One shot sparked Alvin Kwak to the biggest upset at last week’s U.S. Junior Amateur golf tournament.
The 16-year-old from Mukilteo, seeded 63rd out of 64 players who advanced to match play, was up against second-seeded Brandon Mancheno, a highly-regarded player from Jacksonville, Florida. Kwak was already behind after only one hole in what was expected to be a Mancheno romp.
But that’s when Kwak turned the tide. On hole No. 2 at Flint Hills National Golf Club in Andover, Kansas, Kwak holed out from 130 yards with a pitching wedge for an eagle, giving him both the hole and the bump he needed to get himself into the match. Kwak went on to win 1-up to highlight a successful stint at the U.S. Junior Amateur.
Kwak ended up bowing out in the round of 32, losing 1-up to Japan’s Kaito Onishi. However, it proved a fruitful trip for the junior-to-be at Kamiak High School.
“I played a lot better than I expected,” Kwak said. “I was pretty consistent with everything, so I was happy about that.”
Kwak was making his second trip to the U.S. Junior Amateur, having also qualified as a 14-year-old in 2015. Kwak had a rough time that year, so his goal this year was just to make the cut and experience match play.
For a while it appeared Kwak would fall short of his goal. Playing in 100-degree temperatures — Kwak’s older sister Renee, who served as his caddie, helped by rubbing his arms and neck with ice at each tee box — Kwak shot a 3-over 74 and a 2-over 73 in his two rounds of stroke play. For much of the second day it appeared 5-over wouldn’t be enough to make the final 64. However, as the day progressed the rest of the field backed up, and Kwak’s 5-over was just enough to avoid what ended up being a 10-way playoff for the last spot in match play.
Kwak unsuccessfully tried to nap in preparation for possibly having to participate in the playoff, and he didn’t find out he made the cut until arriving back at the course about an hour before the playoff began.
“I was so happy,” Kwak said. “I really didn’t want to play (in the playoff), I wasn’t confident at all.”
Making the cut changed that. Against Mancheno in the round of 64, Kwak used the energy from his eagle to win four straight holes and take a 3-up lead. Mancheno recovered on the back nine, and by winning four of six holes he grabbed a 1-up lead after 15.
But Kwak birdied the par-4 16th to even up the match, then won it on 18 when he parred the par-5 while Mancheno bogeyed.
“On the second hole when I holed out from 130 yards he looked a little mad and worried, like ‘Who is this guy?’” Kwak said.
“It was match play, so I wasn’t nervous over my shots,” Kwak added. “I was attacking the pin and going for birdies on every hole. On that course 15, 16 and 17 aren’t birdie holes, so getting a birdie on 16 really helped. Then on 18 he three-putted from 15 feet downhill, which I didn’t expect.”
In the round of 32 Kwak faced Onishi, the 34th seed, in a match that was tight throughout as neither player led by more than one hole. Onishi won it by birdieing 18 to prevail 1-up.
“We both had birdie putts (on 18), but his was a lot closer,” Kwak said. “His was from two feet while I had an eight-foot breaker downhill that lipped out. But it was fun to get to 18 of that match.”
While his run ended in the round of 32, Kwak was happy with how things went.
“It was a lot of fun,” Kwak said. “I learned a lot. I learned that I can actually play with guys like this. I took down the No. 2 seed, and Kaito Onishi is also a well-known player who I played pretty close. I learned I can go up against these guys.
“Now if I’m able to make it back next year, I can go with the goal of winning instead of just making the cut.”