Jin becomes first Chinese-born player to compete at RBC Heritage
April 13, 2017
By Laury Livsey, PGATOUR.COM
- Cheng Jin is nearing the completion of his freshman year at the University of Southern California. (Liu Zhuang/PGA TOUR China)
HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. — Regardless of what happens this week at the RBC Heritage, China’s Cheng Jin will make history. In the previous 48 versions of this venerable event at Harbour Town Golf Links, a player from China has never made a start at this Pete Dye-Jack Nicklaus-collaboration. Jin, a 19-year-old from Beijing who is nearing the completion of his freshman year at the University of Southern California, will end that streak this week. Jin won the 2016 Players Amateur in nearby Bluffton, South Carolina, and along with the big trophy came an invite to this tournament.
So at 1:30 p.m., Thursday, Jin will play with Tommy Gainey and Sam Saunders, giving golf fans in China a hometown rooting interest. In history, Asia has seen 17 players from South Korea play here, 12 players from Japan, three players from India and one Thai golfer play in 78 total tournaments. Jin and the Republic of China’s Cheng Tsung Pan add two new Asian countries to the roster in 2017.
Playing in a professional tournament is nothing new for Jin, who entered his first pro event in April 2014 at the PGA TOUR China’s Mission Hills Haikou Open when he was 16. The following week, Jin teed it up in the European Tour’s Volvo China Open in Shenzhen. Five months later, Jin made history when he became the first—and only—amateur to win a PGA TOUR China Series tournament, the Nine Dragons Open.
Despite all that experience—Jin has played in 27 total professional events as an amateur—the RBC Heritage will be his first pro event since enrolling at USC in the fall of 2016, and, overall, this will be his second career PGA TOUR start, his first coming at the 2016 Masters Tournament.
“I guess Augusta is a little different than every other tournament, and last year was a dream,” said Jin, who missed the cut at Augusta National Golf Club after qualifying by winning the 2015 Asia-Pacific Amateur in Hong Kong. “Even though I’ve only been in Hilton Head for two days, I know it’s going to be an awesome experience regardless of what happens.”Cheng Jin competed in the 2016 Masters Tournament after winning the 2015 Asia-Pacific Amateur. (Liu Zhuang/PGA TOUR China)
Jin has played a couple of practice rounds on the tight, par-71 course nestled among pine, oak and palm trees on this island that abuts the Atlantic Ocean. One of those rounds was with Pan, a rookie on the PGA TOUR who played the 2015 season on the Mackenzie Tour – PGA TOUR Canada and spent 2016 on the Web.com Tour. Pan likes what he saw.
“First of all, Cheng is a great player and fun to play with,” said Pan, No. 50 on the current FedExCup points list and a runner-up finisher at the Farmers Insurance Open in January. “His game is really solid, tee to green, and most importantly I think he has a great mindset going into the tournament. He’s very calm and poised, and it seems like he has been on the TOUR for many years. I think this will help him very much this week.”
“It’s a tight course, Harbour Town. All I will try to do is enjoy everything and play my best. I have to play great if I want to make the cut,” said Jin, who will have his dad and sister in his gallery this week, visiting from their home in San Diego.
Jin assesses his game as “OK,” entering the RBC Heritage. Last week, at the Western Intercollegiate at Pasatiempo Golf Club in Santa Cruz, his USC team won the tournament by a whopping 18 strokes. And although he started strong, with an opening-round 67, he finished with scores of 77-75 over the final 36 holes to tie for 39th in the individual competition. Jin’s top collegiate finish this season was his tie for third at the Southern Highlands Collegiate. At that tournament in Las Vegas, he finished one shot out of a playoff for the individual title.
“I’m still inconsistent. I just have to keep working to get to the next level,” said Jin, currently the 14th-ranked amateur in the world. “The hard thing is to play good consistently. That’s the hard part. Everybody at this level can shoot 65 one day. But when you shoot 68-68-68-68, that’s a different thing. I’m trying to work on that.”Cheng is a great player and fun to play with. I think he has a great mindset ... he's very calm and poised.
Jin says it’s his putting that needs the most work, something he hopes to improve this week on Harbour Town’s small greens.
Of all the main putting records recorded on the PGA TOUR, Harbour Town has been the site of two of the eight times a player has only putted 18 times in a round (Kenny Knox in 1989 and Blake Adams in 2010). Because the greens are so tiny, hitting them in regulation is one of the course’s major challenges, and Harbour Town traditionally has one of the lowest greens-in-regulation percentages. To score well here, if you’re not hitting greens, you have to get up and down a lot with one-putts factoring in. Jin knows that.
“I think my putting is really inconsistent. I think when I putt well, it’s only decent, and when I putt badly, it’s horrible,” he said.
But if he can chip well, that may be what’s most important.