Washington freshman Cheng-Tsung Pan "has more purpose than anyone I have seen on the golf course," says UW coach Matt Thurmond.
The legend of Cheng-Tsung Pan almost got bigger.
Pan, the highest-profile golf recruit in University of Washington history, fresh off a victory in his second college event, was being photographed during a team practice at Overlake Country Club in Medina.
The photographer stayed for a few holes, then left. One hole too soon.
“I made a hole-in-one on the fifth hole, one hole after he left,” Pan said.
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Don’t expect UW coach Matt Thurmond to be surprised. He expected great things from the freshman, who, four years ago at age 15, was the youngest amateur since Bobby Jones in 1920 to reach the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur.
But Thurmond didn’t expect Pan to be this good.
“It caught me off guard,” Thurmond said. “I have coached a lot of great players, but he has more purpose than anyone I have seen on the golf course.”
That served Pan well earlier this month when he won the Prestige at La Quinta (Calif.) by three shots in an 84-player field.
“It was more of a feeling and a look,” Thurmond said. “There was just no way he was going to make a mental error, or be uncommitted, or not be totally ready on every shot. It was clear he was not going to be stopped.”
A long way from home
Pan certainly doesn’t look imposing. He is 5 feet 6 and 152 pounds, with an easygoing, quiet manner — and he’s not going to win any longest-drive contests.
Consistency is his game, and mental toughness. It’s the same toughness he needed at age 15, when he left his parents and five older brothers and sisters behind in Taiwan to live, train and go to school at the Leadbetter Golf Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
“It was a difficult decision,” Pan said. “In the beginning, they all supported me going to Florida. In the middle, my dad started to worry. But in the end, he signed his name.”
Pan didn’t know the language and hardly knew anyone, but was determined to persevere.
“The first half of the year was really hard, and the language was a big part,” he said. “The first couple of (English) classes, I just replied yes or no to whatever the teacher asked.”
Not long after, he was asked to write a two-page report on the relations between China and Taiwan.
“One paragraph took me three hours,” said Pan, now quite fluent in English, but still “always wanting to get better.”
While he struggled to adapt, his golf suffered. He had been a star in Taiwan, having reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur in 2007 just before moving to Florida. But the results weren’t good the next summer as he traveled around the U.S. by himself, handling his transportation, lodging and other logistics.
“It just kept my life really busy and I really couldn’t focus on golf,” he said. “Plus, I didn’t speak very good English, and when you don’t speak English, it’s hard to get into that environment. You get scared, and somehow it’s not right. So you won’t perform as well, and that’s tough.”
Pan got angry and frustrated, but never considered moving back to Taiwan.
“I always felt I just needed to keep working harder,” he said. “I am just not a quitter.”
After the tough summer in 2008, Pan excelled the next two years. In 2009, he was the youngest stroke-play medalist ever in the Western Amateur, one of the most prestigious events in the world, and was the medalist there again the next year.
He had success all over the nation, and most considered him the No. 1 recruit in the country last year.
Thurmond first noticed Pan during his historic run in the 2007 Amateur, and began writing to Pan after he played in a couple events in the Northwest in the summer of 2009.
Pan immediately hit it off with Thurmond, just as Pan had with Ellen Wang, who hosted him while Pan played at the Sahalee Players Championship in Sammamish in 2009. Wang became Pan’s godmother.
“I came here in the summer and Christmas to visit her, and every time I came to Seattle, I loved this place more,” he said.
Seattle reminds him of Taiwan, where he lived around trees, water and the mountains. From a golf perspective, he knew he would be challenged in the Pac-12.
“I think I made a great decision to come to UW,” he said.
Pan is as determined to get his degree as he is to play on the PGA Tour.
“One of my goals in coming to America was getting an education,” he said. “None of my family members have gone to college and I think this is my only chance to go to college in my life, so I don’t want to miss it. In the PGA Tour, you can play in your 30s and your 40s, so there isn’t a rush.”
The college life
Pan’s smooth transition to college golf was helped by a new mindset when putting. Rather than worrying about what might happen if he missed, he began thinking less.
“I just picked a line and putted, trusting my instincts more,” said Pan, known for his driving accuracy and strong irons play.
After winning the Prestige, he was tied for the lead entering the final round of last week’s U.S. Intercollegiate in Georgia, before finishing tied for third along with the world’s top amateur, Patrick Cantlay of UCLA.
Classes began after the Prestige, and with schoolwork in the mix, life became tougher than Pan expected.
“It’s tough, but I love it,” he said.
Meanwhile, Pan has jumped from 25th to 10th in the World Amateur rankings, yet he isn’t even the highest-ranked player on the team. That honor belongs to junior Chris Williams, ranked No. 7.
The two met at this summer’s U.S. Open, an event they were playing in for the first time. The two often play at practice, with Pan saying Williams usually wins. Williams wouldn’t go that far.
“Occasionally, but he definitely holds his own,” Williams said. “Playing with him every day, that’s stiff competition for sure. It just makes you better.”
With two players in the top 10 in the world rankings, the Huskies have the talent to compete for an NCAA title. Pan said a team title would mean more than an individual title, and there is no doubting his sincerity.
“I think we are good enough to do that, and that is my goal here,” he said.