UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – Byeong-Hun An thought he saw his new college teammate outside the ropes earlier this summer at Pebble Beach.
Nope, not Max Homa.
Homa thought he saw his new college teammate during a practice round this week at Chambers Bay. He yelled and waved, trying to flag him down.
Nope, not An.
So it was with great anticipation that they shook hands and chatted briefly on the putting green Thursday at the U.S. Amateur. After all, you have to be able to at least recognize your classmate at California-Berkeley, right?
“I met him this morning,” said An, 18, an incoming freshman, “and I think I saw him at the U.S. Open, too. I’m not sure if it was him or another guy.”
Informed that, no, Homa hadn’t watched him play at Pebble Beach, An blushed and said, “Oops, I’m bad with names and faces.”
Suffice to say, they’ll get a formal introduction Friday, when they square off in the quarterfinals of the 110th U.S. Amateur. No more impersonal text messages necessary.
With a 3-and-2 victory Thursday over Scott Strohmeyer, An became the first defending champion to reach the quarterfinals the following year since Jeff Quinney accomplished the feat in 2001. An became the youngest U.S. Amateur champion in history last year when the then-17-year-old defeated Ben Martin at Southern Hills.
That An is even in position to defend his title seems remarkable to some observers. He entered the U.S. Amateur in poor form, having made just one cut in eight PGA Tour starts, with one top 10 in a handful of amateur events. Trying to defend? Heck, An first arrived at Chambers Bay’s practice facilities trying to find his game.
“My expectations were a little bit lower because I was playing bad and hitting it everywhere,” said An, of Bradenton, Fla. “I said to myself that maybe this week I can just make match play and see how it goes. It’s just been a little weird this week.”
Homa knows the feeling. No one at Chambers Bay seems to know much about the lanky Cal sophomore, other than he’s an excellent wind player who doesn’t make many mistakes around the greens.
“I didn’t see it coming, advancing this far, but I’m not scared of the situation,” said Homa, 19, of Valencia, Calif. “I’m not shocked that I’m here. When you put in a lot of hard work, you deserve to be in situations like this. I’ve been playing well all summer, and it’s bound to happen. I’m just pleased to have it happening on the biggest stage I’ve ever been at.”
Against a few top-tier players, too.
On Wednesday, Homa had the unenviable task of trying to knock off local boy T.J. Bordeaux. “You could tell people weren’t too happy when I started making birdies,” Homa said, but he kept pouring them in from everywhere. He beat Carter Newman, 7 and 6, Thursday morning, then dropped a 40-foot putt on 15 to close out Georgia standout Harris English, 4 and 3, on a wind-swept day at Chambers Bay.
“The chills you get when that putt went in were pretty great,” Homa said, “and to be on a stage like this, and to play golf like this, it makes you feel really good.”
The guy who played only one college event last fall because of illness – his Cal teammates nicknamed him “Reaper” because of a harsh cough – is peaking at just the right time. He finished one shot out of a playoff earlier this summer at the Trans-Mississippi Championship, then tied for fifth last week at the Scratch Players, contested just a short drive from Chambers Bay.
Now, he’ll face an opponent with whom he’s unfamiliar. Even if they’ll soon be teeing it up together on a daily basis.
“He’s playing some great golf, and it’s going to be hard to beat him,” Homa said “It’d be nice to know I could beat someone of his caliber. And if I don’t, that’s good for him.”
And good for Cal, too.