By Kang Seung-woo
An Byeong-hun has acquired something memorable to showcase next to his parents' Olympic table tennis medals, the Havemeyer Trophy, as he won the U.S. Amateur Championship title Monday (KST) at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla.
What's better, the South Korean, who will turn 18 in two weeks, became the youngest champion to top the tournament in its 109-year history.
It's the second year in a row that the top U.S. amateur event has crowned the youngest champion in its history.
Danny Lee, a South Korean-born New Zealander, broke Tiger Woods' record to become the youngest champion last year at age 18.
"I can't believe it. I just won,'' said An, who defeated American Ben Martin 7 and 5 in the 36-hole final.
"I've said it before, but my goal was to make it to the first round and then somehow I made it this far. I think I got lucky.''
In clinching the Havemeyer Trophy, An, a resident of Bradenton, Fla., has received a 10-year exemption from qualifying for the U.S. Amateur if he maintains his amateur status. He has also earned an exemption into the U.S. Open and British Open in 2010 and traditionally will be invited to the next Masters Tournament.
In the long title race, both golfers were close through the first 18-hole round until An jumped out in front, winning three consecutive holes from No. 15 for a 3-up lead.
An tightened his grip on the title, going 6-up on the seventh hole in the afternoon's second round.
Although the Clemson senior fought back to win Nos. 9 and 10 to cut it to four, his short-lived charge was stopped by An, who regained his 6-up lead two holes later before sealing the historical victory on the 13th.
An has given South Korea golf fans another reason to cheer ― his win comes on the heels of compatriot Yang Yong-eun's triumph at the PGA Championship.
"They'll all be happy now," An, who has committed to the University of California, said. "Now, they can be happy, like when Y.E. Yang won the PGA Championship. A lot of people were happy for him and they all saw there's a possibility to now win bigger tournaments. I think a lot of people are going to play golf now and come over here and play golf."
An Is Kid of Top Athlete Couples
An, who stands 1.86 meters tall and weighs 96 kilograms, is the only son of former Olympic table tennis players An Jae-hyeong and Jiao Zhimin.
The senior An won a bronze medal in men's doubles, while his wife, who was then a Chinese national player, claimed silver and bronze in the doubles and singles, respectively, at the Seoul Olympics in 1988.
The couple married in 1989, three years before Korea and China formed diplomatic ties, in Sweden.
An, who took over the Korean Air table tennis team in 2007, has been caddying for his son since last year when he quit, while Jiao has been in business in China.
The 44-year-old took his son to the driving range at age 7 and sent him to Florida three years and eight months ago to have him work on his game.
"It was a good decision, I think. Thanks to my dad telling me to come over here to play golf. It was definitely worth it," An said. "I guess I'll have to try to win the bigger ones now."
Jiao Zhimin, left, and An Jae-hyeong, An Byeong-hun's parents