Q&A: 2014 Victory Provides Yang with Major Opportunities
August 15, 2015 | Olympia Fields, Ill.
By Stuart Hall
Gunn Yang arrived at last year’s U.S. Amateur Championship at No. 776 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking™ — a bonafide long shot to win. Yet over the course of seven days at the Atlanta Athletic Club in Johns Creek, Ga., the native of the Republic of Korea proved to be a world-beater. He defeated five players ranked inside the top 100, including 44th-ranked Corey Conners, 2 and 1, in the final, to win the oldest golf championship in the U.S. in his first attempt.
Yang then opted not to return to San Diego State University, instead taking the year to hone his game. He took advantage of exemptions into the year’s first three majors as a result of his U.S. Amateur win, and also played in several other professional events worldwide thanks to sponsor exemptions. On the eve of this year’s championship at Olympia Fields, Yang, 21, talked about the past year.
Q: Considering that you packed only four shirts and three pairs of shorts for last year’s trip to the amateur and there was nothing on your playing resume that suggested you would be a contender, how improbable was winning outside of Atlanta?
YANG: My goal was to get into match play. I went in with my expectations down, but wanted to try and play the best I can in stroke play to get into match play.
Then in match play, it was very surprising, a very surprising win for me, for my family and for my friends. We never, ever thought I’d actually win the U.S. Amateur. So I was blessed to do that.
Q: Immediately after winning a championship, it is difficult to put the accomplishment into a proper personal perspective. Now that you have had a year to think about it, what are your thoughts?
YANG: It was just unbelievable. We have to play two days of practice rounds and then two days of stroke play and then on Wednesday we played 18 [holes], Thursday was 36, Friday and Saturday was 18 and then Sunday was another 36. Eleven rounds in nine days … that’s just insane.
This [championship] tests your physical and mental ability on the golf course, not just your skill. So it’s the reason why I think it was fair for everybody. Everybody had a chance to win, not just because it’s about your skill level, but your physical and mental level. It challenges every aspect of your game.
Q: After winning the championship, you decided not to immediately return to San Diego State or turn professional. As the U.S. Amateur champion, you played in the year’s first three majors and also took advantage of 11 other opportunities to play in professional events. You made just two of 14 cuts, but overall how was the experience?
YANG: I just tried to put myself in the position where I was competing against the best players in the world. So I was trying not to focus on the atmosphere, but instead how well I was going to play.
So I was trying to take this opportunity very serious. But I also was working on my swing at the same time and it wasn’t the best timing. I had to improve my golf game, so I was risking not scoring well.
Q: What have you learned about yourself and your game?
YANG: I learned that I can do this; that I can play at the highest level of golf against all the best professionals in the world. I put myself in a good place in terms of being more dedicated in practicing and putting more time in workouts. I realized I can be one of the best and I’m just trying to do that.
Q: What has been your favorite moment in the role of U.S. Amateur champion?
YANG: I got into three of the majors. I can’t really pick one because each is special in its own way.
The Masters is just a sacred place to play golf, the U.S. Open is one of the best Open championships in the world and the British was obviously at St. Andrews, the home of golf. Every one of them had special moments for me. It was great.
Q: In the past 12 months, you played in Australia, Korea, Japan, Scotland and the United States. How many times did you have your passport stamped?
YANG [laughing]: I have no clue.
Q: How many times were your luggage or clubs misplaced?
YANG: Actually, just twice. Once was at the Open in Scotland and the other was at the Western Amateur. I’ve been having good luck with that for some reason.
Q: What is the best piece of advice you have received from a professional?
YANG: Justin Rose and Kevin Na have been very helpful.
With Kevin, I asked him more about his past, like how did he turn pro and he explained quite a lot. He already knew his game level was at the top, so he decided to turn pro. That was the same for Justin Rose, but he struggled after [turning professional] and missed 21 cuts in a row.
They have not been telling me directly what to do, but indirectly saying if you do this or that it will be more helpful in your future.
Q: You played a stretch of five or six professional events in a row this spring. Are you prepared for that next step now?
YANG: No, I am not ready and that is what I realized after playing all of these events. I really wanted to turn pro this year, and I wanted to try a Q School, but at the very last minute I decided not to.
When you're seeing things from your perspective, you sometimes do not see things that are in the distance. So I asked [swing instructor and mentor Glen Daugherty] and my parents. They don’t really communicate with each other because of the language barrier, so I asked them both in two different languages and they told me exactly the same thing. It gave me goose bumps.
I have been making my own decision the whole time and hearing someone else’s advice made me think that maybe I should pull off and listen to what they’re saying.
I have decided to go back to school. I’ve been traveling the last year, playing so much golf. Pretty much no social life and golf was my main goal.
Q: Where do you stand with San Diego State? You had lost your scholarship following spring 2014; you then won the U.S. Amateur and decided to play an ambitious schedule of pro and amateur events.
YANG: I’m going back. I got my scholarship back, so I’m going back to school and try and play for the team and also try and make our program better.
Q: How, if at all, have your expectations changed heading into this week at Olympia Fields?
YANG: I’m still not expecting much. Everybody deserves to be in this field and has a chance to win. Again, my goal is to make it to match play and then see what happens. I’m trying not to put more pressure on myself to make it to match play. Just avoid the mistakes I’ve been making for the past year, especially the mental mistakes.
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA websites.