Wedel, Yang mature quickly on, off the course

Frederick Wedel (left) beat Nathan Smith, 4 and 3, in the U.S. Amateur quarterfinals, while Gunn Yang won 2 up against Cameron Young.
Frederick Wedel (left) beat Nathan Smith, 4 and 3, in the U.S. Amateur quarterfinals, while Gunn Yang won 2 up against Cameron Young. ( Tracy Wilcox )

Friday, August 15, 2014

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – When Gunn Yang and Frederick Wedel tee off in the semifinals of the 114th U.S. Amateur on Saturday morning, they'll have more in common than meets the eye.

Sure, they both kick back on the beaches along Southern California's beautiful coast, Yang in San Diego, and Wedel in Malibu.

They both would star in this week's edition of "Who Are These Guys Anyways?" – with Wedel starting the week ranked No. 619 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking and Yang farther down at No. 776.

But it is something that is not physically at Atlanta Athletic Club that has had a major impact on their lives behind the scenes.

In a week that features many fathers toting the bags of their sons, Yang and Wedel are flying solo, in their own worlds, to take on amateur golf's longest and most grueling test.

• • •

When Yang knocked off the world's top-ranked amateur, Ollie Schniederjans, on Thursday afternoon and rallied for a 2-up victory over Cameron Young on Friday, he had only had his host family and that of caddie Richard Grice to give high-fives and hugs as USGA officials whisked him off for multiple media interviews.

Tired and exhausted after his fourth match reached the 18th hole, the San Diego State sophomore said that he missed his family.

"It would be perfect to have my parents here with me, but that's not reality for us. I respect that," said the 20-year-old.

Yang hasn't lived full-time with his father since he graduated elementary school, moving to Australia to play golf and attend school for five years before heading to San Diego to finish his senior year of high school.

After initially living with his uncle in Australia, Yang has had his mother, Kyung Hee Choi, by his side for the past five years. But his father, Sung Jin, has had to stay in Korea. He is an orthodontist with little grasp of the English language, which leaves few opportunities for him to apply his trade in the U.S.

Sung Jin visits the Yang's home in San Diego once a month, leaving Yang yearning for a bit more.

"We are always talking on the phone," Yang said. "Sure it'd be great if he could get a job here, we'd settle down and have a lot more fun.

"Being away put a lot of pressure on me when I was little. I wasn't a top athlete back then, getting better, always falling behind from my friends. It changed my personality. I am more quiet now, more focused. It's an advantage to play in match play. I don't have many emotions."

His emotions were tested the last two years, as Yang struggled to break into San Diego State's starting five and underwent spinal surgery, returning from the latter just seven months ago.

Removed from his team due to his rehab and living nearly 25 minutes from campus, Yang had his love of golf put to the test.

Was he truly committed to returning to the game? Or was he going to let the surgery derail him from his life-long goal of playing professional golf?

"I couldn't walk, I couldn't go to school, I couldn't sit down for five minutes (before surgery)," Yang explained. "Everything was negative. I hated everything here. I was even hating my life. Why is this happening to me at 19?"

But a 10-tournament summer has kicked Yang back into gear, highlighted by his unexpected run this week and a third-place finish at the Memorial Amateur in Sacramento. Golf always was the primary goal in moving to the U.S., and Yang feels that he has his groove back, with making October’s Asia-Pacific Amateur as his main goal.

"I practiced even harder," Yang said, "and I always knew that hard work pays off."

• • •

For Wedel, his childhood started like a typical golf tale, joining his father on the range at 2 years old, falling in love with the game. He asked his father to saw down a 7-iron so that he could start hitting balls alongside him.

Golf was a bond that they'd sew for eight strong years, watching PGA Tour events and playing rounds together.

But that would end abruptly when Wedel was 10. His father, who held a job in the oil industry, was diagnosed with an abscess on his spine that would eventually paralyze him from the neck down.

Wedel, who was born in Alaska and also lived in Texas, didn't handle the news well. "It was devastating," he said, and the emotional toll led to him being expelled from private school in the eighth grade.

"Honestly, that was good for me, I truly believe so, because it kind of opened up my eyes, and I was thinking to myself, ‘This isn't how my dad would want me to be,’" said Wedel, who dispatched four-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Nathan Smith, 4 and 3, to advance to the semis.

Wedel's search for maturity pushed him farther and farther from his father, as he simply couldn't get past that they'd never have a normal relationship.

Wedel poured himself into his golf game before eventually earning a scholarship to Pepperdine.

But this past summer, Wedel chose to visit his father in Sacramento despite not being able to "have a normal father/son relationship." But Wedel harkened back to the skills that his father instilled in him early on the golf course: it always was more important to be humble and polite than to be angry or spiteful.

"I felt as though my dad kind of put the right values into me, and it made me appreciate him for who he was," said Wedel, who is heading into his junior year with the Waves. "Obviously he can't be there for me all the time but I want to be able to be there for him when he needs me, and especially I don't want to look back later in life and regret not having all those deep conversations or asking enough questions."

On Friday, there was no question about it, the game of golf had taken on two young players looking for direction, and provided the opportunity for each to grow.

And that's something that would make any father proud.