GULLANE, SCOTLAND | When the 20-year-old Jin Jeong delivered his winner’s speech at the Amateur Championship at Muirfield, he prompted ripples of feeling laughter when he said, “I putted really well today.”
Though the 36-hole final was peppered with great golf from winner and runner-up alike, Jeong quite literally putted Scotland’s 21-year-old James Byrne off the course in the afternoon. Two up leaving the fourth green (22nd of the match), he holed three 25-footers in a row to be 5-up after the seventh.
The watching Harry Bannerman, famous for his halved single with Arnold Palmer in the 1971 Ryder Cup, was keeping score. “I make it 13 single putts so far,” he said as Jeong and Byrne were hitting to the 14th green in the afternoon. Then he had to make it 14 as the visitor holed yet another 25-footer – one, what’s more, with an almighty swing on it – to win the match 5&4 Saturday.
That a Korean should win the Amateur for a first time was hardly unexpected. Byeong-Hun An led the way for the Koreans when he captured the 2009 U.S. Amateur. Then, at the end of October, Han Chang-Won followed up with a win in the new Asian Amateur. Now, all three of the major amateur titles are in Korean hands.
Everyone has his or her own explanation as to why that nation has made such golfing strides. In Jeong’s opinion, it is largely down to the work ethic. “They work really hard in Korea, harder than anywhere else,” he said.
It was at Mission Hills, during the Asian Amateur, that Kwango-soo Hur, president of the Asian Pacific Golf Association, voiced his views. “On the one hand,” he said, “the Koreans now have their own hero in YE Yang. On the other, parents are no longer putting their daughters first when it comes to investing in their children’s futures in golf.”
There is a history of Korean girls heading to Australia to concentrate on the Royal and Ancient game. Indeed, the story goes that there are areas where they are so far outshining the locals that there have been concerns about Australian-born girls losing interest in the sport. This may or may not be the case but there is no word of the same applying in the men’s game. The members of the Waverley Club have certainly taken Jeong to their hearts since he moved to Melbourne three years ago. He helped them to this year’s Division 1 Pennant Championship and, on Friday night, he received the following message: “We’re proud of you already… Just go out and enjoy the final.”
It was not until he started playing on the Australian amateur tour that Jeong, who was ranked 10th on the amateur rankings going into last week, first learned of the Amateur and how it offered a possible route to the Open and the Masters.
He was in St Andrews a fortnight ago for the St Andrews’ Links Trophy but, though he had a practice round on the Old Course, he missed out on playing it for real when he failed to make the half-way cut. As you would expect, that practice round merely made him doubly determined to win at Muirfield.
Last night, Jeong, who had the better of Matthew Nixon in the semi-finals, was exhausted. Just as Byrne had spoken of how the Korean’s long putts had left him drained, so it seemed that they had had left their perpetrator feeling much the same way. “I’m so tired I don’t know what to think,” he said.
Byrne, who was at his considerable best in defeating Chris Paisley in the previous round, could not have been more sporting in defeat. “Normally,” he said, “I don’t like losing but I’m entirely happy to congratulate Jin at the end of a day when he played as well as he did.”
The spectators, who were some 300-strong in the morning but doubled in the afternoon sun, felt much the same. Their player had been beaten fair and square by an opponent whose easy rhythm survived wind, tension and the quickening greens alike.
It was because of the strength of the wind in the early morning that many suspected that Byrne, whose handicap dipped to plus six at one point last year, might have the edge. After all, though he has now been at Arizona State for three years, he spent his formative golfing years playing in rough weather in Banchory.
“It’s a bit like learning to ride a bike,” he said. “Once you can play in wind and rain, you never forget.” Yet, though he did have the edge at the start and was still 1-up after ten, he felt that Jeong mastered the elements rather better than he did over the day. “He was brilliant in the cross-winds. Just brilliant.”
Where Jeong will stay in the amateur ranks to take up his Masters invitation next year, Byrne will hang on for next summer’s Walker Cup in his native Aberdeen. As he left Muirfield, Byrne was pondering less on his result against Jeong than how this was the latest of three chances he had let slip to win a place in the 150th Anniversary Open.
Luckily, he still has one more – namely, at local Qualifying at Kingsbarns on 29 June.