A year ago, he was an early contender at the U.S. Open, which briefly catapulted him to No. 1 in the World Amateur rankings. In two months, he will tee it up at the British Open.
But Washington junior Cheng-Tsung Pan couldn’t be any happier than he is now: getting ready to lead the Huskies at the NCAA men’s golf regional in Raleigh, N.C., that begins Thursday.
For Pan, whose career goal of being one of the best professionals in the world has been set for years, college is not just a necessary part of the journey that he must endure. He is relishing the experience.
Those who wondered if Pan would leave school early to begin his pro career don’t know how important it is to Pan to become the first member of his family to get a college degree. And they certainly don’t know how much he enjoys being part of a team.
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“It’s fun, just knowing there’s always someone playing in front of you or playing behind you, and that we’re always striving for the same goal,” said Pan, who has mastered English since coming to the U.S. from Taiwan at age 15 and was honorable mention on the all-Pac-12 academic team last year. “We support each other, and we do a lot of fun things besides golf. It’s just a really cool experience that, even though we play as individuals, we are the same unit.
“I still can’t believe I’m a junior already and I only have one year left in school, and another year to play fun tournaments with my teammates.”
Eighth-ranked Washington is the No. 2 seed in the 13-team regional, with the top five advancing to the NCAA championships. Pan leads the team in scoring average at 70.8, and despite all of his accomplishments, he goes out of his way not to act like a big shot.
“Of course, sometimes I advise the younger guys, but I feel like I’m their teammate, and their partner, and not their leader. That’s probably why we are so close to each other. I don’t want to act like I’m a better player.”
Pan, at 5 feet 6, is not physically imposing, and he is rather soft-spoken. But people definitely pay attention when he is on the course.
“He’s a guy that everybody plays off of a little bit, and everybody’s aware of because he’s got such a big presence on the course,” said UW coach Matt Thurmond. “He does everything so right, people are constantly watching and kind of following in his wake.”
Pan came to UW as the highest-profile recruit in UW history. As a 15-year-old in 2007, he was the youngest U.S. Amateur quarterfinalist in history since the legendary Bobby Jones in 1920.
Later that year, he moved from Taiwan to live, train and go to school at the Leadbetter Golf Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where he continued to excel before picking Washington, playing close to his godmother and in an area he said reminded him of Taiwan.
“Early on, I did kind of know he was a special kid,” Thurmond said. “Community is a big deal to him, school is a big deal to him, the type of culture he’s a part of, the type of team he’s a part of, is a big deal to him. Talking to people during recruiting, anybody that knew him at all just was over the top about how awesome he was.”
Even with sky-high expectations, Thurmond said Pan has exceeded them. He has won four times, tied for second in school history, and has 17 top-10 finishes, fourth all-time at UW. Last June, he made national headlines when he was tied for third through nine holes of his second round at the U.S. Open when play was suspended for the day. He trailed leaders Phil Mickelson and Billy Horschel by one shot.
“That showed me I am not that far from accomplishing my dream,” said Pan, who finished tied for 45th.
In March, he earned a spot in the British Open by finishing second in a qualifying event in Thailand. It will be Pan’s first trip to Europe, and playing in that event will fulfill one of his dreams — but that is still a couple of months away.
Pan, the No. 8 amateur in the world, is feeling good about his game heading into the NCAA regional, and he was second three weeks ago in the Pac-12 championships, just behind world No. 1 Patrick Rodgers of Stanford. Pan won last year’s NCAA regional in Tallahassee, Fla.
Pan said his short game has been excellent while he continues to work with a new swing with his driver to get more distance — while maintaining his excellent accuracy. UW will be counting heavily on him to advance to the NCAA championships, where the Huskies would be one of the contenders.
“We definitely have a chance to win, and winning is the only thing we are thinking about,” Pan said. “We have finished second six times this season (with one victory), so we are hungry for a win. At least that’s how I feel, and I feel that’s the same way my teammates feel. I’m not guaranteeing we’re going to win, but I can assure you that we want to win really bad.”
Scott Hanson: 206-464-2943