WORLD> Asia-Pacific
Champs' son keeps the ball rolling
By  Lei Lei (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-09-17 07:04

The South Korea-born son of a former Chinese table tennis champion is poised to become an even bigger smash than his proud parents.

At 17, An Byeong-hun became the youngest golf champion in US amateur history, beating Ben Martin on Aug 30 in the 36-hole final of the 2009 Amateur Championship.

It was An's turn to take on the moniker of champion, following in the footsteps of his table tennis champion parents, South Korean An Jae-hyung and Chinese player Jiao Zhimin.

Champs' son keeps the ball rolling

Jiao, a former Chinese table tennis national team player, was understandably proud of her son, saying he is destined to garner more attention than she and her husband did in their heyday.

"My son inherited his touch from us, as well as the determination you need to be a competitor," Jiao told China Daily. "And I believe he will earn more than we did from his sports career."

An, who turns 18 today, was about a month and a half younger than Danny Lee had been when he earned the title of youngest US Amateur champion.

Before Lee, Tiger Woods had been the youngest person to win the championship.

While much of the world knows An as a South Korean, his Chinese roots are very important to him as well.

His mother was a world table tennis champion in 1987, and in the following year, she won a bronze medal and a silver in the singles and doubles at the Seoul Olympics.

After her retirement, Jiao married South Korean table tennis doubles player An Jae-hyung and moved to South Korea.

The table tennis players noticed their son was fascinated with golf when he was 6 years old.

"His father brought him along when he played and, once our boy picked it up, he fell in love with the sport," Jiao recalled.

"When he was young, we tried to get him to play table tennis as well, but his interest in it was not as strong and we found he likes to do things steadily, so we decided to let him concentrate on golf."

Jiao found a coach for her son when he was in primary school and eventually sent him to the US in 2005 so he could get additional training.

"We sent him to train in the US because there are more opportunities there," Jiao said. "Although we had to fly between the US and South Korea many times each year, we though it was worth doing."

She said her son was dedicated to the sport.

"I used to ask An to stop training in the US for a while and then to pick up it when he grew up, but he said: 'Playing golf is my life. If you stop it, you stop my life', which touched me and I decided to let him continue," Jiao said.

An's father, also a bronze medalist at the Seoul Games, made sacrifices of his own. Two years after his son moved to the US, An senior decided to end his table tennis coaching career so he could move to the US to be with his son.

For the younger An, his father became not only a wise adviser, but a full-time caddy as well.

"It was a good decision, I think. Thanks to my dad telling me to come over here to play golf. It was definitely worth it," An said after his historic victory.

For An, and his parents, the victory at the US Amateur Championships came as a surprise - they had set a goal of seeing An reach the top 64.

"Although he won many titles in junior golf events, he was not considered capable of winning such a big event," said Jiao, who was in China on the day of the final.

"Although I didn't sleep until three in the morning, I dared not call my mother-in-law in the US to find out more about his progress. I just called to ask the result when it was over because I knew it would be a tough match.

"When I played myself, I could control the situation but you cannot control things when you watch others play."

She said the excitement she felt when her son won was even stronger than the thrill she got from winning games as a table tennis player.

"My son told me later that he won the match by a wide margin and did not want to appear too overjoyed because he wanted to show respect for his opponent," Jiao said.

Both parents worked closely with their son, helping him to develop the calm, cool head needed for high-pressure golf.

"An has been benefiting a lot from me and his father about how to adjust his mind and deal with nervousness," his mother said.

Now, his parents are telling him to maintain that cool and calm head because he must now concentrate on his future career. After winning the championship, he is now qualified to take part in the British Open, the US Open and the US Masters.

"Days after the victory, his father wrote a letter, telling him to forget the glory and work harder because this is just the beginning," Jiao said.

Now in his last year of high school, An plans to continue his studies at university and says he is not going to turn professional in the short term.

"We respect his choice and support him very much," his mother said. "A golfer's career can be very long.

"As for whether he might be another Tiger Woods, as the media has claimed, we will wait and see how things unfold."