The U.S. Amateur has had some unexpected winners in recent years, but 2014 champion Gunn Yang may be the most surprising of the group.
Yang completed a week of nail-biting victories with a 2&1 triumph over Corey Conners in the recent finals of the event, played at Atlanta Athletic Club.
Yang won six matches in five days to capture the title, going to the 18th hole or beyond in his first five matches before defeating Conners 2&1 in the 36-hole finale.
The 20-year-old Yang is a member of the San Diego State golf team and a native of Korea. He lived in Australia for five years before moving to San Diego as a high school student. He was sidelined last year by back surgery, and has mostly competed in southern California in recent months before winning the biggest amateur tournament in the world in his first appearance in a USGA event.
Yang won his opening match 1-up against Duluth’s Seth Reeves, a recent Georgia Tech graduate and a 4-year member of the Yellow Jackets’ golf team. His most impressive victory also came against a Georgia Tech golfer, as he got past Ollie Schniederjans, the world’s top-ranked amateur, 1-up in the third round, carding birdies on the final three holes after being 1-down at that point.
“He was out of his mind,” Schniederjans said of Yang’s play in their match. “Who is that guy?”
After winning his semifinal match with a birdie on the first extra hole, Yang led for most of the title match, leading 2-up after two holes the morning round and maintaining his advantage for most of the day before closing out the match on the 35th hole.
Yang won 1-up in the second round with a birdie on the 18th hole and won four of the last five holes in the quarterfinals, winning 2-up after trailing with five holes to play.
With his victory, Yang earns invitations to the 2015 Masters, U.S. Open and British Open. Conners will join him in next year’s Masters and U.S. Open. Conners, a native of Canada who plays his college golf at Kent State, was a semifinalist in the U.S. Amateur last year, losing to eventual champion Matthew Fitzpatrick, who turned pro prior to the 2014 championship.
Coming into the tournament, Yang was 776th in the world amateur rankings, and had made a minimal impact during his college career at San Diego State. He was sidelined with a back injury in 2013, and had his scholarship withdrawn this spring due to indifferent results.
When asked if he expected to have his scholarship renewed after his U.S. Amateur, Yang said. “I better. Or else I’m going to transfer.” Yang’s response drew laughter from the assembled media, as did his responses to questions about how lightly he packed in preparation for what he apparently anticipated to be a short stay in Atlanta.
“I took three shorts and four shirts.” he said. “And two belts.”
They got him through nine days of practice and competition, and produced a champion who surprised himself with his victory.
Yang said he had not won a tournament of any kind in “maybe five or six years,” and was playing so poorly that he withdrew midway through the California State Open a few weeks before the U.S. Amateur.
Yang managed to reach the quarterfinals the next week in the Southern California Match Play, but came into the U.S. Amateur as one of a few hundred players given virtually no chance of making a serious impact in the tournament.
In stroke play qualifying, Yang shot 2-under par 141 on the Highlands and Riverside courses to tie for 21st. Conners shot 142 to tie for 24th and was seeded 31st. He defeated several high profile players on his way to the finals, winning against Scottie Scheffler in the first round, Zach Olsen in the quarterfinals and Denny McCarthy in the semifinals.
Among the more prominent names in the field who advanced to match play, Beau Hossler and Jordan Niebrugge both lost in the first round, with Robby Shelton, a member of Alabama’s national championship team, knocked out in the second round.
Four-time U.S. Mid Amateur champion Nathan Smith won his first three matches after surviving a 17-man playoff for the final four spots in match play. Smith lost in the quarterfinals to Pepperdine’s Frederick Wedel, who took Yang to the 19th hole in the semifinals.
The match play portion of the tournament was played on Highlands, the course used for the 1976 U.S. Open and three PGA Championships played at Atlanta Athletic Club.