This week Cheng-Tsung Pan is in Hoylake, England, as the first current Husky to ever golf in The Open Championship. “I’m still shocked,” he says of being a rare U.S. collegian playing for the Claret Jug in golf’s oldest and most prestigious major. “The best golfers who’ve ever lived have done what I’m about to do.”
By Gregg Bell
UW Athletics Director of Writing
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UPDATE: Pan shot a first-round 74 Thursday, +2 and eight shots off Rory McElroy's lead. Pan shot the same as his Thursday playing partner, Brandt Snedeker. He was ahead of Miguel Angel Jimenez, Sir Nick Faldo, Bubba Watson and Ernie Els.
SEATTLE -- Cheng-Tsung Pan got up this morning in England a half a world away from his adopted home – and an entire galaxy away emotionally.
His Wednesday began at Royal Liverpool in Hoylake, the second-oldest seaside links golf course in England. On the eve of making Huskies golf history, Washington’s star junior still can’t believe he was teeing off with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and the world’s best professionals at the 143rd British Open, golf’s oldest major tournament first played in 1860.
Husky rising senior Cheng-Tsung Pan showing off his Husky gear at British Open.
“I don’t know how I did it. I’m still shocked. I wake up in the morning and think, ‘I’m going to The Open!’” Pan told me last week over his cell phone between pre-Open practice rounds at Aldarra Golf Club in the Seattle suburbs.
“Oh, my God!” Pan said, still gushing though he’s been qualified since March as one of only four amateurs playing in The Open Championship. “I’m just trying to keep myself clam and steady.”
At 12:40 a.m. Thursday (4:40 a.m. Seattle time) Pan will step into the No. 1 tee box at Hoylake as one of only two of the 156 golfers at The Open wearing the colors of his U.S. college. He will get his name announced with a British accent. And seconds later when he approaches the ball and whacks it with his new, remade, lower drive he will make Washington history as the first current Husky to compete in the world’s most prestigious golf event.
“It’s a historic time. Very cool,” said Matt Thurmond. The coach of the Huskies’ powerhouse program arrived Tuesday at Hoylake to watch Pan at The Open. “It’s awesome to see the Washington colors at the biggest event in world golf.
“It’s pretty special. Among football and basketball, college golf can be easily forgotten. Our guys play most of the time in relative anonymity. But when you see Washington players in the competing in the most prestigious events in the world, that’s pretty cool – which, in turn, makes the program more significant.”
Pan, who spent part of 2013 as the world’s No. 1-ranked amateur, is joining 2013 European amateur champion Ashley Chesters of England, Irishman Paul Dunne and Scottish teenager Bradley Neil as the only amateurs in The Open field. Dunne, who golfs at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, and Pan are the only two U.S. collegians in this British Open.
And unlike Neil -- the 18-year-old British Amateur champion who this week told the BBC, “I see the Open as my best chance ... best chance of winning it” – Pan is unabashedly, refreshingly humbled.
“I mean, I can’t even find a word to describe it,” Pan said on the eve of his first trip to Europe. “It’s the biggest honor that you can get in the world in the sport.”
Washington has had golfers appear in the British Open before. O.D. Vincent, who later became Thurmond’s predecessor as coach, was in fifth place after round one of The Open in 1992. But Vincent was a year and a half beyond his UW graduation by then. Pan is the first Husky to golf in the hallowed Open Championship while is still at Washington.
Yet this is far from the typical, wide-eyed, relatively naïve college amateur making a token appearance at the most grand of golf’s four majors.
This is more than a cute novelty act among the established.
A LONG, PAINFUL ROAD
Pan was born 22 years ago in Miaoli County, Taiwan. He took up the sport at age five when his father Jung-Ho began teaching his youngest of six children the game by reading magazines and books on golf and taking his children to visit mom’s workplace at a local course, where she was a caddie.
Pan has played among the pros in the U.S. Open twice, the first time in 2011 when he was 19 and about to begin his freshman season at Washington. At last summer’s U.S. Open he was in third place, one shot behind Mickelson for the lead, during the second round at Merion Golf Club outside Philadelphia. He easily made the U.S. Open cut before finishing tied with Sergio Garcia and others for 45th at 6 over par.
Pan qualified for the British Open by finishing second in March in an Asian qualifier in Thailand.
This is the latest and perhaps greatest milestone on Pan’s ongoing road back from personal pain.
It’s been just over four years since his dad died suddenly back home in Taiwan. The youngest son of Jung-Ho Pan and Yueh-Mei Kang was 17 at the time, two years into coming to the U.S. to learn golf plus a new language and culture at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla.
As Cassie Stein profiled in this poignant story in February 2013 for Golfweek, Pan’s father.
Pan didn’t go home for his father’s funeral in February 2010 because he may have then been required to serve Taiwan’s mandatory service in its military. Men 18 to 35 years old there are exempt from the military requirement if they are studying at a university overseas. So Pan stayed in Florida to work on his golf and his way into college here.
Pan told Stein that, four years ago, “was the lowest point in my life.”
This week may be his highest.
Cheng-Tsung Pan and UW coach Matt Thurmond at the 143rd British Open.
He is bringing to England a family friend from Taiwan plus Ellen Wang, his American-based sponsor he lovingly refers to as his “God mother,” to watch him play The Open Championship. Wang was the one-woman anchor upon which Pan leaned heavily once he became interested in UW in 2010 – months after his father’s death.
Pan came to UW primarily because of Wang, and because of Thurmond's personality and skill as a teacher. The Huskies coach sent the coveted prospect a recruiting e-mail in 2009, though Thurmond wasn't convinced would get a reply.
What Thurmond didn't know was that Pan had a strong link to Seattle through Wang.
She had hosted him in her home on Seattle's east side in 2009 when he, then 17, played at the Sahalee Championships in Sammamish. Through Wang, he loved his time here so much he wanted to live in Seattle. That bond – and Thurmond – were the trump cards in Washington's recruiting competition with Texas, Texas A&M, Florida, USC and UCLA.
That’s why when I asked him if he would be wearing his UW purple at Royal Liverpool this week, Pan almost scoffed.
“Oh, yeah, of course!” he said.
Actually, Nike is sending Pan some new Huskies gear that he is debuting at The Open.
Though he has a local caddy assigned by tournament organizers, he knows he isn’t the only Husky at Hoylake. Thurmond left for England Monday night to watch his star in person.
Not in the way he’s used to watching Pan play, though. The innovative and fun-loving Thurmond, who attended Pan’s practice round at Royal Liverpool Wednesday, is confined to the gallery there.
Forget about the pressure of watching one of his own play in the British Open; the angst of having to do it from behind the ropes may drive the coach nuts by the end of the week. I joked to Thurmond that I hoped he packed his best chewing gum, lest he chomp through his lips with gnashing teeth.
“Pan’s pretty self-sustaining, even in college tournaments,” Thurmond said. “But for me, a guy who walks around from golfer to golfer being involved, talking and being a part of their rounds, it’s not easy to be behind the ropes.
“To be honest, it’s torture.”
Wednesday for Pan's practice round, though, he caught a break.
"A few special badges are given to each player for family and/or coaches that get them on the course on practice days so I was inside the ropes walking the course with Pan today," Thurmond wrote in an e-mail from Hoylake.
"I've done many more cool things in this job than I probably deserve and I realize I'm beyond spoiled because of it, but today was a day that it hit me: 'I'm walking the course with one of my players at the British Open the day before it starts.'
"I walked the greens and fairways and saw the course and competition set up from a perspective very few people will ever experience. As a kid I imagined doing that as a player, but it's just as satisfying to do it as a coach."
A YEAR OF “BIG-DEAL” CHANGE
Pan said he’d like to see London – on his way out of England, that is, following the business portion of his trek.
Cheng-Tsung Pan signs autographs for fans before the 143rd British Open begins.
“It will be a great trip, just a great honor,” Pan said. “I don’t even know what to expect – other than wind.”
Ah, yes, The Open Championship is as famous for its conditions as for its traditions. Summer in the English countryside often means biting winds across open, tree-less courses. Narrow, rolling fairways are often flanked by rough deeper than some lakes.
The expected weather in Hoylake sounds like it could be Husky like for Pan: a 30-percent chance of storms during Friday’s second round, increasing to 75 percent of steady rain for Saturday’s third round. The long, 7,312-yard course also has strong crosswinds off the sea that affect club selection and driving distance.
“I’m expecting wind. I’m expecting the ground and the fairways to be firm,” Pan said. “I don’t have to belt it forever. If I hit it low and straight it will roll forever.”
He has played in courses with no trees, courses with cart paths for fairways and greens the width of teacups. He’s played many times at Chambers Bay, the links-style course directly on Puget Sound in Steilacoom south of Tacoma that will host next summer’s U.S. Open. Chambers Bay has just one tree on the entire course and is often likened to a British Open venue.
“But people say that this week it’s totally different,” Pan said.
He has been practicing for the last month at Aldarra, the exclusive course off Duthie Hill Road in Sammamish on Seattle’s east side. As exclusive as Aldarra is, Pan can be sure he was the only one playing there while on his way to golfing in the British Open.
So what’s Pan been working on?
“Pretty much everything,” he said. “I’ve been trying to hit low shots, chopping down on my driver, leaving the face open. And to be more powerful.
“Hopefully that will work there.”
Then he adds: “I have no idea.”
Pan is coming off a subpar junior season for the Huskies -- at least for a man who had been the world’s top-ranked amateur in 2013. After seven top-10 finishes in each of his first two seasons at UW he had had four this past spring. He uncharacteristically made just one birdie in the final round of last month’s NCAA championships and finished 49th overall at 3-over par. His world amateur ranking is now 47th.
After being a first team All-America and semifinalist for the Ben Hogan Award, college golf’s Heisman Trophy, in 2013 Pan was an honorable mention for All-American this spring.
This has been a year of transition for Pan. Last summer he went home to Taiwan and his coach there to completely change his swing.
“It was a big deal,” he said. “It took a while to get used to it. I feel I’m still in progress with it, and I’m about there.”
Pan changed his formerly meticulous swing for what he feels will be long-term gains to last well into his pro career. That’s not necessarily aligned with giving the Huskies the best chance to succeed as a team with Pan over his last two years at UW.
“It was a pretty big change and long-term change,” said Thurmond, who explained that Pan’s previous swing required more perfection and less power. “I do think he’s getting better, but he’s not there yet.”
Thurmond is in a tough spot. His future PGA Tour golfer went home to his private tutor during one of his summers to enhance his eventual pro career – potentially at the expense of his college one.
“You have to accept it,” Thurmond said. “You know, I’m here for the players. If someone has a goal, I’m going to support him in whatever he wants for his career. We constantly talk and work together.
“He wanted to develop a swing that was more consistent day in and day out, to rely more on his big muscles.”
“YES, I AM COMING BACK”
Pan isn’t going halfway across the world expecting to play for just two days. When I asked how realistic it was that his star will make the cut above many other, far more-experienced professionals and play through Sunday’s final round of the world’s most grand golf event, Thurmond said, “Oh, absolutely it’s realistic.
“He’s beaten a bunch of pros before. He had to be better than 75 high-level professionals throughout Asia just to qualify for this. Last time he was at the U.S. Open he was in the top 10 deep into the second round and easily made the cut.
“If he comes back not making the cut, he will be terribly disappointed.”
No matter how it goes for him on the oldest and grandest golf stage Pan is promising he is not yet turning pro, that he will return to UW in September to begin his senior year.
“Yes, I am coming back,” he said.
The 2013 honorable mention for the Pac-12’s all-academic team wants to finish his bachelor’s degree in communications and become the first among his family to graduate from college. Plus, he still has that new swing to perfect before he turns pro.
For this week, though, he is wowed to be the Husky at Hoylake.
“It’s the most prestigious event in the world,” Pan said. “The best golfers who’ve ever lived have done what I’m about to do.”
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
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