Stage is Set for Play to Begin Thursday

By Martin Blake

The players have congregated at the fabled Royal Melbourne for the sixth Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship this week.

The best players in the region, headed by the likes of United States amateur champion Yang Gunn of South Korea, 2012 AAC winner Guan Tianlang of China, Pan Cheng-tsung of Chinese Taipei and a strong contingent of 10 players from the host nation began their preparations for Thursday’s tee-off in warm conditions.

Royal Melbourne’s famously firm greens were running at higher than 12 on the stimpmeter, and strong winds are forecast for later in the week for the 116 players from 35 countries who are competing.

Not that any of this is unfamiliar to Yang, 20, who spent his formative years playing golf on the Melbourne Sandbelt.

The Korean player, who is in his third year of a psychology major at San Diego State University, lived from the age of 12 until he was 17 in Melbourne with his family, studying and playing golf.

“This is one of the best tournaments in the world,” said Yang.  “I’m really excited about being here and kind of competing on my home soil. I grew up here, and I really love the way they play golf here on the Sandbelt. It’s like links golf.”

Yang has earned a start in The Open Championship and the US Open next year by winning the US amateur title in Atlanta last August, and traditionally the US amateur winners also earns an invitation to play the Masters at Augusta National in April. Hence, his motivation is a little different to the remaining players in the field.

The lure of a 2015 Masters invitation, as well as a start in the Open Qualifying Series for The Open Championship at St Andrews next year, looms large for the majority of the players in the field at Royal Melbourne’s composite course this week.

For Ryan Ruffels, 16, the current Australian junior champion and a world junior title-holder, it will not leave his mind. “I can’t stop myself from thinking about that,” he said. “All week I’ve been holing putts out on the 18th green pretending that it’s the putt to get into the Masters. It’s something we’re all aware of, whether we say we’re thinking about it or not. That’s a lifelong dream of everyone to get over there. Four good rounds of golf, and you never know, I might be there next April.”

Ruffels is a Royal Melbourne member, so he has a strong advantage this week. “I’ve seen it play faster and firmer,” he said. “I’d prefer it to be faster and firmer because I think that gives the Australian guys an advantage, but obviously it’s still very difficult. It doesn’t matter whether it’s firm and fast or soft and slow, the player who plays the best golf will still win. If I play my best, I think I can win, the same as a lot of the players here.”

Royal Melbourne’s original composite course, slightly different from the route used for the Presidents Cup in 2011, is in use this week.

As with Augusta National, designed by the same architect, the legendary Dr Alister MacKenzie, positional play is crucial even though the course length — 6453 metres or 7059 yards — is not daunting. Players will be determined to create uphill putts for themselves, a fact acknowledged by Yang Gunn. “It’s quick enough,” he said.  “If it was quicker, it would be insane!”

The 72-hole tournament begins on Thursday in Melbourne.

Melbourne, Australia: Cheng-tsung Pan of Chinese Taipei pictured at the 2104 Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship at the Royal Melbourne Golf Club during the practice round on October 20, 2014. (Photo by Brett Crockford/AAC)