The stakes have never been higher for a third-place finish.
Seven male golfers finished tied for third this past week in the summer Olympics in Tokyo, putting them into a playoff for the bronze medal.
“I never tried so hard in my life to finish third,” Rory McIlroy, four-time major champion, told reporters afterward.
McIlroy, reigning British Open champion Collin Morikawa and reigning Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama were the biggest names in the playoff. But who emerged? The winningest golfer in University of Washington history — C.T. Pan from Taiwan.
“Like Rory McIlroy said, we’ve never fought so hard for third place,” said Pan, who won eight times at UW (2012-15), and has one PGA Tour win. “It’s different because it’s the Olympics. It’s a medal and you are playing for your home country and for your people, so it means more than just yourself. It means honor, and the highest achievement you can have as an athlete. In my opinion, it’s better than a PGA Tour victory.”
The Olympics tournament did not start well for Pan. He opened with a 3-over-par 74, putting him in a tie for 58th place in the 60-player field. Pan made some adjustments to his putting, and got encouragement from his fellow Taiwanese athletes and his caddie, wife Michelle Lin.
“After a terrible round in the first day, I played with a very bold mind and all I wanted to do was get better every day and hopefully I would get a chance for a medal,” Pan said.
What followed were scores of 66 and 66, then a 63 in the last round to get into a third-place tie.
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the only way for Lin to be on hand was to be her husband’s caddie. It was a pairing that had worked before. Lin had twice worked for a week as a replacement caddie, including in 2018 when Pan finished second in the PGA Tour’s Wyndham Championship.
“She’s the best,” Pan said of his wife, who is also from Taiwan. “She helps me be more relaxed in general, every day. That helps me focus more. She also helps me focus on the right things. She doesn’t really do the technical (caddie) stuff like yardage (to the hole), but she helps me talk about the shots I want to hit and to make a commitment to my shots.
“She has the best record among my caddies, definitely.”
To win the bronze, Pan needed to beat McIlroy, Morikawa, Matsuyama, Paul Casey, Sebastian Munoz and Mito Pereira in the playoff.
Matsuyama and Casey were eliminated on the first playoff hole after making bogeys. On the third playoff hole, Morikawa and Pan made birdies, which eliminated McIlroy, Munoz and Pereira when they were unable to match that.
Pan won on the next hole. Both players missed the green with their approach shots. Morikawa hit his third shot to the green, 30 feet away. Pan hit his third shot seven feet away. Morikawa missed his putt, then Pan knocked in the seven-footer to claim the bronze medal.
Not once during the playoff was Pan nervous.
“I finished really well (with the 63) and I felt really confident about my game, and I kept reminding myself to keep joking with my wife, because that was the key for my whole week,” said Pan, who moved from Bellevue to Houston a couple of years ago. “That helped me relax and focus more. If you watch the playoff, you can see we were smiling all the way, joking around. So I wasn’t nervous. I was just having fun out there with my wife.”
Lin called it a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“I think both of us will never forget it because we can share this together,” Lin said. “I wasn’t there when he won the RBC Heritage (on the PGA Tour in 2019) and I wasn’t there in Korea when he won the gold medal in the (2014) Asian Games, so I feel like being able to walk with him from the first tee shot to the last shot is something we will think about our whole lives. It’s wonderful.”
Pan came to UW as one of the highest-ranked recruits in program history. At age 15, he was the youngest quarterfinalist in the U.S. Amateur since Bobby Jones in 1916.
When Pan moved from Taiwan to attend a Florida golf academy as a 15-year-old, he spoke no English. Eight years later, he became the first in his extended family to earn a college degree.
Pan made a quick progression to the PGA Tour after leaving UW, earning his tour card in 2017. He has five top-three finishes on the PGA Tour and has earnings of more than $7 million.
“I’ve made the PGA Tour, which was my childhood dream,” said Pan, who recognizes UW by marking his balls with a purple sharpies, using purple shafts on his wedges and a purple head cover for his putter. “I want to get better every day because I’m a competitor and I don’t like losing, and the last couple of years I have not played my best. But overall, it has been really good since graduating from UW and I am still trying to get better.”
But as good as things are on the PGA Tour, competing in the Olympics stands out for him. He spent the first few days in the Olympic Village before moving to a hotel close to the course, which was a couple hours from Tokyo.
“I get goose bumps thinking about the thousands of top athletes from different sports hanging out at one place, eating at the same spot, and we are all chasing for the same goal, which is getting a medal,” Pan said. “Whenever I think about it, I get really excited about it.”