JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — Gunn Yang and Corey Conners meet today at Atlanta Athletic Club for the U.S. Amateur championship – and the biggest thing at stake is just a trophy.
The real pressure of the U.S. Amateur came in Saturday’s semifinals, when lifelong dreams get realized or dashed.
With their 1-up semifinal victories, Yang and Conners won the right to play in the 2015 Masters Tournament at Augusta National and U.S. Open at Chambers Bay regardless of what happens in today’s 36-hole match. Their vanquished opponents – Fred Wedel and Denny McCarthy – leave Georgia with bronze consolation medals and regret.
“It stings,” said Wedel, a 19-year-old junior at Pepperdine ranked the 619th amateur in the world. “I was one hole away from playing in the Masters and U.S. Open. Obviously those are things you dream about from a young age. Just that it was so close ... if I’d lost in the round of 16 or the quarters, it wouldn’t sting as much. It hurts.”
Yang, conversely, was walking on air after blowing a 1-up lead with a water ball on the 18th hole only to sink a 5-foot birdie putt on the 19th hole to win and unleash a Tiger-like roar.
“It’s just a dream come true right here,” the 776th-ranked amateur from South Korea said. “It was always my dream to play with all the top players in the world in any type of PGA event. But the Masters ... this is amazing.”
This is the power and the cruelty of a match-play semifinal with more at stake than any other non-championship sports event in the world. These young men can’t just go through an open qualifier to get to Augusta. So the strain is considerable and the thought of the available rewards never strays too far from their minds the deeper they get into the match play bracket.
“Yeah, it adds a lot more pressure,” Wedel said. “Definitely I think that while you’re out there, it’s in the back of your mind. ... I was aware of what was going on, but at the end of the day, I mean, it’s golf, and if I’m not going to be able to live up to that pressure, then I don’t belong.”
Yang felt it as well, especially when he had to wait for just a few seconds on the 11th tee a hole down in the match to Wedel.
“Into my round it popped up all of the sudden a couple of times,” Yang said. “I wasn’t trying to play mind games, it’s just human nature I guess.”
McCarthy said those outside demons are for the moments off the course and not on it.
“When you’re playing your match, you’re not thinking about, ‘Oh, if I win this hole I can probably get one step closer to playing at Augusta,’” he said. “I mean, obviously it’s crossed my mind at some point previously to the round, but no, not during the round today.”
Perhaps nobody understood the stakes Saturday more than Conners. A semifinalist last year at Brookline, he lost to eventual winner Matthew Fitzpatrick and had to watch the happenings at Augusta and Pinehurst from home.
“Definitely being so close last year, it did sting quite a bit,” Conners said. “I still tried to keep my head up and be proud of making it to the semis. Quite an accomplishment in itself. But it did sting a little bit, so there was a little more motivation this year, I guess. I knew what it felt like. Just tried to bear down and do my thing out there.”
The pressure was on display down the stretch Saturday in both semifinal matches. Wedel missed a 3-footer for par on the 17th after making a spectacular chip from atop a rock wall with half his feet suspended over the water.
Then Yang thinned a 5-iron out of a fairway bunker into the water fronting the 18th green, letting Wedel square the match with a 5-iron from the same bunker to 8 feet for a conceded eagle and extra holes.
In the match behind, Conners’ steady driver escaped him with a pull into the water, but he salvaged par to retain his 1-up lead.
For Saturday’s losers, it was a disappointment they’ll have to force down as they reset their goals.
“I can’t control anything about it now,” McCarthy said. “It’s done and over with so I’m just going to move on and hopefully be at one of those events in the near future.”
For the winners, it was already a dream realized. Both Conners and Yang want to win Sunday’s final and put their name on the trophy won by the likes of Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. But for the rest of Saturday, they could exhale a little bit and start thinking ahead to practice rounds at Augusta National in the coming months and a guaranteed spot in April in the Crow’s Nest and place in the Masters.
For Conners, his dreams include a round with Mike Weir, his inspiration when he got into golf as an 11-year-old while Weir was winning the 2003 Masters.
“I was telling somebody yesterday I remember watching it on TV,” he said of Weir’s victory. “He had a 6-foot putt to get into a playoff on the 18th hole, and I had to leave the living room and go into another room I was so nervous and excited for him. I heard some fans cheering on the TV or my dad clapping and I came back and saw that he made it, and I was pretty excited. Yeah, that was kind of when I was getting into some competitive golf, and I really looked up to Mike. Yeah, it would be cool to maybe play a game with him.”
Yang can’t wait to see the 13th hole that captured his attention as a 12-year-old watching it for the first time. Now only eight years later and against odds he’ll be invited to play Azalea himself when it’s in full bloom.
“This is amazing,” he said. “I thought I could come to this match play, but I never thought I could come to this far. I’m just really looking forward to getting an invitation to the Masters and other great events.
“I’m already dreaming just imagining how it’s going to be like.”