Defending Champs Capan, Wong Seeking One Last Four-Ball Hurrah May 16, 2018 | Tequesta, Fla. By Jeff Babineau

Healthy again, Frankie Capan (right) is ready to defend the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball title with good friend Shuai Ming "Ben" Wong. (USGA/Chris Keane)

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Sure, Frankie Capan and Shuai Ming “Ben” Wong would love to place their fingerprints and names on the shiny silver U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship Trophy again, just as they did last May at storied Pinehurst Resort & Country Club’s Course No. 2.

But for two championship-tested 18-year-olds who rank among the top juniors in the country, winning isn’t necessarily the most important goal they’ll chase at Jupiter Hills Club when the 4th U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship begins Saturday.

“I don’t know about other teams, but we think we’re the team that has the most fun,” said Wong. “Frankie and I are always laughing and joking around. This event is the one we’ve most looked forward to the last three years, because we get to do it together, which is special.”

The two deserve to have some fun after grinding through their final days of high school exams. Capan, headed to the University of Alabama this fall, attended his last class at Phoenix (Ariz.) Northwest Christian High in Arizona on Tuesday and was in Florida later that night. Wong, who will play for Southern Methodist University after his graduation from John Cooper High School in The Woodlands, Texas, took college-credit Advanced Placement exams Thursday and Friday.

Wong will tee it up in the stroke-play portion of the championship at Jupiter Hills on Saturday having not seen either the Hills or Village courses. Capan, taking copious notes in practice, said he will capably guide his partner.

Capan is starting to find joy on the course again after sitting out nearly six months due to a hip injury and back pain. It was at the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball last year that he belted a drive on No. 11 at Pinehurst and heard his left hip pop. It took several months to properly diagnose what was ailing him. He competed into July, but the pain persisted.

“The head of my (left) femur was sitting forward in my hip socket, and at the top of my swing, it would go back to normal and ‘pop.’ It was weird ... I could feel it move,” said Capan. “When I got to the top of my swing, my hip would pop back in and make a noise. Everybody within 20 yards could hear it.”

After soliciting several opinions, Capan avoided surgery and says the injury has been manageable in the three events he has played since late January. He finished second in last month’s prestigious Sage Valley Junior Invitational outside Augusta, Ga., and playing one last time for Northwest Christian in the Arizona Division 3 state high school tournament, shooting 70-59 – yes, 59 – to win the individual title by 10 strokes. The 59 – 11 under par on Tucson National’s 5,943-yard Sonoran Course – included three eagles, seven birdies and a pair of bogeys.

“The game feels really good,” he said.

Next month, Capan and Wong will participate in the inaugural Celebration of Champions on the Tuesday of U.S. Open week at iconic Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. Neither player advanced through U.S. Open local qualifying. Capan missed by a stroke at Sewailo Golf Club in Tucson a day after carding the 59 and Wong had to withdraw due to a high school exam. The Celebration of Champions is a mixed four-hole team event including USGA champions from the previous year.

The event will also include a post-exhibition dinner at Shinnecock Hills. They’ll get to meet legendary champions Jack Nicklaus and Annika Sorenstam as well as watch the greatest players in the world prepare for the year’s second major championship.

Capan’s father said when his son received the phone call from USGA CEO Mike Davis about the event, not only was Frankie overcome with joy, it provided a jolt of confidence coming off his injury-plagued 2017 season.

Coincidentally, weeks before the Celebration of Champions was announced, Capan and Wong were having one of their thoughtful golf conversations and shared an idea: Wouldn’t it be great if the USGA brought all its champions together, even if just for a dinner? 

Shortly after, they received invitations to Shinnecock. It will make watching the national championship that week extra special.

“I think the USGA overheard our conversation,” said Wong, laughing.

For Capan and Wong, coming to Florida for the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball brings their partnership full circle. Wong, who was born in Hong Kong China, first met Capan at a junior event in the Sunshine State when they were 7. Wong did not speak much English at the time, but the two would see one another during summer events. When Wong qualified for match play in the 2013 U.S. Junior Amateur at Martis Camp Club in Truckee, Calif., he asked Capan to caddie for him.

“I think our relationship really grew there,” Capan said. “That was very, very impactful for me. I got to see how well the USGA sets up their national championships. It inspired me to want to play in the 2014 U.S. Junior Amateur (at The Club at Carlton Woods), and Ben and I both played well, making it to match play.

“We love USGA events. When the Four-Ball came out, I wasn’t going to go with anyone but Ben.”

The duo has displayed a nice feel for one another’s games. When one player heats up, the other knows to play conservatively and secure par. Their mantra is to always play as if they are 1 down.

“When we free up,” Wong said, “we naturally play to our potential. I went on a hot streak at Pinehurst. We both were feeling it.”

Capan and Wong bounced back from a 2-down deficit in last May’s championship match to defeat mid-amateurs Kyle Hudelson and Clark Collier, 2 and 1. A 10-foot birdie putt by Wong on the par-3 17th hole secured something Capan and Wong have pursued since qualifying for the 2013 U.S. Junior Amateur.

“To be able to win a USGA championship with your really close buddy? That’s really special,” Capan said.

This also is likely the last time Capan and Wong will compete in the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball. By next year, both will be focused on their burgeoning college careers. If all goes well, they are eyeing professional careers down the road.

“It’s kind of bittersweet,” Wong said. “We’re going to make one last run. It’ll be fun.”

Jeff Babineau is an award-winning Florida-based freelance writer.

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