Byeong Hun An comes from a rich pedigree of sports, but it’s not of a golfing hue.
His parents, An Jae-hyung and Jiao Zhimin both won table tennis medals for South Korea and China at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, before they married.
Now that golf is back on the Olympic program, An hopes to emulate them in Tokyo in two years time, representing South Korea … as a golfer.
First, though, he has an #AusOpenGolf championship to win.
An (“you guys can call me Ben”) played brilliant golf in tough conditions at The Lakes to take the first-round lead in the storied tournament today with a five-under par 67.
The 27-year-old leads by one from Western Australian professional Matt Jager and 22-year-old Victorian amateur tyro David Micheluzzi, who played what was almost certainly the round of the day — a 68 in the afternoon when the weather gods grew cantankerous.
Micheluzzi is the reigning Victorian amateur champion and a world-class amateur; today he lived up to his monumental promise up against the professionals with five birdies and a single bogey.
He and Jager are a shot ahead of a bunch of players, headed by Mexican Abraham Ancer, who had 69s.
As for An’s performance, it was no surprise to people who follow golf. An is a former US Amateur champion and has played three seasons on the US PGA Tour, doing everything but winning.
He lost a playoff at the Memorial Tournament in Ohio last June, and finished second behind world No.2 Dustin Johnson in the Canadian Open in July. He is No.51 in the world and representing his native South Korea at the World Cup of Golf next week.
So An is a serious player, and today he emphasised that with five birdies and an eagle. His high point was on the par-five eighth, his 17th hole of the day, when he ripped a four iron on to the green and rattled the putt in from long range for eagle. It vaulted him to the top of the leaderboard and when the winds came up in the afternoon, it always seemed likely that it would hold up as the best round of the day.
He was lucky with his morning tee time, though, because while there was a stiff breeze blowing soon after the first players teed off at 6.45am today, it was much worse after lunch; the weather gods were in an awful mood. “It was a little breezy, but it wasn't that bad, it was playable,’’ said An. “Then (I) got to the last hole and it came out of nowhere, it starts blowing a little harder and it started raining a little bit. So (I am) glad I finished before all this came.’’
An has lived in the United States since he was 14. He did play table tennis for a time, before the golf bug bit him and he ended up on scholarship at the University of California Berkeley for a year before turning professional. “Table tennis, they only can play until you're 30s,’’ he said. “It's quite short, so my parents didn't like me to play that. And then my dad liked the golf, so he kind of took me to the range and hit some balls, and that's when I got started golfing.
“And I wasn't the fastest, I wasn't that quick, and they saw that I wasn't good enough to play table tennis. It turned out pretty good. I'm happy with what I'm doing right now instead of table tennis, so I think they did well.’’
An sounds like he has been chasing his parents’ achievements for a long time. “Better get a gold medal one day or win a couple majors,’’ he said. “It kind of equals to them. But they've chased so many things in their life and if I compare myself to them, it's just going to be really tough.
"So I'm playing golf, I think that helps because they're playing different sports, or they play different sports than what I'm playing right now, so that helps. But no pressure, no, not at all.’’
There may be another motivation in this area. In Korea, Olympic medallists are excluded from military service, which has been an issue recently for another Korean star, Sang Moon Bae, who lost two years of his golf career while he was at his hottest because he was required to serve. An said this was “definitely on my mind”.
It was a tough day at The Lakes and the scores reflected it, averaging in excess of 74. Top Australian chance Cameron Smith started disappointingly with a two-over-par 74 that began to unravel when he went for the 14th green in two and pulled his shot into the lake.
Smith was frustrated with the softness of the conditions. “It was a weird mix,’’ he said. “Usually the course is quite firm when it’s that windy, but for some reason … it was quite soft. I couldn’t get anything to the hole from the fairway.’’
Playing alongside Smith, American Brent Snedeker started with a 73 and Indian Anirban Lahiri double bogeyed the last for a 73, but defending champion Cameron Davis felt the pain worst of all. His opening tee shot sailed left and into the water that lines the first fairway; his approach to the green found the same water hazard and he took an eight before fighting back to card a 76.
Americans Matt Kuchar (70) and Keegan Bradley (72) also fought hard against the misfortune of afternoon tee times, while US-based Victorian Cam Percy played a stunning round late to vault on to the leaderboard with a remarkable bogey-free 69.