Not long ago, Gunn Yang’s game was such a mess that his college coach took away his scholarship.
Might want to reconsider that decision.
The 20-year-old South Korean never trailed while completing an improbable run to the U.S. Amateur title Sunday, beating Canada’s Corey Conners 2 and 1 at Atlanta Athletic Club.
"I had not won a tournament in a long time, maybe like five or six years," Yang said.
At No. 776, he became the lowest-ranked player in the world amateur standings to capture the country’s biggest title for non-professional golfers. Along the way, he beat five players inside the top 100, including the 44th-ranked Conners.
Yang, who lived in Australia for five years and now plays at San Diego State, pushed his lead to 2 up with four to play by rolling in an 18-foot birdie putt at No. 14. He closed out the match with a tap-in par at No. 17, the 35th hole of the grueling day.
The afternoon round was halted by a rain delay of 1 hour, 37 minutes.
"I had never heard of him before," Conners said. "He obviously had a great week."
Indeed, Yang was one of the most unlikely champions in the history of the 119-year-old event. A redshirt sophomore, he has played in just four college events, his career sidetracked by a herniated disk that required laser surgery. Just three weeks ago, he withdrew from the California State Open after playing the first nine holes at 6 over.
Now, at the home club of Bobby Jones, the greatest amateur of them all, Yang hoisted the Havemeyer Trophy.
Does he think he’ll get that scholarship back, too?
"Better," Yang said, breaking into a big smile, "or else I’m going to transfer."
Conners had a chance to push the match to the limit with a 15-foot birdie attempt at No. 17. It slid by the right side of the cup.
Yang, whose 18-footer to win the match caught the right lip and spun out, knocked in what was nothing more than a gimme par to wrap up the title. He pumped his fist, hugged his caddie and let out a scream.
"He didn’t really have any weaknesses out there," Conners said. "He didn’t give me any openings to climb through."
The loss came one week after another Canadian, 16-year-old Brooke Mackenzie Henderson, was beaten in the final of the U.S. Women’s Amateur.
This was the second straight U.S. Amateur final featuring two international players. The 22-year-old Conners, who played at Kent State, reached the semifinals last year and again came up short of becoming the first Canadian winner since 1971.
Instead, it was Yang joining Byeong-Hun An from 2009 as the only winners from South Korea.
Yang jumped ahead right away when Conners bogeyed the first hole. But the margin was never more than 2 up, the match tight all the way.
Heading into the midday break, it was Conners with the momentum. He birdied the par-5 18th even after his drive wound up some 75 yards behind Gunn’s and in a fairway bunker. Conners laid up short of the water and put his third shot about 4 feet away. Gunn reached the green in two but three-putted from 60 feet for par, reducing his lead to 1 up.
Conners tied the match when they returned to the first hole for the afternoon round. Yang drove into the trees, had to punch out, and hit a poor flop shot into a bunker to take bogey.
Yang pulled ahead again at the sixth, where the tee box was pushed way up to create a 298-yard par 4. Both players went with driver, Yang sending his ball over the green while Conners came up short in a front bunker. Yang chipped up and made par; Conners failed to get up and down.
At the par-3 seventh, the Canadian found himself in the sand again. The result was the same — another bogey that gave Yang a 2-up advantage.
Conners cut into the lead with a 10-foot birdie at the 10th as ominous clouds rolled over the course, thunder rumbling in the distance. After both players teed off at the 11th, a downpour halted the match and sent fans scurrying for cover.
When play resumed, Yang missed a couple of chances to stretch his lead. He finally converted at No. 14, and protected his advantage with a brilliant up-and-down over a pond at the par-3 15th.
Not bad for a guy who didn’t even bring enough clothes to make it through the week without washing.
"I took three shorts and four shirts," Yang said. "That was it."