Han Chang-won cruised to a five-stroke victory Sunday in the inaugural Asian Amateur Championship in Shenzhen, China, earning a spot in the 2010 Masters. Han seized control with an eagle on the second hole at Mission Hills Golf Club's World Cup course and pulled away from fellow South Korean native Eric Chun.
"I had never even thought it would be possible for me to be playing in the Masters as an amateur," said the 17-year-old from Jeju Island, who finished 12-under par.
Another South Korean, Kim Meen-whee, was among the trio tied for third at 6-under along with Peter Spearman-Burn of New Zealand and Jordan Sherratt from Australia.
The dominant golfing nation in the women's game since Se Ri Pak won the U.S. Women's Open and LPGA Championship as a rookie in 1998, South Korea is steadily asserting itself in the men's game beyond the previously singular talents of K.J. Choi.
In August, Y.E. Yang became the first Asian-born winner of a men's major when he outdueled Tiger Woods to win the PGA Championship at Hazeltine. Two weeks later, Byeong-Hun "Ben" An, 17, became the youngest winner of the U.S. Amateur, breaking the record a year after 18-year-old Danny Lee, a New Zealand citizen also born in South Korea.
Pak sparked a rising tide of South Korean women who took the LPGA by storm, and the nation now boasts more players in the top 50 world rankings (17) than any other nation. The recent wave of success by South Korean men could have the same long-range effect.
"I hope my win is going to produce lots of golfers in Korea that want to come here to the Asian Amateur," Han said. "They will set a goal, practice harder, harder and harder. Now that I have done it and will go to the Masters, it will impact Korean golf very positively."
That's certainly what the Masters, the R&A and the Asia-Pacific Golf Confederation had in mind when they established the Asian Amateur in February with the goal of growing the game in the developing region. Augusta National Golf Club and Masters Chairman Billy Payne -- who was part of a visible green-jacketed contingent on hand at Mission Hills Golf Club all week -- was thrilled with the outcome, which had seven different nations represented among the top 10 finishers.
"We are excited that the Asian Amateur Championship has met its stated goal of establishing golfing heroes and will be a portion of the long-term solution for growing the game of golf in this region of the world," Payne said in a statement after the event's conclusion. "Having seen the immense talent of these gifted players has only reinforced our position on the tremendous growth potential that exists in Asia. Today, the dream of Han Chang-won was realized. But more importantly, throughout Asia this week, thousands of dreams were born."
Han, 17, becomes the third foreign-born teenager to book a bed in the Crow's Nest in April. He'll join countryman An and Matteo Manassero of Italy, who in June became the youngest British Amateur winner at age 16.
Han can empathize with his amateur peers.
"When I started playing golf, I dreamed of going to the Masters Tournament," Han said. "I feel this has come a little earlier than I expected, but I am so grateful for the opportunity to come over and play this tournament."
Augusta was never far from Han's mind even as he held a six-shot lead through 12 holes. He bogeyed three of the last six holes but was never in danger of not earning his ticket to the Masters.
"I have to admit that it was the thought of playing in the Masters that made me nervous," he said. "I had never even thought it would be possible for me to be playing in the Masters as an amateur."
He didn't have to sweat it standing over a two-foot putt for bogey on the final hole.
"I was leading by so many shots when I got to the 18th green, so I was able to make the final putt in a very relaxed way," he said. "However, I am going to the Masters Tournament now, and I was thinking my dream was going to be fulfilled when I holed it."
Twice in the past two years Han has traveled to the United States to compete in amateur tournaments -- the Callaway World Junior Championship and the Orange Bowl in Florida. But earning a spot in the Masters is another thing altogether. In April, he hopes to get a chance to play with his heroes -- Tiger Woods and Choi, who has yet to qualify.
"I am not scared of playing against the players I normally see on television," Han said. "They are great players, but I do not think I will be scared. At the same time, maybe I can achieve a very good result and learn from the great names that I will play with."
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.