The Taiwan native is currently ranked 14th in the World Golf Amateur Rankings. He and junior Chris Williams are a potent combination that makes the eighth-ranked Huskies legitimate contenders at the NCAA men's golf championship.
For a phenom, Cheng-Tsung Pan is pretty normal. He stands 5 feet 6 and weights 152 pounds. He uses his library voice at all times. And he has this terrible habit of making his extraordinary feats sound like something any novice golfer could do.
Pan plays golf with the precision of a surgeon, the focus of a philosopher — and the bravado of a sheepish boy asking out a girl for the first time. Someone ought to tell him that he is, as actor Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy character would say, kind of a big deal. But the Washington freshman is too consumed with getting the most out of his enormous talent.
“I need to improve,” Pan says, almost in desperation.
It’s an ideal attitude for any athlete, but the mentality is especially heartening coming from Pan, who is one of the greatest recruits in any sport ever to step foot on campus. Pan came to Washington as a nationally ranked amateur golfer. In 2007, at age 15, he was the youngest amateur since Bobby Jones in 1920 to reach the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur. In 2009, he was the youngest stroke-play medalist ever in the Western Amateur, and he repeated the feat the next year.
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The Taiwan native, who left home five years ago to come to the United States and go to school at the Leadbetter Golf Academy in Bradenton, Fla., has followed with a quality first season with the Huskies. He is currently ranked 14th in the World Golf Amateur Rankings. Junior Chris Williams, who is ranked No. 4, leads the Huskies, and the two golfers are a potent combination that makes the eighth-ranked Huskies legitimate contenders at the NCAA men’s golf championship, which will be held Tuesday through Sunday at The Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif.
Washington coach Matt Thurmond doesn’t have his deepest team, but he’s bringing five “steady, consistent and quietly tough” golfers to the championship. If the Huskies can survive 54 holes of stroke play and stay alive when the field is whittled down from 30 teams to eight, then the national champion is decided by match play. And at the top, the Huskies have Williams and Pan, who are “two guys I know at any time can beat anybody,” Thurmond says.
The coach can be certain that Pan, despite being a freshman on a big stage, will play his game. That’s where his greatness lies. He’s not flashy. He doesn’t wow you with long drives. But he has a seasoned game. His accuracy off the tee is remarkable. His wedge play is impeccable. And he doesn’t beat himself.
“From a maturity standpoint, he is a man among boys,” Thurmond says of Pan. “He is like a 35-year-old Tour player when it comes to preparation and focus and not making mental mistakes.”
Pan, 20, says he has improved his putting and learned to be a teammate at Washington. He came to the U.S. to develop and get an education, and though it’s common for Taiwanese players to turn pro at an early age, he wants to be more than a golfer.
His journey has been difficult at times. Learning English was a challenge, but now he speaks and comprehends it well. But the hardest part of this transition came two years ago when Pan’s father, Jung-Ho Pan, died of cancer.
Cheng-Tsung, the youngest of six siblings, decided not to return to Taiwan for the funeral. The family felt it was too risky.
“In Taiwan, if you are 18 years old, you need to show that you are in college,” Pan says. “Otherwise, you must be a soldier for one year. It’s just a government policy, I guess.”
Pan still has trouble talking about missing the funeral.
“I just feel so bad,” he says. “I look at it as my responsibility. When you fail to finish your responsibility, you don’t feel good. I needed to be my dad’s child and be there. But I wasn’t. I had a harsh time.”
His father was an elementary school math teacher, and his mother was a caddie at a local golf course. Pan became interested in the sport at age 5, and when he was 8, his father would take him to a golf course regularly. The distance from the entrance to the course was three miles, so Pan would get out of the car and run to the clubhouse. After the run, the boy would have breakfast with his dad and then practice for several hours.
During a windy afternoon at the Bandon Dunes Championship in Oregon in March, Pan told Thurmond that he had played in a typhoon while growing up. When Thurmond asked for more information, he learned that it was another method Pan’s father used to make him a tougher golfer.
“It’s intimidating when you get a guy already this good,” Thurmond says. “You want him to improve, but you don’t want to screw him up.”
Pan is thriving at Washington. He loves the coaching, the competition and camaraderie on the team and even the Seattle weather.
“I like the fact that the school is in the city, that it’s part of something bigger,” Pan says. “I don’t like college towns.”
Pan has three more years to explore the city. And win championships. And add to his already stunning list of accomplishments.
It’s what his father wanted for him.
“I think he’s still watching me now,” Pan says.
No wonder he plays with such purpose.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @JerryBrewer.