U.S. AMATEUR
Finalist Devon Bling Inspired by Late Mother August 18, 2018 | Pebble Beach, Calif. By Dave Shedloski

Devon Bling will be trying to add to a proud history of UCLA players who have won USGA titles. (USGA/JD Cuban)

U.S. Amateur Home

Lingering beside the 18th green Saturday at Pebble Beach Golf Links as the noon sun fought through a chilly marine layer, Nick Bling pointed to the sky and fought back tears.

“She’s watching over him,” he managed to eke out, his voice choked with emotion. He put his clenched fist over his mouth, fighting to not let any more sadness escape.

This was a happy day. This was everything he had hoped for his son, Devon, everything he expected, in fact, perhaps going back to when he watched Devon, as a toddler, whacking wiffle balls into the back of the couch in their home in Ridgecrest, Calif., with preternatural ability.

“He has always had such great hand-eye coordination. He’s artistic. He’s great with his hands,” the father said proudly, mentioning his son’s musical talents – he can play the piano by ear – and his prowess in other sports, most notably soccer. “There is a plan. If you work hard enough, stick to the plan and never give up, things will eventually work out.

“And so here we are.”

He spread his hands out and pivoted left, then right, to take in the picturesque scenery hard by the Pacific Ocean that happened to include the most beautiful sight of all: the scoreboard behind the green that showed his son in the U.S. Amateur final.

Inspired might be an overused word to describe a transcendent performance, but in this case, it’s apropos. Devon Bling certainly has been inspired this week in the 118th U.S. Amateur Championship, and he never appeared more so than in his semifinal match against fellow California native Isaiah Salinda. Thanks to seven birdies that canceled out Salinda’s own fine effort, Bling claimed a hard-fought 1-up victory.

His task is not complete. Bling, 18, will meet another hot golfer, Viktor Hovland, 20, of Norway, in Sunday’s 36-hole final. Hovland, a senior at Oklahoma State, birdied his last five holes in eliminating Cole Hammer, 3 and 2, in the other semifinal.

Fueling Bling’s amazing run in his first appearance in the championship is not just hard work but hard times. In 2013, when he was 13 years old, his mother Sara suffered a stroke and died the following day. He and his father were at a junior tournament in San Diego. His father, an engineer for the Navy, was his coach in his formative years, while his mother was the support, the one who drove him to many events and who always wanted to see him compete in USGA events.

“It took us totally by surprise. In an instant, she was there and totally healthy, and the next day she was gone,” Bling said. “Losing her was extremely difficult for my family. I know she’s still in my heart and looking down on me, and I’m just hoping to make her proud.”

After his play Saturday, he was certain she was with him. “There are certain signs that I know that she is there, that she’s watching,” Bling said. “I have felt it a lot this week for sure.”

“He played as well as I’ve ever seen him play,” said Andrew Larkin, the assistant golf coach at UCLA who has been on Bling’s bag all week. “You could see his game picking up and his confidence is growing, and he’s ready to go. The talent has always been there for sure, and it’s great to see it coming out this week.”

When Bling arrived at UCLA last year, Larkin didn’t encounter a typical freshman but an intelligent young man – he graduated high school with a 4.2 grade-point average – mature beyond his years.

“I think he’s the man he is today because of her,” Larkin said. “She was very special to him. I think the charisma he has comes from her. At 17, he came into college a man, and that has to do with how he was brought up, what both his parents did for him. He’s as good as a kid as you will find.”

Bling recalls how difficult it was to deal with his mom’s passing, how he and his father and his younger brother Dillon had to find a way past the shock and the sorrow and the pain. She was 43. She was carefree and smiling and vibrant.

Nick Bling said that his brothers, as well as friends, people in town and at school all rallied around the family. “It takes a village to raise a boy. Two boys in our case,” the father, 55, said. And those same family and friends gathered around the 18th green and celebrated when Devon brushed in an 18-inch putt for par on the home hole at Pebble Beach for the biggest moment in his golf career.

“I still don't believe what's happening,” Devon said. “It's going to take me a while before it all settles down. But it's crazy. I don't even have words for it. I mean, I'm beyond happy at this place right here.”

Of course, with all the hugs and the pats on the back he received, there was one person missing. Though she wasn’t really. And Devon Bling knew that. He felt it. He smiled thinking about his mom. It was a happy moment.

“She’d give me a big hug. I know she’d be really proud of me,” Devon said. “She’s always with me. Even when I hit a bad shot, I know she is there. She would just say, ‘It’s all right. It’s golf. It’s going to happen. Just gotta move forward and do better on the next shot.’ And she’s kept me moving forward.”

And so forward he goes. Inspired.

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA digital channels.

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