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A four-midable start

China's Yuan gets off to a flyer in 2024 opener, equaling his best PGA Tour result

China Daily | Updated: 2024-01-16 09:20
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Carl Yuan Yechun tracks his tee shot on the second hole during the final round of the Sony Open in Hawaii at Waialae Country Club in Honolulu, Hawaii. Yuan finished tied in fourth place at the PGA Tour's opening event. REUTERS

China's Carl Yuan Yechun matched his career best finish on the PGA Tour with an impressive tied fourth at the Sony Open in Hawaii on Sunday, as his 2024 season got off to a flying start.

Meanwhile, Grayson Murray sank a 38-foot birdie putt on the first extra hole to win a three-man playoff, completing a stunning personal comeback.

The 30-year-old American, who has battled back from alcohol abuse and mental issues, beat countryman Keegan Bradley and South Korean An Byeong-hun to capture his second career tour title.

The 26-year-old Yuan hit a closing 7-under 63 at Waialae Country Club in Honolulu, which included one eagle, six birdies and a lone bogey, as he ended the week one shot shy of the three-man playoff, won by Murray.

Yuan shared fourth on 264 with American Russell Henley, while Henley's countryman, JT Poston was in sixth place on 265 after hitting a closing 61.

It proved to be the best possible start to the New Year for the talented Chinese player, who only got into last week's elite field after his final 2023 FedEx Cup ranking was bumped up by one spot to 125th position — the cutoff for golfers to retain their PGA Tour cards — at the end of last year.

"I had a good mindset coming out today. Like I knew if I put up a really low score, I might have a chance," said Yuan, who was among those jostling for the lead on the back nine. "I knew my game was there this week. I hit the ball pretty well. I was just being really aggressive, really focused on getting the ball to the hole and trying to make good swings.

"I would say today was more free rolling; that I knew if I put up a good score, I could climb up the leaderboard. If I didn't, there wasn't much difference. It was not like the RSM(Classic), the last event of the season, with my job on the line."

Starting the final round five back, Yuan, who represented China in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, made a bold title charge with an outward 31 that included two birdies and a superb eagle from 10 feet on the ninth green.

He made four more birdies through the 16th hole with some outrageous putting to grab the lead, but a bogey on 17 after he missed a four-foot putt to save par proved costly to his title hopes in the end.

"I probably came up just a little bit short," Yuan said. "I'm proud with how I played this week and I will try to keep the momentum going into the next couple of weeks. I mean, there are just so many shots for everybody (to reflect on). That's the way golf works. I made a lot of 40-footers."

Fully appreciative of the lifeline he was given to retain his playing rights for 2024, Yuan is now learning to take the highs and lows as they come. He is already a winner on the Korn Ferry Tour, and he hopes to become the first Chinese mainland golfer to triumph on the PGA Tour.

During the third round, Yuan said that he takes great pride in flying China's flag. "Being one of the Chinese players out here competing on the best tour, I'm proud of myself and I hope my story will inspire a lot more young kids back home to get out here," said Yuan, who finished solo fourth at the Butterfield Bermuda Championship in November.

Yuan is slated to tee off at The American Express and Farmers Insurance Open in the next two weeks and, following his stellar finish in Hawaii, he is ready to capitalize on a new eligibility pathway, the Aon Swing 5, to access the next Signature Event, the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, next month.

"It is definitely a solid start here for me, and I'll be trying to stack up points over the next two weeks. I'll try to get into those designated (Signature) events like Genesis (Invitational) and Pebble Beach. I love those courses as well," he said.

"I think I just need to start accepting things better. Things that go well, and those that don't. As long as I'm putting in my full effort, it is what it is."

Inspirational victory

Murray, who claimed his only prior PGA Tour title at the 2017 Barbasol Championship as a tour rookie, made his fightback after a 2022 motor scooter accident in Bermuda.

"A lot of hard work pays off," he said moments after the victory. "It's not easy. I wanted to give up a lot of times — give up on myself, give up on the game of golf — give up on life, at times."

His advice to others facing hardships is simple.

"Just persevere," Murray said. "And when you get tired of fighting, let someone else fight for you. And that's what happened."

An, Murray and Bradley all ended a back-nine shootout on 17-under 263 after 72 holes in Honolulu.

"I hate it for Keegan and Ben. They played awesome golf," Murray said. "Sometimes it's just tough to be in a playoff when it's sudden death and only one person can win."

Murray qualified for the PGA Signature events and his first trip to the Masters.

"Today wasn't going to change my life," Murray said. "But it did change my career a little bit and I'm excited."

It is life changes that got him into the position for the victory.

"I hope everyone watching can get a little inspiration from me. If I can help one person that's all it takes.

"I hope people can see the change I've made in my personal life. I want to be known as a good person going forward," he said.

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