University Place, Wash. – Not even the defending champion playing at the top of his game could derail a speeding train named David Chung in the 110th U.S. Amateur.
Byeong-Hun An threw everything but a Puget Sound tugboat at Chung in their semifinal Saturday morning at Chambers Bay, shooting six under par in the opening six holes and staking a 3-up lead. But the unflappable Chung shook off the early onslaught, methodically worked his way back, and then converted a routine par for a 1-up triumph and a date in Sunday’s final against top-ranked amateur Peter Uihlein of Orlando, Fla.
Uihlein, who turns 21 Sunday, defeated Patrick Cantlay of Los Alamitos, Calif., 4 and 3 to earn a berth in the 36-hole final that begins at 7 a.m. PDT. He’ll have his hands full with Chung, 20, of Fayetteville, N.C., who is on a tear with wins in his last two starts at the Porter Cup and Western Amateur and who holds a 2-1 advantage over Uihlein in head-to-head competition, most recently a 1-up victory in the NCAA Division I championship in May.
It’s kind of surreal right now, Chung said after earning a berth in the final and with it a likely invitation to the Masters next April, something he admitted he hasn’t been able to get off his mind this week. To keep winning and have this chance is really special.
A less confident opponent might have wilted against An, 18, a Korean native who last year became the youngest winner in championship history at Southern Hills in Tulsa. An collected four birdies and an eagle, but Chung, who eliminated NCAA champion Scott Langley in the quarterfinals, registered three birdies of his own to stay within hailing distance.
He lit it up the first six holes. I don’t think anyone could have beaten him, Chung said. But I knew I would have my chances, and I’d have to take advantage of them going into the back nine. Luckily, I was able to do that.
It was fun for me to watch him play in the first six holes. It’s not like I was ‘Oh, man, I can believe he’s doing so well. I’m going to lose.’ It was actually more fun to see somebody playing so well.
Chung credited his Porter Cup triumph earlier this month for helping him retain his poise. He rallied from an early five-shot deficit at Niagara Falls Country Club to shoot 65 and win by three strokes. That was an experience that really helped me today, because I ended up coming back and winning the tournament, said Chung, a junior at Stanford University. Just to know that being patient and taking advantage of my chances … was a big key today.
An wouldn’t disagree. I played great golf today, I think. The front nine was just perfect golf, he said. He's a great player too. He made lots of birdies on the front nine. I should have gone to like 6 up by the ninth hole if he didn't play that well. But he played [great] too. Especially on the back nine, I couldn't get anything going straight or in the hole, and he took the chances when he needed.
Chung’s surge began in earnest on the 10th hole when An missed the fairway right and then hit into the left greenside bunker while Chung knocked his approach to 9 feet from 108 yards. An had no choice but to concede the birdie when he blasted to 10 feet and missed his par attempt.
Chung knocked off another hole at 12 when he drove the green and two-putted for birdie, but the key stretch of the match started at 13. He saved par with a 16-footer after his approach found the high fescue grass behind the green, and then he nearly holed a flop shot at the par-4 14th and coming up short in two.
The match kind of started on 13 in a way, Chung said. That’s game time, decision time the last six holes. That’s where the match is really decided if it’s a close match.
I just willed it in more than anything, he added about the putt at 13. It was probably one of the crucial putts in the match. So that was really key.
But there was still work to be done. A 4-iron and two putts from 50 feet at the par-3 15th restored the match to all-square for the first time since the opening hole after An flew the green with a 3-iron and then needed three more to get down.
At the 16th, Chung holed a 10-footer for birdie for his first lead. An, now struggling a bit after his blistering start, managed to parry with a 7-foot par save at the 17th good for the win after Chung couldn’t get down from the right greenside bunker.
It all came down to a battle of 5-irons at the 18th, set up as a par 4. An, from a slightly downhill lie from 215 yards, flared his approach into a horrible lie up against a tuft of grass in the right bunker. Chung, from 10 yards closer and on a flat lie, safely found the green about 45 feet from the hole.
I was slightly downslope on the second shot, and I just swung too fast, An said. That’s how I missed it way right, and I had a bad break in the bunker.
He chopped the ball out, but it ended up 50 feet – and on nearly an identical line as where Chung’s ball lay. An misread the putt, however, and it drifted 20 feet right of the hole. Chung lagged to about 3 feet and his par closed out An, who was in tears after leaving the green.
We had a great match, but it’s very disappointing, said An, who made the best title defense since Tiger Woods won the last of his three straight Amateur titles in 1996. It feels great to be the next one with Tiger, but again I’m really disappointed that I’ll miss the Masters this year.
Chung has one more day and one more match, but at least he won’t have to worry about whether or not he’s going to Augusta National Golf Club. The U.S. Amateur champion and runner-up traditionally receive and invitation.
I was just thinking Masters invitation possibly, U.S. Open, British Open … how great would that be? Chung said of the thoughts running through his head the last few days.
And what about Sunday? Basically just relax when I wake up and I’ll think about what I have to do to prepare for the round.
But he won’t be intimidated by anything Uihlein might throw at him, not after Saturday’s proceedings.
I've known him for a long time and we're really good friends, Chung said. I know he's a great putter. He hits it far. Really no weaknesses and extremes and, so, you know, I expect him to play well today and get preparation from Ben today on seeing stellar golf. So I think I'm pretty prepared for anything.
Dave Shedloski is a freelance writer whose work has appeared previously on USGA championship Web sites.