Life-changing journey continues for XiongFrom Guam to The First Tee to the pinnacle of college golf, 19-year-old excels on and off the course
June 05, 2018
By Jim McCabe , PGATOUR.COM
Norman Xiong looks back on his start at The First Tee
Editor's note: Norman Xiong is making his debut as a professional at the Military Tribute at The Greenbrier during the week of July 2, 2018.
SAN DIEGO – Guam, Cambodia and Mexico intersect on 13 green acres here in the Colina del Sol neighborhood of City Heights, at Colina Park Golf Course, where the warmth you feel has nothing to do with the Southern California sun and everything to do with golf’s innate ability to galvanize different ages, cultures and languages.
You are so close to the majestic Pacific, you sense the ocean spray. You are so far from the excess of America’s wealth, you sense people have a greater appreciation of life’s simple pleasures.
Curious how it is that the flavors of Guam, Cambodia and Mexico mesh at Colina Park GC? You might be surprised to discover that Uganda and the Philippines cross here, too, as do Vietnam and inner-city African-Americans. Give credit to The First Tee program, which employs an uncanny GPS powered by golf and time-honored core values.
To know that is to appreciate Norman Xiong, who on a recent Friday in May – when he could have been lounging around his college campus hundreds of miles away – had a smile on his face and a love in his heart for these 13 acres and the young golfers who stepped through the gates of Pro Kids/The First Tee of San Diego.
“There are so many memories here,” said Xiong. “It is special.”
He is 19, a University of Oregon sophomore who recently was named winner of the Nicklaus Award as Division-I National Player of the Year and is expected to take the Haskins Award as the Most Outstanding College Golfer in the U.S. Xiong is also the latest young talent to turn professional and be designated with labels of others’ choosing. Only they are a little loftier for Xiong, stuff like “the next best thing” or “the best player since Tiger Woods.”
Such hyperbole makes him blush, grow silent, and shake his head.
Instead, it’s a discussion of another dimension that inspires Xiong, who was 5 when he came from his home in Guam with his uncle, James Xiong, for the 2004 Junior World Championships in San Diego. The next year, he came again, only with a twist; he would be staying permanently in San Diego with his mother, Jing, and his Uncle James, who grew up in Sichuan, a province in southwest China. They settled into an apartment in Mission Valley, but truth is, the First Tee of San Diego was Xiong’s “home” for five years.
It was a period of significant maturation in his life, so a sense of duty envelopes him as he prepares to enter the pro ranks. Xiong is eager to be an advocate for The First Tee program. He will wear a logo on his shirts and proudly tell his story. “My goal is to touch as many lives positively as possible,” he said. “There are not many people whose stories are like mine. I need to use this platform.”
Not because he polished his high-caliber junior golf game at Colina Park GC. Good gracious, it’s 1,250 yards from the tips – a series of 18 par-3 holes between 54 and 109 yards – and even a 5-year-old Norman needed but a few clubs to tame the place. No, this transcends golf; it hits at the essence of those words that are the mantra of The First Tee.
Nine Core Values. Life Skills. Leadership.
Understand, Xiong was born with a gift for golf. But he learned the important stuff right here on 52nd Street, smack in the middle of a 2-mile radius where perhaps 50 different languages are spoken.
Jing Xiong, who worked two waitressing jobs when she moved her son to San Diego, knows little about golf. But a former pistol sharp-shooter who professes an uncanny focus, Jing is quite in tune with the human element. Her son, she said, “is honest, he’s got a big heart and he’s humble.” Standing on the first tee at Colina Park, she spreads her hands and adds, “this place is why.”
He’s a kid of Chinese heritage who devoured burritos and pho in the multi-cultural Colina del Sol neighborhood, who dressed up as Michael Jackson for an end-of-month Halloween tournament, who performed community service with beach clean-ups and at food shelters, and who spent plenty of time in computer labs with mentors.
Now, Norman Xiong is on a mission to tell you how he squeezed so much out of The First Tee and how he wants to pour back into it. “It’s his magic wand,” said Rick Johnson, who mentored Xiong at The First Tee of San Diego and is now the young man’s manager. “Norman is The First Tee.”
Xiong didn’t know that his birth date – Nov. 9, 1998 – nearly fell on the one-year anniversary of the launching of The First Tee. But the symmetry intrigued him. Then he listened to poignant words that had been spoken in 1997 by The First Tee’s honorary chairman, former president George H.W. Bush: “We can demonstrate that golf is a game with a heart, and we can show it is a game for all.”
Xiong smiled. “He’s right.”Norman Xiong (second from right) enrolled at The First Tee of San Diego at an early age and quickly took to golf. (Courtesy of The First Tee)
DIFFERENT BACKGROUNDS, SAME LOVE FOR GOLF
With a blank canvas, you can paint by numbers.
Start with those provided by The First Tee program: 5 million children ages 5-18 were impacted nationwide in 2017 via programs at 1,250 golf courses, 1,300 youth centers, and 10,000 neighborhood schools, with 50 percent of the participants female and 49 percent belonging to an ethic race other than Caucasian. Sprinkle in those germane to The First Tee of San Diego: of 1,013 active members, 84 percent are non-Caucasian (27 percent Hispanic, 16 percent Asian-American, 8 percent African-American, 26 percent multi-racial, 7 percent other); 70 percent qualify for free access based on family income or parents’ active-duty military status; and 41 percent are female.
“Our program membership reflects and welcomes this same demographic accurately,” said Andrew Holets, CEO of The First Tee of San Diego.
It also is why your paint-by-number effort gives shape to 6-year-old Norman Xiong adapting to big changes at a tender age.
Consider: Guam is 210 square miles, San Diego is 372; Guam has a population of 165,000, San Diego 1.4 million. Where the similarity crossed paths was diversity. In Guam, Xiong lived among a population only 7 percent Caucasian, so this First Tee of San Diego felt familiar and was why Uncle James was at ease when he brought Norman to Colina Park. “He will never feel lonely here,” he said. “It will build his character.”
Uncle James couldn’t have been more right about his young nephew. But little did he know how many other “Normans” there were at Colina Park.
Almost immediately, Xiong met a big brother, Roberto Rosas, seven years his senior, and a best friend, Donald Kay, a year younger. They would mature together, united in their ethnicity. Rosas had come to the United States from Mexico with his mother. He bought a dictionary, covered it in bright orange notebook paper with race cars and taught himself English. Kay’s father, Phlec, had fled Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s and spent time in a refugee camp before coming to America.
Surrounded by First Tee peers who could share similar stories of family adventures, there was a comfort zone. “We all knew we just weren’t upper-class families,” said Kay. “We had different family situations, we were different races, and could talk different languages. But that never changed how we looked at one another. We never took any of that into account. We looked at it as people coming together.”
Their glue was golf, a game that translates beautifully.Norman Xiong with family members following the 2017 Walker Cup. (Courtesy of the Xiong family)
A NEED TO INSPIRE OTHERS
This isn’t a story about Norman Xiong being blessed with golf skills. Which he is, by the way. “He swings as free as anyone I’ve seen,” said Xiong’s coach at the University of Oregon, Casey Martin. “He’ll have huge success (in professional golf).”
We won’t have to wait long to see his PGA TOUR story unfold. As winner of the Haskins Award, Xiong will be exempt into the Greenbrier Classic (July 5-8) and he has been given sponsor exemptions into the John Deere Classic (July 12-15) and the Barracuda Championship (Aug. 2-5).
But if you put aside the 19-year-old’s power and all the glitter that adorns his resume – he was the Phil Mickelson Award winner as NCAA Freshman of the Year before taking two prestigious awards as a sophomore; he won seven collegiate tournaments, six this year; won the 2016 Junior PGA Championship; won the 2017 Western Am; went 2-1-1 in the 2017 Palmer Cup and 3-0-1 in the Walker Cup; and shot 64 at Riviera in the 2017 U.S Amateur – we’re talking about a kid whose introduction to golf in America came at “Honesty,” the name for the first hole at Colina Park, a straight-away 56-yarder.
“It’s an attractive story, because Norman’s so not a cookie-cutter story,” said Martin. “If Norman is the fruit of The First Tee’s labor, then good on them. It’s working. There are a lot of positives.”
A walk into the two-story Colina Park “clubhouse” offers clues as to why. There is a pro shop, snack bar, simulator and classrooms upstairs with computers and a good supply of books. But it’s in the classroom downstairs where you’ll find framed photos of former students in the Ernest H. Wright (he was the late San Diego Charger who inspired this First Tee chapter) Hall of Fame. Tiffany Joh of the LPGA Tour is a notable name, Cameron Scott and Quan Bui less so.
Only Scott and Bui, as much as Xiong, personify what this First Tee initiative is all about – they were students here, matured here, and now give back to the program.
“I cannot imagine living without the game of golf,” said Scott, who has been involved in The First Tee of San Diego for more than half his 34 years as a member and now pro shop manager. “It gives me a great sense of pride to know that a player like Norman will serve as a role model.”
Bui’s parents are from Vietnam, his mother part of the “boat people” exodus for millions of refugees. The stories she told him had a huge impact on his life, as did The First Tee, which he first attended when he was 11. High school, college and medical school behind him, he is a resident physician at UC San Diego and still giving back as a mentor at Colina Park GC.
He remembers being a teenager and watching “a chubby Norman who was about 5 or 6 and already lights-out on the golf course,” so hearing that Xiong wants to be an ambassador warms the doctor’s heart and invites a theory. Bui suggests that many of these First Tee kids have parents who have faced harsh lives. “What we face is nothing compared to what our parents faced and a lot of us know that,” said Bui. “If we have the chance to do something unique and we feel pressure, that is good. Pressure is a privilege.”
The current membership includes the Fernandez siblings, who laugh about the disappointment they felt when Stephanie’s birthday party was not held at Chuck E. Cheese’s, as she wanted. “Our father took us here to Colina Park Golf Course.”
That was nine years ago, and to say Stephanie and brother Peter have been here every day since would be an exaggeration. They’ve missed a few.
“It’s our home,” said Stephanie, who recently completed her freshman year at Cal-State San Marcos, where she was on the women’s golf team. Peter will join her there next year, thus adding to that slice of The First Tee that deserves attention. According to The First Tee, there are nearly 500 members playing on college golf teams across the country.
Collegiate golfers with ties to The First Tee of San Diego include both Xiong and Kay, a freshman teammate with the Oregon Ducks; Northwestern senior Hannah Kim, two-time Big Ten Player of the Year; and Calista Reyes, who followed through with a promise she made to Johnson many years ago after having moved to San Diego from the Philippines.
“She was 7, maybe 8, when she first started with us here and she looked up at me and said, ‘I’m going to play golf at Stanford,’” said Johnson, who concedes he chuckled then, but today is whistling with pride. “Guess what, she’ll play golf at Stanford next fall."
Be duly impressed. Then harken back to what former CEO Joe Louis Barrow said years ago: “(Skeptics) were thinking there is no way inner-city kids were going to sustain their interest in the game. The answer is, they’re wrong. They have the same discipline, the same spirit, the same focus. We just have to bring it out of them.”
Had Barrow sought a poster boy for his vision, he couldn’t have done any better than Rosas, who in 2007, just a few years after teaching himself English, delivered an eloquent and dignified speech at The Pure Insurance Championship Impacting The First Tee at Pebble Beach. Rosas shot 80 that year alongside Clint Eastwood and concedes that it was his desire to learn golf that led him to The First Tee, which in turn opened doors he otherwise would never have had.
He earned academic scholarships to the Francis W. Parker School in San Diego, then to Columbia University. After working as a vice-president at Silicon Valley Bank, Rosas decided to return to his love of golf; he is a partner in dormied.com, an online venture offering digital marketing services to golf businesses.
Heart-warming, Rosas’ journey from Tecate, Mexico, to the Ivy League and Silicon Valley, one that rivals his “little brother’s” sojourn from Guam to the University of Oregon and possible PGA TOUR stardom. It is no coincidence that they both circle the common denominator in their lives – The First Tee of San Diego.
That is why Xiong feels a responsibility to go public with his support and why Rosas will contribute website assistance. “If the kids read my story, if they know our stories,” said Norman, “I hope they will be influenced and know there is a deeper meaning than just golf, that this place will give you the opportunity.”Norman Xiong credits The First Tee with helping him become the person he is as he nears a career in pro golf. (Robert LaBerge/Getty Images)
ROOTS REMAIN AT THE FIRST TEE
Had he never been exposed to The First Tee? Norman ponders the question and shrugs. “I’d probably be just as good a golfer, but I wouldn’t have the depth to my life.”
There were days when James would not bring Norman to The First Tee. “Too much golf is not good,” said the uncle.
Away from Colina Park, Xiong would be a kid and watch SpongeBob, or he’d be a real California kid and ride his “ripple board.” On Sundays during the NFL season, “Norman used to call me and say, ‘Roberto, are the Chargers playing?’ Five minutes later, he’d call again. ‘What channel are they on?’” laughs Rosas. “You loved being with him, especially at The First Tee. That’s where he wanted to be.”
Xiong said The First Tee provided him with everything he needed, including a priceless sense of appreciation. “I never thought, ‘Those people have everything,’ because I always thought to myself, ‘What do I not have?’”
That maturity, as much as Xiong’s golf talent, is what Martin will miss. “He’s so different and I’ve learned a lot from Norman that I will hold on to,” said the Oregon coach.
As bright as the future might be for Xiong, it’s his brilliant past that helped him to this point. That is why he recently spent more than six hours at Colina Park, embracing his role as an ambassador. Toward the end of the day, Xiong stepped into a classroom that was offering help to young teens who want to improve their public speaking skills. They had questions – lots of questions – of the young man who not too long ago sat where they sat.
A young girl who will do what Norman did when he was a 11 – move to another town to attend a school outside of San Diego – said she had concerns about such a transition. She asked Norman Xiong for advice.
He thought for a moment, then chose his words carefully: “Don’t ever change who you are. Just take what you learned here.”
It has served him well.