Long road to Rio
From his humble beginnings in Chinese Taipei, C.T. Pan has emerged as an elite golf talent and Olympian
August 02, 2016
By Kevin Prise, PGATOUR.COM
Unlike most Web.com Tour players, C.T. Pan didn’t learn to play golf on well-manicured courses and driving ranges.
In fact, the piece of land where he hit his first golf shots wasn’t manicured at all.
Pan learned the game in the humblest of fashions: by hitting a ball around an abandoned driving range in his hometown of Miaoli County, Chinese Taipei.
Pan’s family only knew of the sport because his mother, Yueh-Mei Kang, worked at National Garden Golf Club as a caddie. The club was designed to be a hotel with a golf course and a range -- except the developers never got around to building the range.
Pan’s family didn’t have much money, but they borrowed enough clubs from friends for C.T., his father Jung-Ho and older brother Fu-Ching to hit balls around the range. C.T. was 5 years old when he hit his first shot.
“We pretty much started from scratch,” said C.T., short for Cheng-Tsung. “It was a 200-yard-deep range, and they rarely cut down the grass, so it was pretty thick rough …. But we played it so often, that the rough eventually became like a fairway.
“Me, my dad and my brother, we all started right there and played golf. We put down a flag, bought it from a store similar to Walmart, and tried to make our own course.”
From that unkempt field, C.T. is now headed to the world’s largest sporting competition. The 24-year-old will represent Chinese Taipei in next week’s Olympic Games as golf returns to the global showcase of sport for the first time since 1904.
The Games fall during a crucial juncture in the Web.com Tour season for the rookie, but a strong run this summer not only clinched his Olympic berth but also made a PGA TOUR card all but a certainty. C.T. has finished inside the top 20 in his past five starts, including a runner-up finish at the LECOM Health Challenge and sixth-place finish at last week’s Ellie Mae Classic at TPC Stonebrae.
He is No. 12 on The 25 with four events remaining in the Web.com Tour’s Regular Season. The top 25 on the money list after the WinCo Foods Portland Open presented by Kraft Heinz on August 25-28 will earn their PGA TOUR cards for the 2016-17 season. Another 25 players will earn PGA TOUR cards via the Web.com Tour Finals.
Pan’s second-place finish at Peek’n Peak Resort didn’t just help his chances of earning his first TOUR card. It also clinched his Olympic berth. The tournament ended July 10, the day before the Olympic field was set.
“The International Golf Federation had a website updated every week with the list of Olympic players for golf, and I checked the website a thousand times,” he said. “(On July 11), that was probably the first thing I did … go on and refresh things, and I saw my name up there when it was finalized. It was a big relief to see that happen, and to just feel like all the hard work has paid off.
“It’s a great feeling, a great achievement in my career.”
Cheng Tsung Pan finds out he will play in the Rio 2016 Olympics
To understand the significance of Pan’s Olympic berth, it requires understanding his journey from that field in Miaoli County.
Golf is a game for the wealthy in Chinese Taipei, and C.T.’s family didn’t fit that bill. He was the youngest of six children – four boys and two girls – and although Jung-Ho maintained a respectable job as an elementary school math teacher, it wasn’t the type that would bring excess to his children.
Jung-Ho saw the benefits that the game could bring his sons, though, so he was eager to take them to the abandoned range, where they created makeshift courses with that flag. Hitting shots from the range’s imperfect lies allowed him to develop an innate feel for the game.
He began playing local junior tournaments at age 7, although he was still practicing at the abandoned driving range. He started to play at a local course when he was 8 years old, though he arrived at the course in unconventional fashion. The course’s entrance was two kilometers (about 1.24 miles) from the clubhouse, and Pan would get out of his father’s car at the entrance before running to the clubhouse. He doesn’t remember with certainty why he made the uphill run, but he knows discipline and mental toughness were two of the motives.
Once the run was complete, Pan would share breakfast with his father before heading out to practice. Inclement weather, even East Asia’s severe storms, couldn’t deter him on his quest to improve.
His work ethic is still on display on the Web.com Tour. The day after missing the cut in the season-opening Panama Claro Championship, he was the only player seen practicing under the hot, mid-day sun.
C.T.’s dedication allowed him to develop elite talent without elite coaching.
“I think his dad was tough, but he instilled a seriousness and a work ethic in him,” said Matt Thurmond, C.T.’s college coach at the University of Washington. “I think there was a lot of sacrifice made for him to be able to do what he could do, and his talent showed early on.
“Just having to work his way up, and … it’s not like his family is impoverished back home or anything, but he did not grow up (with) privilege, for sure. But from an early age, (golf) was going to be what he was going to do. He is not a guy that ever questioned, ‘Hey, should I be a pro golfer?’ It has been very clear for him from early on – ‘This is what I do, this is my gift, and this is what I’m going to do for my life.”
Jung-Ho made sacrifices so that his youngest son could pursue his golf career. To save money, he and C.T. slept in a truck at junior tournaments to save money, even in the unbearable summer heat.
The first payoff came at the 2006 Asian Games, an Olympic-style competition for the continent. C.T., then 14 years old, was the youngest player on Chinese Taipei’s golf team and the last player to make the roster. He earned the silver medal, though, finishing just one shot behind future Presidents Cup player Kyung-Tae Kim, who is six years older than Pan.
The IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, took notice, and offered Pan a scholarship. It was his big break.
“That silver medal proved that I’m a good player, one of the best players from Asia,” Pan said. “That definitely got me the scholarship, for sure. That’s quite a bit of money (to attend the Academy), so that scholarship really helped me.”
Presented with such an opportunity, C.T. and his family weren’t about to let the situation pass by. This was a chance to learn from some of the world’s top junior golf instructors and play against elite-level junior competition.
So without much knowledge of either the English language or the American culture, C.T. said goodbye to his large family, packed his bags and headed across the Pacific Ocean. He was just 15 years old.
After practicing in typhoons and running three miles to practice, though, he wasn’t fazed by his new home. He kept getting better, the accolades kept coming in, and he was offered a scholarship to Washington.
C.T. was a shy freshman when he arrived in Seattle, but by his senior year he had developed into a charismatic captain.
“Early on in his career, he was like, ‘No, I’ll just take care of myself; I’m not a leader type,’” Thurmond said. “He said that to me a few times.
“Then as a senior, I said, ‘We need a leader on this team; we need a team captain,’ and he said, ‘Coach, I’ll accept and I’ll do my best.’ And he did an amazing job, was so helpful to everybody.
“So it was kind of cool to see the transformation of him as a person, and as a leader … from a very shy, quiet, private person, to the center of the team.”
C.T. grew in other ways during his time at Washington, too. Thurmond remembers him learning to how to throw an American football, to drive, to swim. He kept putting himself in uncomfortable situations, not unlike the two-kilometer runs years prior, and he continued to thrive amidst them.
Jung-Ho passed away when C.T. was 18, but his father’s lessons had been long instilled in his son.
Pan graduated from Washington last May, shortly after earning status on Mackenzie Tour-PGA TOUR Canada, and there he thrived, winning twice in just seven starts and finishing No. 2 on the money list to earn a trip directly to Final Stage of the Web.com Tour Qualifying Tournament.
This despite serving a 12-day stint in the Taiwanese military mid-season as part of a government requirement – although, Pan admits, it wasn’t the most difficult 12 days (The mandatory service requirement had been shortened due to his gold medal at the 2014 Asian Games).
“Just cleaning the base,” said Pan of his military duties. “A typhoon swept by when we were there, so a lot of trees were down, so we needed to clean all the branches and leaves. But it was pretty much nothing.”
After all, C.T. is quite used to typhoons.
Players visit the Utah Olympic Park at the Utah Championship
He plans to give back to his home country in other ways, too. At the age of 24, he’s already getting started – although his humble nature keeps him from revealing much.
“He likes his time in America because he’s able to be kind of anonymous, but over time he has become much more engaged back home,” Thurmond said. “Now he’s going back a lot; he’s much more comfortable going back and is engaged in junior golf clinics and helping people in a lot of ways back home.
“He’s a big star over there. Huge, actually. (At) the Asian Games, he was the first medal in many, many years for (Chinese Taipei) as an individual, and he led his team to victory too. I need to handle these expectations, but I really think he will be a superstar in this game.”
C.T. has the potential to do a lot for golf in his home country, helping kids with talent and drive to receive the opportunities like the ones that propelled his career.
It could begin next week in Rio, where his brother will serve as caddie, perhaps bringing things full circle from the times they spent hitting balls on a makeshift course under their father’s watchful eye.
C.T. and Wen-Tang Lin will give Chinese Taipei two players to cheer on at next week’s Olympic Games.
C.T. can’t wait to get to Rio. He bought a plane ticket to Brazil months ago, before he knew whether he would have a place at the Games and before he knew where he would stand on the Web.com Tour money list.
He knew it would be an opportunity of a lifetime, and he put the thought in his mind that he would be an Olympian.
Then, as he has done countless times throughout his life, he went out and made it a reality.
“It’s going to be a super exciting event for me,” said Pan at the United Leasing & Finance Championship in late April. “I’m really looking forward to it. No matter what, I will do my best to earn that opportunity.”
It’s as if there was never a doubt.