to the point that An had to tell him to stop talking.
“He was saying the same thing all day, but it helped,” said An, who has committed to play for California next year.
An took a 3 up lead by winning three of the last four holes in the pairing’s first of two 18-hole rounds. He doubled that edge as Martin bogeyed five of the first seven holes in the afternoon round, then closed it out after a short-lived comeback attempt by Martin.
An, who turns 18 on Sept. 17, is about a month and a half younger than Danny Lee was when he broke Tiger Woods’ record last year to become the U.S. Amateur’s youngest champion. Lee was 18 years, 1 month, while Woods was seven months older than that when he won his first of three straight titles in 1994.
Other past champions include Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Phil Mickelson.
“He’s a good player, no matter how old he is,” said Martin, 22. “I was just out there trying to play my game and do what I needed to do, but I didn’t have it going and wasn’t playing well enough to apply any pressure.”
Martin was 1 up at the turn in the morning round and the match was all square after he knocked his tee shot at No. 14 off the flagstick, then had to recover for bogey when his ball rolled all the way off the green and into a bunker. It was a sign of things to come.
An won the next three holes, following Martin’s three-putt at No. 15 by sinking a 15-foot birdie putt. Martin then drove over the green on the par-4 17th, flubbed a chip and couldn’t recover.
He briefly sliced into the lead when An made bogey to start the afternoon, but then hit over the green and into the water at No. 2. That started a stretch in which An won four of six holes without ever making a birdie.
“As tough as this golf course is, you’ve got to be hitting quality shots,” said Martin, who was 15 over. “I was just kind of out there searching for something and never found it.”
Martin won back-to-back holes at the final turn to get to 4 down, but An slammed the door by winning the next three holes – starting with a birdie at the par-3 11th.
“Like Ben, I didn’t play well, actually,” An said. “He made more mistakes than me. I think that’s how I won.”