U.S. Amateur finalists have Masters on their mind

August 29, 2009

__TULSA, OKLA.--One grew up 50 miles from Augusta National GC, the other roughly a half a world away. Still, both__Ben Martin and Byeong-Hun "Ben" An have held the same goal for as long as they can remember: to one day compete in the Masters.

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.