LAKE MARY, Fla. – San Francisco or bust.
Forgive the braintrust at the EaglesDream Golf Academy for, well, dreaming.
But when they’ve got a 15-year-old like Carl Yuan, it’s not hard to get ahead of themselves.
On a soggy Thursday in central Florida, Yuan took one giant step toward his own dream: a tee time at The Olympic Club on June 14 at the U.S. Open.
After draining a 15-footer for par to put himself into a four-way playoff – and cap a bogey-free, 5-under 67 at Timacuan Golf & Country Club – Yuan then hit two fairways, two greens in regulation and made two-putt pars to win the last of four Open local qualifying spots and move on to the sectional qualifying June 4 at Black Diamond Ranch in Lecanto, Fla.
And the Chinese transplant did it all with an eerie calmness seen only in the game’s best.
“I told myself that I was going to beat them,” said Yuan, who had five birdies over his final 10 holes to get into the four-man playoff.
Joseph Shin and Mark Doucette, both of DeBary, Fla., and Tyler Riley of Findlay, Ohio, shot 66 to lead the qualifying. Canadian Renaud Langevin (67) is the first alternate, and Roy Biancalana (67) of Sanford, Fla., is the second alternate.
Dan Saylor, an EaglesDream instructor who caddied for Yuan, said his player was focused from the beginning.
“He was burning the edges early, but we knew we were going to get it going,” Saylor said. “We set a goal of San Francisco when we signed him up for the qualifier a month ago. We wanted him to have that mentality coming into this.”
Yuan’s coach, EaglesDream lead instructor Tim Sheredy, says it speaks volumes to his pupil’s growing mental toughness that he didn’t buckle under the pressure Thursday.
“He is a tough kid; he never gets up or down,” said Sheredy, a former instructor at the IMG Junior Academy in Sarasota, Fla. “He can get a birdie or a triple bogey, and you really won’t know the difference. That is a sign of a guy that can make it in this game.”
Yuan’s physical game is ready for the next level – he hit 15 of 18 greens on Thursday in the biggest tournament of his young career – but it is the mental work that he has put in with mental performance coach Bill Nelson that seems to have made the biggest impression on Yuan.
Yuan pointed to his mental toughness at least a dozen times during a post-round interview as the reason why he isn’t fazed by playing with men twice his age and with dozens of years’ more experience.
Nelson credits that to attacking weaknesses instead of accentuating the obvious positives.
“It is easy to identify what a golfer does right, but that really won’t help them fix the parts of their game that are holding them back,” said Nelson, who also works with PGA Tour winner D.A. Points. “We work with these golfers on overcoming the fears they have on the course.”
In many ways, Yuan is fearless. He moved to the United States by himself in the summer of 2011, leaving his mother and father behind in China. He took on golf as a full-time job, choosing the golf-academy life over the comforts of home. His mother joined him in Florida only two months ago.
“She helps me with everything outside of golf,” Yuan said. “She really doesn’t talk to me much about golf. She gets my mind off the game.”
And burnout is always a concern when it comes to young, suddenly successful golfers. Is practicing five to six hours per day a bad thing for a teenager? Not if you ask Yuan.
“I can’t get enough golf,” Yuan said. “It isn’t a job. I love it.”
And Sheredy can attest to that. Yuan is the only regular at the academy, which is based here at Timacuan, about 30 minutes north of Orlando, to join him for optional 6:30 a.m. workouts. “Putting his work in,” as Sheredy puts it.
But, even with that passion, Sheredy makes sure that his students take at least one day per week just to get away from the game, to rest body and mind.
“(Carl’s) culture really dictates that he needs to work hard and be the best,” Sheredy said. “He is very disciplined, respectful and hard-working. But we also get these kids away from the game. They go to church, or to the movies, or catch up on homework. Sometimes it is good for them to just be a kid. We keep them on such a tight schedule, they are always doing something (when they are at the academy). Sometimes, it is good not to be engaged.”
Had Yuan not had the Open qualifier to worry about, he might have taken a couple of sick days this past week – fighting off a wicked cough and nasty cold to walk the 18 holes on Thursday. He found motivation in a certain guy who knows plenty about winning – Tiger Woods.
“He played the U.S. Open with a broken leg,” Yuan said. “He was so tough. I want to be just like him.”
Now, Yuan is one tournament away from teeing it up with Tiger in San Francisco.