On the VIP shuttle ride down to Chambers Bay golf course, South Korea’s Byeong-Hun An remained reticent as he took in the sights.
Sizable galleries were already forming. The brown surface meant another day of fast-and-firm golf at the 110th U.S. Amateur awaited.
The defending champion glanced at his family, his stomach on spin cycle.
“This is match play. This is a big tournament,” An said. “I always get nervous before I go off.”
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The stakes were high Friday – four berths to the semifinals. All matches went to the limit.
An headlined the quartet of close victories with a 1-up win over soon-to-be California Golden Bears teammate Max Homa to become the first defender to reach the next year’s semifinals since Tiger Woods in 1996.
There were close Oklahoma State buddies on the course, too: Top-ranked amateur Peter Uihlein won an emotional 1-up decision over Morgan Hoffmann.
David Chung, on the hottest streak with two major amateur victories in the past month, continued his torrid run by upending NCAA Division I champion Scott Langley, 1-up.
UCLA-bound teenager Patrick Cantlay needed more time, but stopped long shot Jed Dirksen’s bid in 20 holes.
To think about what An could accomplish before he ever steps foot on the Berkeley campus is astounding – especially given that he hasn’t played well since his improbable run to the 2009 U.S. Amateur title.
“Really, I didn’t have any confidence before I came here,” he said.
But he jumped out again Friday and had a 2-up lead before his tee shot on the 17th hole plugged in the sand trap. He lost the hole.
And after his third shot at 18 – a 50-yard pitch – caught the bank and rolled back, the possibility of a playoff loomed.
But on Homa’s third shot from the same spot, he, too, didn’t carry the ball far enough and it rolled back. An clinched with a par.
“When people get nervous,” An said, “that shot is really hard, especially with a pin like that.”
Relief overcame An. Minutes later, Uihlein had his difficulty at the 18th hole, too, but prevailed when Hoffman’s 40-foot greenside chip came up woefully short.
“Didn’t hit it hard enough,” Hoffmann said.
Hoffmann’s curling 13-foot birdie putt went by the hole.
Uihlein hugged his close friend – and former roommate – after what turned out to be a back-and-forth, well-played match. And talking about it, Uihlein got choked-up.
“Yeah, it’s bittersweet,” said Uihlein, who is in the U.S. Amateur semifinals for the first time. “I just took out one of my best friends. It’s hard because seeing him afterward, he wasn’t happy.”
Chung, a Stanford junior, keeps chugging along in what’s turned out to be a fine summer. His machine-like precision and steely nerves with the long putter were good enough to turn back Langley.
Being 1-down after 11 holes, Chung drove the green at the par-4 12th, and made birdie to square up the match. Two holes later, he took the lead for good with a par.
Langley did not go quietly, though. He rolled in 25-foot birdie putt on the 17th to stay alive, and got near the green in two shots on the par-5 finishing hole, setting up a dramatic ending.
Facing a delicate, 70-yard pitch from the rough, Chung barely cleared the high slope on his third shot – but it did – and the ball came to rest up on the back ledge.
“It did not surprise me that he made that shot,” Langley said.
Chung sank the 8-footer for birdie to move on.
“I think it’s just that kind of one-on-one competition,” said Chung, who won the Western Amateur and Porter Cup in match play in recent weeks. “I’m a pretty competitive person, and it just kind of gets my blood flowing a little more, I guess.”
Todd Milles: 253-597-8442 firstname.lastname@example.org