KAWAGOE CITY, JAPAN | Masters chairman Billy Payne takes the long view when he considers the impact the nascent Asian Amateur Championship will have on golf in this part of the world.
In time, he and the other promoters of the event – the R&A and the Asia Pacific Golf Confederation – hope to create golfing heroes. Heroes who will inspire others in Asia to play the royal and ancient game and to excel at it as competitors.
But for now, Payne says he will settle for creating smiles on the faces of the players who reap the rewards from doing well here. Rewards that include an invitation to The Masters for the winner, and a place in the International Final Qualifying for the Open Championship for the runner-up.
One person who has been smiling a lot this past year is Eric Chun. The Korea native who grew up in Malaysia and is now a junior at Northwestern University outside Chicago didn’t get to go to Augusta after finishing second in the first Asian Amateur last year. But he did get into that Final Qualifying event, and then birdied the final hole in that 36-hole grind to claim his spot in the Open.
To hear Chun say it, his cheeks still hurt from all the grinning he did in St. Andrews last July. He remembers being awed simply by being in the Home of Golf at Open time, with the crowds and the grandstands and the narrow streets of that charming burg overflowing with people.
But then things really got good. “There I was, hitting balls on the range with guys I had been watching on television for so long,” he recalls. “I played a practice round with K.J. Choi, who is as popular in Korea as Michael Jordan was in the U.S., and also Scott Verplank. Scott and I were on the 18th tee when Tiger walked up and asked if he could play in with us. So, I played the 18th hole on the Old Course at St. Andrews with Tiger Woods.”
Once the tournament started, Chun found himself paired with Martin Kaymer and 2007 Masters champion Zach Johnson. “They were great to me and really taught me a lot,” Chun recalls. “I learned about the importance of being mentally tough, of hanging in there even when things go bad. I also discovered that their good rounds are much better than my good rounds, and that their bad rounds aren’t nearly so bad as mine. They may struggle, but they’ll still find a way to shoot 1- or 2-under because they hang in there. They don’t let themselves get down. They know they cannot afford to throw away strokes, especially at a major championship, and they really bear down.”
Playing in a major was something Chun had dreamed of as he worked on his golf game as a young boy, getting good enough to become the top-ranked junior in Malaysia by the time he was 12 years old and then to win the Big Ten championship as a freshman at Northwestern. And he held up pretty well in his first one, shooting 71 for his opening round. “But I three-putted 13 and 16 for bogey the second day, and then three-putted 17 for a double to shoot 76 and miss the cut by one stroke,” he recalls somewhat ruefully. But then he breaks into a big grin again, one that speaks to all the fun he had and the sense he took away that he can play on that stage, and at that level. And he doesn’t forget how he got the chance to do that.
That is why he is skipping a week of school to come to Japan to play in the 2010 edition of the Asian Am. “It is important for me to be here again,” he says. “It’s a great tournament, and they treat us so well. But the rewards are what really set it apart. That’s why I wanted to do well last year, and why I am trying to do well now.”
Chun chuckles when he thinks for a moment of how close he came to not playing in the 2009 Asian Amateur at all. “ I didn’t know anything about it, but then my college coach (Pat Goss) heard about it about a month before and suggested I enter,” Chun says. “Going to Mission Hills in China for the first one meant I was going to miss a college tournament, but he was fine with that. He thought I should come.”
Of course, Chun is quite happy he came. And while Billy Payne may not have created a hero in that young man when he gave him the chance to play in last year’s Asian Am, and gave him the chance to go all the way to St. Andrews, he certainly created a lot of smiles. Smiles that continue to beam across Chun’s face.
The hero stuff can come later on.