Jin Jeong, who recently became the first-ever Asian winner of the British Amateur, will be part of a record-setting group of Koreans in the 2010 Open Championship. (Getty Images)
For first time, three Korean amateurs heading for Open
The Open has seen just about everything in its 150 years, but St. Andrews will witness something new. In another illustration of how quickly the sport is changing, three Korean amateurs will be part of the 156-strong field.
ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- The British Open has seen just about everything in its 150 years, but there will be something new at St. Andrews next month.
In another illustration of how the sport is changing -- and quickly -- not one, not two, but three Korean amateurs will be part of the 156-strong field.
The latest addition is 20-year-old Jin Jeong, the first Asian winner of the British Amateur title in its 125-year history. He beat Scotland’s James Byrne 5&4 in Saturday's final at Muirfield to join U.S. Amateur champion An Byeong-Hun and Eric Chun, who grabbed one of four qualifying spots in Malaysia in March, at the Home of Golf in just three weeks' time.
"I always hoped that my first major would be the Open," said Jeong. "Now I can play at St. Andrews. It means everything, it's a dream come true. I've been watching the Open on TV every year since Ernie Els won at Muirfield in 2002. I really wanted to know what it was like to play out of knee-high rough."
That last comment brings to mind the memorable exchange between Isao Aoki and the Open's then-press officer George Simms in the media tent at St. Andrews 32 years ago. With no Japanese interpreter to help, first-round leader Aoki was asked a question about the rough and, in an attempt to get him to understand, Simms pointed downward beside the desk where they were seated.
"Ah yes," said Aoki. "Nice carpet."
No Asian has ever lifted the Claret Jug, but Aoki's 63 at Muirfield in 1980 means he is among the record holders for the lowest round ever, and Taiwan's Lu Liang-huan -- "Mr. Lu" -- was runner-up to Lee Trevino at Royal Birkdale in 1971.
There will be six Koreans in all at St. Andrews, the three amateurs playing alongside PGA Championship winner Y.E. Yang -- Asia's first major champion -- 2008 halfway leader K.J. Choi and also Noh Seung-yul, who in March became the second-youngest winner in European Tour history and was then another of the qualifiers in Malaysia.
Jeong has also earned himself a spot in next April's Masters, but for 21-year-old Byrne, who led by two holes early in the final at the weekend, it is all a case of what might have been. Unlike the runner-up at the U.S. Amateur -- they get into the Masters and U.S. Open -- there are no major spots offered to anyone other than the winner at the British Amateur.
The trophy has certainly been travelling the world in recent years.
Jeong succeeds Matteo Manassero, who at 16 was not only the youngest champion but also the first Italian, while before him came Dutchman Reinier Saxton, American Drew Weaver and Frenchman Julien Guerrier. Ireland's Brian McElhinney was the last winner from the home countries in 2005.
As for victory in the event leading to major success, nobody has managed that since Jose Maria Olazabal, who was British Amateur champion in 1984 (he beat Colin Montgomerie in the final) and Masters champion 10 years later and again in 1999.
Remarkably, you have to go back to 1935 for the previous British Amateur champion to be a major winner as well. That was American Lawson Little, who captured the U.S. Open five years later.
As for the runners-up, only South African Trevor Immelman -- beaten by Scotland’s Craig Watson in 1997 -- has achieved a major win since the start of the last century.
France's Victor Dubuisson, last year's European Amateur champion, is the only other amateur currently in the field for next month, although a number of others still have hopes via this week’s ongoing regional qualifying events around England, Scotland and Ireland.
They still, however, would have to negotiate 36 holes of final qualifying at four venues near St. Andrews next Tuesday, and that sees 288 players battling for a mere 12 places.
Meanwhile, the Asian contingent will swell further later this week when no fewer than six places are on offer at the Mizuno Open -- four from the event itself and two from the Japan Tour money list. Japanese players already exempt are Hiroyuki Fujita, Yuta Ikeda, Koumei and Ryuichi Oda and, of course, 18-year-old sensation Ryo Ishikawa, whose seventh Japan Tour win came in May with a sensational closing round of 58.
Thailand, meanwhile, is represented by Thongchai Jaidee and Malaysia by Danny Chia, and there could therefore be as many as 19 Asians in the field.
U.S. Amateur champion An Byeong-Hun, still only 18, is the son of parents who both won table tennis medals at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. His victory came just two weeks after compatriot Y.E. Yang had beaten Tiger Woods at Hazeltine, but he has so far missed the cut by eight at the Masters and five at the U.S. Open.