Truth be told, history is far more likely to recall what the 17-year-old South Korean import accomplished--becoming the youngest winner of the USGA's oldest event yesterday--than how he accomplished it. Shooting the equivalent of nine over par with the usual match-play concessions will fade with time, particularly when you consider the convincing 7-and-5 final score.
The saving grace for An was the fact his opponent, Clemson fifth-year senior Ben Martin, struggled even more with his game on Sunday, hitting just nine of 24 fairways and only 12 of 31 greens while shooting 15 over on the day.
"As tough as this golf course is, you've got to be hitting quality shots," Martin said. "I was just kind of out there searching for something and never found it, especially in that second 18."
To say their collective play during the championship match was ragged would be an understatement. An and Martin made just five birdies between them, offset by 23 bogeys and three double bogeys. Amazingly, on just three of the 31 holes did both players safely hit their drives in the fairway and approach shots on the green.
"We were both exhausted after all the rounds, and then you have to play 36 holes today," said An. "Obviously that makes people tired. I think that's why we both made a lot of mistakes on the course today."
Indeed, it was obvious that, after six grueling days of competition on a golf course that tested both the physical and mental aspects of their games, the last two men standing simply couldn't stand for very much longer. (And to think what it might have been like that the 95-degree heat at the start of the week lingered through the weekend, instead of the low 80s that arrived for the weekend.)
"It was as much mental fatigue as anything," said Martin's father/caddie, Jim. "He was indecisive about club selection. He'd pull something out and then put it back in. That hadn't happened to him all week."
Sure Martin would have loved to have won, but the consolation prizes for having reached the finals--spots in next year's Masters and U.S. Open--are sure to soothe a bruised ego.
As for An, he'll be making his way to Augusta National and Pebble Beach, too, as well as taking a trip to St. Andrews for the British Open. Two months later, he expects to arrive on campus at Cal-Berkley, where he has verbally committed to play golf for the Bears after graduating from high school next spring. Unlike the previous holder of the "youngest Amateur champion" label, Danny Lee, An says he has no intention of turning professional any time soon.
In his immediate future, An actually has another tournament to play. After spending a few days back home in Bradenton, Fla., catching up on the first week of school that he missed, An will drive to Jacksonville and play in the AJGA Junior Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass Sept. 3-6.
"I’ll enjoy this moment right now, but starting next week, ... I’ll go back to the same mentality I had a few days ago before I played this tournament,” An said. “I’ll try to ignore [the expectations]. I’ve still got a long career to go. It’s not done.”
On the contrary, it's only just begun.
Tringale, a first-team All-American who graduated last spring from Georgia Tech, and Uihlein, a sophomore at Oklahoma State, both made the match play portion of this week's U.S. Amateur at Southern Hills. Tringale lost in the third round to David Lingmerth, while Uihlein advanced to the quarterfinals before losing to Charlie Holland.
Tringale was a qualifier for the U.S. Open this past summer at Bethpage. "It's a huge satisfaction," he said Sunday. "I've worked for this two years, designed my life around achieving this goal, and it's pretty special. It's definitely worth the sacrifices and hard work. I thought I had a good chance, but you never really know. I was thrilled when I got the call."
Uihlein had top-15 finishes this summer at the Sunnehanna Amateur, Northeast Amateur, Southern Amateur and Porter Cup.
Tim Jackson and U.S. Amateur runner-up Ben Martin are the alternates for the team.
U.S. WALKER CUP TEAM
Bud Cauley, 19, Jacksonville, Fla.
Rickie Fowler, 20, Murrieta, Calif.
Brendan Gielow, 21, Muskegon, Mich.
Brian Harman, 22, Savannah, Ga.
Morgan Hoffmann, 19, Saddle Brook, N.J.
Adam Mitchell, 22, Chattanooga, Tenn.
Nathan Smith, 30, Pittsburgh, Pa.
Cameron Tringale, 21, Laguna Niguel, Calif.
Peter Uihlein, 20, Orlando
Drew Weaver, 22, High Point, N.C.
Suffice it to say, Southern Hills CC got the best of both finalists through the first half of play Sunday. The two made a combined four birdies offset by 10 bogeys and three double bogeys in breezy but comfortable playing conditions.
An, a 17-year-old native of South Korea trying to become the youngest winner of the Amateur title, finished with the equivalent of five over par score (including normal concessions); Martin, a fifth-year senior at Clemson, was seven over. Martin's luck was so off that even when he hit a good shot, it turned out bad. On the par-3 14th, Martin's tee ball struck the flag stick, only to bounce into the front right bunker.
The morning portion of the match proved to be a see-saw affair as only four of the 18 holes were halved (one of them, the par-3 197-yard sixth, was split with matching double bogeys).
Still, while both players held the lead at one point, neither extended it beyond a 1-up advantage until An made a 10-foot birdie putt on the 16th and got up and down for par from behind the green on the 17th to stretch to 3 up.
An hit 11 fairways but just nine greens while Martin hit only five fairways and nine greens.
Aside from what's at stake for the players themselves, there are other golfers who are watching the outcome closely. If Martin wins, he will secure one of the final two spots on the U.S. Walker Cup team that will play in two weeks at Merion GC--leaving just one spot for a handful of hopefuls that include Northeast Amateur champion Dan Woltman, collegiate All-American Mike Van Sickle, Peter Uihlein, who advanced to the quarterfinals of the Amateur this week, and Tim Jackson, medalist at Southern Hills. Should An win, however, both spots for the team will available for the USGA International Team Selection Committee to choose.
USGA course set-up guru Mike Davis has famously brought the drivable par 4 into fashion at the U.S. Open, so should it be any surprise that he's had fun with the short par-4 17th here at Southern Hills?
For the morning 18 of the championship match, Davis placed the tee 290 yards from the hole, enticing Martin to go for it with a driver after An had laid up in the fairway with an iron. Martin's ball hit the green but bounded down the shaved back slope. He then proceeded to flub his second shot en route to a bogey 5. An's approach shot from the fairway also bounced over the green but he managed to get up and down for par to extend his lead to 3 up.
For the afternoon 18, if breeze continues to blow from the north (downwind) Davis said he may push the tees back to the 306-yard teeing ground.
With semifinal victories Saturday at the 109th U.S. Amateur, both will get the chance to live their dream next April, the carrot for reaching the final of the USGA's oldest national championship.
"They started last night creeping into my mind, and I couldn't sleep," said An, a 17-year-old South Korea native who defeated Bhavik Patel, 3 and 2, at Southern Hills CC, when asked if he ever thought about playing at Augusta during his match. "By my dad kept telling me just to calm down."
"I don't think it's really sunk in yet that I'll be playing in Augusta," said Martin, a 22-year-old from Greenwood, S.C., who defeated the hottest player in the championship, Charlie Holland, beating the Texas senior 5 and 4.
Advancing to the U.S. Amateur finals also earned the two Bens an exemptions into next year's U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
In the An/Patel match, neither player held more than a 1-up advantage through the first 14 holes, the lead shifting back and forth through out the round. Patel, a sophomore at Fresno State, moved in front for the first time on the 11th with a par after An shanked his tee shot on the par-3 hole. But An regrouped, making a birdie on the 13th to square the match, then winning the next three holes to close out his opponent.
"I didn't think I played that well," said An, who has lived with his father in the Florida since 2005, attending the David Leadbetter Academy until 18 months ago. "We both made a lot of mistakes. My irons weren't that good but my up-and-downs were pretty good compared to yesterday."
Conversely, Martin, a fifth-year senior at Clemson, rebounded from a shaky performance in his quarterfinal match against David Lingmerth a day earlier, hitting his irons with far more precision as he jumped to a 2-up lead after three holes that stretched to a 4-up advantage through six and a 5-up margin at the turn.
"It was night and day," said Martin regarding the difference in his play, in part the result of a two-hour range session late Friday afternoon. "I was just out there hitting a few balls. Just trying to improve my swing. Nothing specific. Just getting some confidence out there and seeing the ball going where I wanted it to."
Martin also benefited from the fact Holland was struggling off the tee, unable to hit a fairway until the seventh hole. "My driver wasn't great [warming up before the round], and it stuck with me the rest of the day," Holland said. "I was all over the place, missing fairways and greens."
Last April, Martin was in attendance at the Masters, something he has had the luxury of doing every year since 1996. His grandmother owns two Masters badges when he hasn't been able to get tickets from family friends.
“I’ve played Augusta one time when [Clemson] team got to go there,” Martin said. “It was January and about 40 degrees so it really wasn’t too much fun.”
Martin also attended a second major championship this year, having qualified to compete at the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black. At one point during his first round, Martin was two under par and his name was up on the leader board. A friend snuck a photo of the moment, which Martin's family proudly displays. (Martin missed the cut at Bethpage.)
"I think having that experience at Bethpage has been a big help," said Martin, who twice has won All-ACC honors while playing for the Tigers. "I'm a little more comfortable with the crowds. There were a lot of fans out today, but it's nothing compared to the Open."
For An, though, Saturday's crowd of upwards of 1,000 spectators was the largest he's ever played in front of. While not having won any tournament since a junior event five years ago, An earned first-team AJGA All-American honors a year ago, tied for second at the AJGA Rolex Tournament of Champions in July and was a quarterfinalist at the Western Amateur earlier this month. He has made a verbal commitment to play at Cal-Berkley starting in the fall of 2011.
Suffice it to say, there is plenty more to play for Sunday at Southern Hills. The winner of the 36-hole final also will get an invitation to the British Open at St. Andrews. Should Martin win he will also grab one of the two remaining spots on the U.S. Walker Cup team roster. Should An prevail, he would become the youngest champion (17 years, 11 months, 13 days), breaking the mark Danny Lee set a year ago (18 years, 1 month) at Pinehurst No. 2.
An's father, Jae-Hyung, won a bronze medal in the doubles table tennis for South Korea during the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. An's mother, Zhi Min Jiao, won silver in doubles and a bronze in single during the same games, playing for her native China. (It was at the Olympics that the two actually met.)
Jae-Hyung turned professional in the sport and served as an instructor for the Korean national team until he came to the U.S. in 2005 when his son enrolled at the David Leadbetter Academy.
"He's pretty good at it," said Jae-Hyung when asked if his son plays table tennis at all. "He can beat most of his friends."
Asked what would be more impressive, his son winning the U.S. Amateur title or the Olympic medals, Jae-Hyung played coy. "They're equal."
After Martin's quarterfinal victory Friday, Suzie was set to arrive in Tulsa last night, taking a flight from South Carolina and connecting through Houston. Bad weather in both South Carolina and Houston forced the first flight to have to detour to Beaumont, Texas, to be refueled. By the time it finally arrived in Houston, Suzie had missed her connection to Tulsa.
After spending the night in Houston, Suzie finally got to Tulsa this morning, and arrived on the course when her son's match was on the seventh hole. The good news: Ben was 4-up on Charlie Holland at the time.
"The Country Club is thrilled to have the opportunity to host one of golf’s most prestigious events for the sixth time," said Sandy Tierney, chairman of the 2013 U.S. Amateur. "Amateur golf, in general, and the U.S. Amateur Championship, in particular, meant a great deal to Francis Ouimet and continue to be highly valued by The Country Club. The 2013 U.S. Amateur will offer a wonderful stage to celebrate amateur golf and the centennial anniversary of Mr. Ouimet's unforgettable achievement."
Charles River CC in Newton Centre, Mass., will serve as the second course for the stroke-play rounds of the championship.
"I knew the moment I did it that I was in trouble," said Jim, who created some panic when he mistakenly raked his son's ball mark in a bunker on the fifth hole while the ball was still in the hazard. The rules breach cost Ben a loss-of-hole penalty, causing him to go 2 down.
"I just happened to turn around right when he was doing it and said, 'No,' but I couldn't catch him," Ben said. "I know he felt terrible about it. I just told him, 'Forget about it and let's keep going.' "
Indeed, the fifth-year senior at Clemson, whose previous claim to fame had been having his name appear on the leader board early in the first round of the U.S. Open last June, used the moment to compose himself after a shaky start.
"I walked to the back of the [next] tee and said, 'All right. Let's forget about that and hit a good shot here.' "
Three holes later, Martin had squared the match and never trailed again en route to victory and a spot in Saturday's semifinals.
Martin admitted his game wasn't as sharp as he would have liked it to be--he made seven bogeys to three birdies--but a win is a win.
The same goes for Bhavik Patel, who also made seven bogeys during his quarterfinal match with Phillip Mollica, but somehow managed to beat former North & South Amateur champion, 1 up.
Key to Patel's victory was his conceded birdie to win the par-3 14th hole and square his match after his tee shot stopped just on the lip of the hole. "I actually hit [the ball] on the toe, and I thought it was going to be way short," Patel said. "Luckily it ended up just bouncing shot and running up to the hole."
Set to begin his sophomore year at Fresno State, Patel has almost no experience playing in national amateur events. He tried to qualify for the U.S. Amateur Public Links, but was an alternate. Aside from some local tournaments near his home in Bakersfield, Calif., the 18-year-old has had a quiet summer up to now. If he could win two more matches, however, he'll have invitations to the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open, as well as a spot on the U.S. Walker Cup team.
"It's an awesome feeling," said Patel of just reaching the semifinals. "It still hasn't sunk in yet."
Patel's near ace might not have even been the best shot of the day. Charlie Holland's 7-iron approach shot from 172 yards on the par-4 first, after he and Peter Uihlein remained all square in their quarterfinal match through 18 holes, landed six feet from the cup before trundling to two inches. Uihlein conceded the birdie, and when his 30-foot try raced by the hole, Holland lived to play another day.
Truth be told, Holland thought he had lost the match one hole earlier. On the difficult par-4 18th, Holland and Uihlein both hit their approach shots short of the green, Holland's landing in the front right bunker. Uihlein chipped his third shot to eight feet while Holland's stopped 12 feet short but on the same line. Holland missed his par try, but figured he had given Uihlein a perfect read and that he would no doubt hole his par attempt.
"I took my hat off, and I was ready to shake his hand," said Holland, who was lost in the quarterfinal round last year at the Amateur. "I was hot, and I thought it was done, no question. He putted good all day."
Uihlein, however, didn't hit the putt hard enough, the ball coming up short and left. "My caddied just told me, 'you're still in it,'" Holland said. "'Be patient and stay positive.'"
The last of the four semifinalists is Byeong-Hun An, a 17-year-old South Korean native who has spent the past 3 1/2 years in Florida playing at the David Leadbetter Academy. Han needed 21 holes to defeat Steve Ziegler, but only because he made bogeys on the 17th and 18th holes to squander a 2-up lead.
If An should go on to win the championship, he would become the youngest golfer to claim the title.
9 a.m.--Charlie Holland vs. Ben Martin
9:15 a.m.--Bhavik Patel vs. Byeong-Hun An
"I'm sending this to some guys at the club, who then send it out to a group of people," Holland said as he walked down the first fairway at Southern Hills. "I think the list is up to 500 who are reading it."
Holland started the on-course reporting earlier in the week and had thought about begging off the assignment as Charlie continued to advance in match play. But the outcry was too great from the folks back in Dallas for Holland to put the device away.
"It's actually a good thing," Holland said. "It keeps me from getting too nervous."
The common refrain has been as much one of relief as it was of confidence.
"I haven't been striking the ball all that well out here compared to other people," said Ben Martin, who knocked off Chris Ward and Nico Geyger in Wednesday games to set up today's match with David Lingmerth. "I've just kind of been getting the ball in the hole, grinding it out and getting it done."
"There's a lot of scrambling going on out here," added Charlie Holland. "I'm not doing myself a lot of favors when I'm missing fairways. My short game is saving me."
"It's just of hanging on out there," noted Lingmerth. "You know you're going to have to get up and down to make a few pars and stay in a match. It's a grind."
Give credit--or lay blame--to Southern Hills CC, which has proved an admirable test for the world's best amateurs this week. (For a hole-by-hole course tour, click here.) Mike Davis is best known as the U.S. Open set-up guru, but he also holds guru status for the Amateur as well. Suffice it to say, he has the Perry Maxwell course playing as if the pros were here this week.
One club member, who preferred to remain nameless to make sure the nameplate on his locker isn't unceremoniously removed, said that the course is playing better--and by better he means tougher--than when it hosted the PGA Championship in 2007. "And don't even think about comparing it to the Open in 2001," said the member. "That was a bit of a joke. The guys then would have begged to play it like this."
Making Southern Hills such a challenge is just how tight the fairways are off the tee. There's no truth to the rumor that the medics on site have been treating players for claustrophobia, but if they had a couple pills for it this week, the line would have stretch back to Oklahoma City. Add to that the firm greens that each day become harder and harder to hold if you're hitting approach shots from the rough, and you've got yourself a five-star headache on your hands.
My member friend only smiled as the discussion continued on the course's difficulty. You got the sense the membership is very pleased that their track is kicking some tail rather than the other way around. I was talking with someone the other day who noted that Oakmont CC members are probably the most sadistic group when it comes to having their home course playing so hard on a daily basis that will make you want to take up tennis. He went on to say that the folks at Southern Hills could be distant cousins of the Oakmont folks. I'm starting to agree.
That's not to say the course isn't playing fair. The "balance" between rewarding good shots and penalizing poor ones has been very good through the first four days of the championship.
When I saw Jim Hyler, the USGA championship chairman, yesterday I commented how they seemed to have things dialed in. "Tough course out there, huh?" I said, almost rhetorically.
"That's the way it's suppose to be," Hyler responded with a smile.
Perhaps Steve Ziegler, one of the remaining eight, said it best yesterday after his third-round victory over Dan Woltman in 22 holes.
"I think it's funny that some players are saying their scrambling because who on this golf course is not scrambling," said the Stanford junior. "I mean the fairways are like 18 yards wide. The beauty of the U.S. Amateur is you have to hit near perfect golf shots to have for sure good results."
He's got a point. It is a national championship. And sometimes, to win a national championship, you're not necessarily the best ball striker that week, but actually the best scrambler.