Soft-spoken, big-hitting Norman Xiong headed to the PGA TOUR
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Written by Kevin Prise @PGATOURKevin
Pandas are known to be solitary animals. Docile overall, often attempting to conceal themselves when they encounter a human for the first time. Somewhat mysterious.
Norman Xiong, 24, has embraced a “panda” persona as he navigates the world of professional golf, which has felt like a forest at times in his young career. His bio on X (the platform formerly known as Twitter) features a panda emoji next to his name. After a three-year hiatus from the platform, he scribed, “Panda back in action,” for a return post in July 2022.
“That’s a good one,” said Frankie Capan III of Xiong’s panda moniker.
Capan first met Xiong at the Junior World Golf Championships when he was 6 or 7; Xiong was 8 or 9. They’ve remained friends for a decade and a half.
“He’s a tough one to put a finger on. … He’s very calm, but he’s really pretty funny if you hang out with him," Capan added. “He’s always been one of the most talented players, I feel like, and he’s gone through a lot in his career. I think it’s really cool to see where he’s at now and persevering through a lot of things. I’m extremely proud of him.”
Capan was among a contingent of Korn Ferry Tour pros on hand to congratulate Xiong on his victory at last week’s Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship, which cemented his first PGA TOUR card via the top 30 on the Korn Ferry Tour Points List. Thirty PGA TOUR cards will be awarded after next week’s season-ending Korn Ferry Tour Championship presented by United Leasing & Finance; Xiong will enter the week at No. 12 on the Points List. Mathematically, he cannot be passed.
It marked a triumphant Sunday in central Ohio for Xiong, the former amateur superstar who won the 2018 Jack Nicklaus Award as college player of the year as a sophomore at Oregon. He turned pro at 19, earned Korn Ferry Tour status on his first try, lost that status, then won the circuit’s Wichita event last season as a Monday qualifier – by five shots – to regain full status. Xiong entered the Nationwide Children’s at No. 59 on the Points List, knowing he needed a win to cement his TOUR card prior to the season finale. He had taken proper precautions, signing up for Q-School for an alternate route to a TOUR card. He can now happily withdraw that application.
Norman Xiong interview after winning the Wichita Open
Xiong might prefer to keep a low profile around the golf world, but his game does plenty of talking. His peers are wowed by his talent and enjoy his company. Case in point: Chandler Phillips, Xiong’s 2017 Palmer Cup teammate who played alongside Xiong in Sunday’s final pairing at the Nationwide Children’s. Xiong led by five at the turn, having shot 33 to Phillips’ 38. Phillips then found himself rooting for Xiong on the final nine, simply trying to stay out of the way.
Norman Xiong gets the win at the Nationwide Children’s
“He’s a long-ball hitter, but he hits it straight. That’s hard to find,” Phillips said. “Normally when somebody’s a long-ball hitter, maybe their short game’s not as good. … Probably the best short game I’ve seen all year, today what he did. There’s not a bad thing with his game. It’s unbelievable. I know he went through a slump, but he’s obviously figured it out. He’s played well this year, … now he’s going to the PGA TOUR.
“He’s quiet. You’ve got to almost make him talk, but when you do, we have some good conversations. He’s just like anybody else; he’s just a little quiet.”
A 2015 Smithsonian article questions the long-standing belief that pandas are loners that don’t seek long-term companionship, citing a Michigan State study which tracked five pandas using GPS collars. Turned out, the pandas tended to spend more time near each other than expected.
“Pandas are such an elusive species and it’s very hard to observe them in the wild, so we haven’t had a good picture of where they are from one day to the next,” said researcher Vanessa Hull in a release accompanying the study. “This was a great opportunity to get a peek into the panda’s secretive society that has been closed off to us in the past.”
Maybe the golf world is Xiong’s secretive society of sorts. After struggling on the 2019 Korn Ferry Tour – making just five cuts in 21 starts – he made a conscious effort to take a more insular approach to the game. He alluded Sunday to the early “expectations” and “outside commotion” – inevitable as a top-ranked amateur player, seemingly designed for golf’s bomb-and-gauge era and with a splash of short-game ingenuity to boot. Much was expected, and perhaps it was a bit overwhelming at first.
His fellow pros, though? They’re his pack. Perhaps that realization unlocked his potential once again.
“I was able to go back to just being myself, and more so unlearning and getting rid of a lot of stuff that I didn’t need or thought I needed,” Xiong said. “Whether I’m on the PGA TOUR or Korn Ferry Tour or no tour, I realize what’s important is just for me to enjoy it and do it the way I want to do it and play it the way I want to play it. … Just making sure there are people around me that allow me to be myself and support, that is really important. That means more than anything.”
Xiong, originally from Tamuning, Guam, moved to San Diego, California, with his mother, Jing, and uncle, James Xiong, at age 6. He began in the First Tee of San Diego shortly thereafter and was a dedicated participant in the program. His game rapidly progressed and he graduated high school a semester early, joining the Oregon team midway through the 2016-17 season. He was named the 2016-17 NCAA Division I National Freshman of the Year despite playing just one semester, then won national player of the year as a sophomore in 2018, turned pro and co-led the Sanderson Farms Championship after 36 holes that fall. Then he breezed through Q-School, ultimately finishing runner-up at Final Stage to earn guaranteed Korn Ferry Tour starts.
Champ and Xiong share 36-hole lead at Sanderson Farms
But as the struggles mounted, the game was no longer fun, he admitted Sunday. That’s not how a game should be, he knew, even if that game is one’s profession. So, he looked within.
“I think I tried to stray away from (golf) at one point, and it pulled me back,” Xiong said. “I thought of doing a lot of other stuff to kill the time during COVID. It’s pulled me back, and I’m just really fortunate and lucky to be able to play out here the way I want to and have that opportunity.
“I feel like golf is kind of my calling. … I love it, and I think the relationship between the game and I is a special one. So I guess I’ve got to keep playing.”
Turns out, the golf world was Xiong’s habitat all along.
Kevin Prise is an associate editor for the PGA TOUR. He is on a lifelong quest to break 80 on a course that exceeds 6,000 yards and to see the Buffalo Bills win a Super Bowl. Follow Kevin Prise on Twitter.