Stratham, N.H. – He wore a shocking pink shirt for the championship match, and you’d have to say it was an entirely appropriate wardrobe choice. What Andy Hyeon Bo Shim accomplished on Saturday at the 65th U.S. Junior Amateur Championship at The Golf Club of New England was the most shocking reversal of fortune in the history of the competition.
No player had ever rebounded from five holes down in the final to win the title, as Shim, a resident of Duluth, Ga., who relocated from Korea three years ago, did in spectacular fashion. The largest comeback until now had been by several players, most recently Donald Hurter in the 1978 final, having rallied from 4 down to win. Even more extraordinary, he trailed by five heading to the first tee of the afternoon round in the 36-hole final. And he stormed back against Jim Liu, the 2010 Junior Amateur champion who was looking to join Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth as the only multiple winners of the most prestigious trophy in junior golf.
Talk about history derailed.
“I don’t know why, because this is the biggest tournament, but I didn’t get nervous,” he said. “I kept telling myself that I just needed to make some putts to come back.”
You could have gotten long odds on the 17-year-old Shim winning the championship when the players broke for lunch. Up to that moment, Liu had been the dominant figure all week, sharing medalist honors and winning each of his previous matches in fairly routine manner. None of his matches had reached the 18th green, and as the two competitors sat down for their lunch break before resuming the championship final, no one thought he would see the 18th green on this day, either.
But only those with the wildest imagination could have speculated that it would be Shim accepting congratulations on the 15th green with a 4-and-3 triumph. Afterward, Shim insisted he never doubted he could rally.
“I was 5 down, but I thought if I could just make a few birdies on the front it could happen,” he said. “I didn’t really think about a lot. I just kept thinking about one shot ahead. I didn’t even know how much down I was.
“I know Jim is one of the best players in the world. But I’ve been playing good lately. My parents just kept telling me I could do this, I could do this. So I just kept telling myself I could do this.”
He roared back with a blistering stretch of golf, shooting 4-under par (to Liu’s 5-over) on the outward nine, winning seven holes, capped by a 35-foot birdie putt on the ninth, and then also taking the 10th hole.
“I felt like I’d lost eight or nine holes already [by the sixth hole], but I was still 1 up,” Liu said. “I was kind of surprised that I still had the lead.”
Shim, whose biggest win prior to this week was the Georgia State Junior, was a little stunned, too.
“I couldn’t believe myself,” he said, laughing heartily. “It was Jim Liu, the champion of 2010 and top five [junior player] in the country. I was about top 1,000 last year.”
Actually, it was blistering in another way, as Shim had to be treated three times for blisters on both feet. “I mean, it hurt when I walked, but I guess I had to hurt to play good,” he said.
For Liu, who still has not won a tournament of any kind in two years, it was the latest in a succession of bitter defeats. Since last September, he has finished second five times, including two playoff losses. “I’ve been making swing changes and things fell apart on the second 18, which is what happened with the other close calls,” he said.
In one week’s time Shim has become a major name in junior golf. His victory gives him exempt status into the U.S. Amateur and, undoubtedly, he will have college coaches clamoring for his services. While the home-schooled Shim said his goal is to attend college, he conceded, “I like golf more than school.”
It’s difficult selecting a moment that paved the way to Saturday’s victory. Maybe, as Shim said afterward, it was on the first tee of the afternoon round when Liu’s drive sailed left into the woods, forcing a pitch back onto the fairway. Maybe it was when Shim drove the fourth green from 287 yards and drained a 10-footer for eagle. Maybe it was the 35-foot bomb on the ninth, a nearly identical putt to one he’d made on the same hole in the morning round. “My caddy just told me to trust it and it went in,” he said.
Or maybe the road to the championship truly began eight days ago at 7 a.m. on the first official day of practice. Shim was the first player to arrive at The Golf Club of New England, hitting balls in the early morning light. Last night, he was still working at the practice green at 7 p.m. Asked by a reporter why he was still on the grounds, he said, “I’ve got to beat Jim Liu.”
Certainly, Shim’s resolve and refusal to hang his head when faced with that monumental deficit against one of the finest junior players in the world was a significant factor in his comeback. His parents, Jae Fil and Myeong Hee, told him at lunch to go out and have fun, do his best and be proud of what he had achieved this week.
Turned out, he did a lot more than that.
Rob Duca is a New England-based freelance writer who is contributing to USGA.org this week.