Yang captures unlikely U.S. Amateur title

Gunn Yang poses with the Havemeyer Trophy after outlasting Corey Conners to win the 114th U.S. Amateur at Atlanta Athletic Club.

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Ryan Donovan believes in tough love, and Gunn Yang needed a firm kick in the behind as he struggled to shake his deep funk after back surgery took him away from his teammates at San Diego State, as well as from the golf course, his sanctuary.

Donovan broke some bad news to the 20-year-old at the beginning of the spring collegiate season: The 12-year head coach with the Aztecs was taking away his scholarship.

"He's on zero money right now," Donovan said. "It's a motivation. He's a guy that feeds off of that stuff."

Needless to say, Donovan's tactics worked to the tune of an improbable U.S. Amateur title Sunday afternoon at Atlanta Athletic Club's Highlands Course, holding off Corey Conners, 2 and 1, to become the second Korean-born champion in the last five years.

"Obviously the scholarship will be signed on tomorrow," Donovan said.

"(It) better. Or else I'm going to transfer," joked Yang, who will enter his sophomore collegiate campaign in two weeks.

Yang entered the week as the epitome of an underdog, ranked No. 776 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking and facing an uphill battle to even make match play, which he says was his only goal coming into the week.

But then he knocked off former Georgia Tech All-American Seth Reeves. Then two matches later, he'd shock the amateur golf world by dispatching of World No. 1 Ollie Schniederjans, 1 up.

"Who is that guy?" Schniederjans would ask after his shocking loss.

But Yang wasn't done with his magical run, battling back against top junior Cameron Young in the quarterfinals, and then birdieing the 19th hole against Frederick Wedel to advance to Sunday's final.

"Can't I ever end a match before the 18th hole?" Yang would quip to caddie Richard Grice, an AAC board member and passionate golfer who was introduced to Yang through the club.

He finally got his wish Sunday, as he polished off Conners with a gutsy tee ball into the par-3 17th, hitting it to about 12 feet from the far-left pin on the green fronted by water, then two-putting for a victory that was six years in the making.

Yang would never trail against Conners, winning the first two holes of the match and taking a 1-up lead into a 70-minute break between rounds. Yang did so with only two birdies, with Conners missing numerous short putts to get himself back in the match.

"It was hard to win holes. Birdies are hard to come by out here, and Gunn played fantastic golf. Didn't really offer me many opportunities to take holes from him," Conners said.

With 4,330 in attendance throughout the day, Conners would knot the match for the first time with a 12-foot par putt at the par-4 No. 1 to start the second 18 holes, with the duo trading halves for the next four holes.

But Yang's third birdie of the match would give him the lead for good, as he put his drive on the drivable par-4 sixth hole over the green and then got up-and-down, draining an 8-footer as Conners two-putted for a par.

Yang would ride the momentum with a great tee ball on the seventh hole, sticking it to 8 feet and two-putting for a 2-up lead.

Donovan and Yang pointed to improved putting in Yang's ability to stay in matches all week, including Sunday's.

"He said that the greens were so perfect that if he hit his line, he was going to make it," said Donovan, who arrived late Saturday and tagged along with Yang when he arrived at the course at 6:45 a.m. Sunday.

His putting and patience would be tested during the final 11 holes.

After Conners won the 10th hole with a 12-foot birdie that cut Yang's lead to 1 up, heavy rain arrived for a second time on the day, sending the players scurrying for courtesy cars parked behind the 14th green.

The storm initially was forecast to be a short-lived storm, but lightning hit the area for an hour, halting play for 97 minutes and giving Yang a chance to take a 30-minute nap.

Yang was in a groove before the delay, leaving him a bit perturbed to stop. But Grice had a different way of looking at it.

"He hits the ball a long way and with the rain, and I said 'That's going to make the course longer and probably to your advantage,' " Grice said.

And he was right, as Yang was 30-60 yards longer than Conners on Nos. 12, 14 and 16, with the bomb on 14 leading to a birdie that gave him his final two-hole advantage.

Earlier in the week, Yang was awestruck at the thought of having his named etched next to Tiger Woods' on the Havemeyer Trophy, as he became more interested in the game because of Woods' high profile around the world.

With that trophy now in tow, he's got a bigger problem.

"I don't know where to put it, actually," Yang said.

It's sure to stay close in case anyone ever questions his credentials on the course again.

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