CHONBURI, Thailand – A new wave of talented young players from across the Asia-Pacific will look to follow in some illustrious footsteps when this year’s Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship (AAC) is played at Amata Spring in Thailand from October 27-30.
Among the achievements of previous competitors are: two major championships; 102 victories across the PGA Tour, DP World Tour, Asian Tour and Japan Golf Tour; five players reaching number one in the World Amateur Golf Ranking (WAGR) and 11 players climbing into the top-50 of the Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR).
When the AAC was established in 2009 by the Masters Tournament, The R&A and the Asia-Pacific Golf Confederation (APGC), it was a game-changing moment for of the top men’s amateurs throughout the region. The opportunity to play at the Masters and The Open was just a dream but the AAC helped turn it into a reality. They could compete in a championship that drew the attention of golf officials, fans, media and college coaches around the world early in their careers.
India’s Rashid Khan, who has won multiple events on the Asian Tour and the domestic Professional Golf Tour of India, vividly remembers the inaugural AAC at Mission Hills Golf Club in Shenzhen, China.
“There was a lot of excitement among us amateurs leading up to the tournament,” said Khan. “We could not wait to play an event that involved Augusta National Golf Club and The R&A, and to have a chance to possibly play the Masters. We expected a lot but when we reached there it still blew our minds. From the golf course set-up to how we players were treated, everything was done so professionally and was of an exceptionally high standard. We’d never experienced anything like that before. We started craving for more such experiences.”
The end of the 2000’s was a defining period for golf in Asia-Pacific. More players from the region started making their mark on world golf. Many metrics exist for gauging success, such as international wins but there were intangible benefits created by the AAC, including a surge in motivation among players and confidence that they could compete at the highest level.
It did not take long for the AAC to find its first star. Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama earned back-to-back wins at the 2010 and 2011 championships on his way to becoming the No. 1 amateur in the world, the first Japanese player to reach the pinnacle of amateur golf. Matsuyama’s story so far has been inextricably linked to the AAC. His 2010 win earned him a spot in the 2011 Masters, and he immediately made an impact by earning Low Amateur honors. Soon after he won a professional title on the Japan Golf Tour as an amateur and, while he has won seven other PGA Tour events since then, his crowning achievement was his emotional win at the 2021 Masters, making him the first Asian-born player to don the Green Jacket and bring his AAC journey full circle.
“I don’t think I would have made it to the Masters without the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship,” said Matsuyama, who is looked upon as the “senpai” (leader who motivates) by young Japanese players. “I was upset I did not win it for a third time [in 2012 at Amata Spring Country Club in Thailand, host venue of this year’s Championship], but I think that frustration kind of gave me the motivation to play professionally the following year.”
Less than 15 months after Matsuyama’s Masters triumph, another AAC alumni made his country proud by becoming a major winner. Australia’s Cameron Smith put together a clutch performance on the back nine on Sunday to win the historic 150th Open at St Andrews.
In 2011, Smith finished fourth in his AAC debut, three shots behind champion Matsuyama, his playing partner in the final round. He was tied seventh at the 2012 edition in Amata Spring.
“I remember my first Asia-Pacific Amateur; I played with Hideki in the last group and he ended up winning the tournament,” recalled Smith. “He was probably the first player I played with that I really thought was the best player in the world. He was hitting iron shots, shaping it into different pins. He was really the first guy that I saw doing that. Lots of good memories there.”
The player who denied the two superstars with a victory in 2012 was 14-year-old Tianlang Guan of China. When Guan became the youngest-ever player to make the cut the following April at Augusta National, he further legitimized the efforts of the founding partners in creating the AAC.
In 2021 alone, three AAC alumni – Korea’s Kyoung-Hoon Lee (AT&T Byron Nelson), Australia’s Cameron Davis (Rocket Mortgage Classic) and Australia’s Lucas Herbert (Bermuda Championship) – added PGA Tour wins to their resumé. Lee and Davis will make their debut at the Presidents Cup later this month, alongside fellow AAC alumni Matsuyama and Si Woo Kim.
“The AAC has helped me grow for a long period, and it was also part of my foundation to be able play solid on the PGA Tour now,” reflected Chinese Taipei’s C.T. Pan, who was runner-up to Guan in 2012 and went on to win on the PGA Tour and earn a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics. “The AAC has become the most influential amateur tournament in the Asia-Pacific region and I am very happy to see that today’s generation get such an amazing opportunity to play on such a big stage and shine.”
While both Matsuyama and Smith have risen to as high as No. 2 in the OWGR, equally impressive is the fact that five players – Matsuyama, Takumi Kanaya, Keita Nakajima, Curtis Luck and Chun An Yu – have become top-ranked amateur players in the world after their appearances in the AAC. Pan also spent time as the top-ranked amateur prior to his debut at the AAC.
When the 2022 AAC is played at Amata Springs Country Club in Chonburi from October 27-30, the field will not be short on inspiration.