Competing in this year’s Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship has been a happy homecoming for Pan Cheng-Tsung. Born and raised in Taiwan, he left in 2007 to study and hone his golf skills in the U.S, first at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida and more recently at the University of Washington. Which means it had been five years since the college sophomore had competed in Asia.
“It’s nice to be back here,” says Pan,the youngest of six children and the No. 2 player in Asia according to the World Amateur Golf Ranking. “Asia is my motherland,and I used to compete here a lot. So, I really wanted to come back.”
Especially for this tournament, he adds, describing it as the biggest individual amateur event in Asia and acknowledging the enormous attraction of getting an invitation to play in the 2013 Masters if you win, and a spot in the International Final Qualifying for next year’s Open Championship if you finish first or second.
In many ways, it was quite a return for Pan. He rebounded nicely from a disappointing 75 in round one to finish as runner-up, just one back of Guan Tianlang. Though he coveted that Masters invite, Pan is thrilled to have a place in the International Final Qualifying next year, and the visions he now has of playing at Muirfield in July are very real indeed.
Pan wanted to make his competitive return to Asia last year, when the 2011 Asian-Pacific Amateur was contested in Singapore. But school got in the way.
“It was my first year in college, and the tournament was taking place my first week of school,” he says. “I didn’t want to fall behind so quickly.”
So, he stayed behind, a move that speaks to the seriousness of his overall approach. After all, he had enjoyed an extraordinary competitive year in 2011, winning the Azalea Invitational and qualifying for the U.S. Open, held that June at Congressional Country Club.
Pan followed that with a second at the Sahalee Players Invitational and then made it to the semis of the Western Am. So, who would have blamed him if he toddled off to Singapore for the 2011 Asia-Pacific Amateur, his game in excellent shape and his confidence high?
His decision to stay at Washington last fall seemed an even better one when he won the Prestige at PGA West just after the Asia-Pacific Am, in only his second college tournament. Clearly, his golf did not suffer from his prudence. And his academics were in good shape as well. Asia, it seemed, would just have to wait.
It was not an easy wait, however. Pan got into the game when he was 5, thanks in many ways to his mother, who worked as a caddie at the National Garden Country Club in Taiwan. That gave Pan regular access to a course and practice range, and he availed himself.
“That was where I learned the game, and by the time I was 12, I was pretty serious about golf,” he recalls. “I started playing a lot around Asia and joined the Taiwan national golf team. Then, in 2007, when I was 15, I started going to the IMG Academy.”
Pan’s game really blossomed that year, and when he qualified for the U.S. Amateur, he became the youngest to do so since Bobby Jones in 1920. It wasn’t long before colleges were recruiting Pan, and in the end, he decided on Washington. “It’s great being there,” he says. “I really like the different seasons and the changes in the weather. Living my life in Taiwan and Florida, I was always in hot and humid weather. It was nice to get away from that.”
Clearly, Washington has also been good for his golf. Pan was named second team NCAA All-American as a freshman and is a standout on a team that is coached by Matt Thurmond and includes the No. 1-ranked amateur in the world, Chris Williams. This summer, Pan made it to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur, for the second time in his career, and at the start of this tournament, his World Amateur Golf Ranking was No. 12.
His play this past week will no doubt lift that ranking as it also raises his confidence even higher. To be sure, the firstround 75 was a disappointment, the result, he says of not being sharp and throwing too many shots away. But Pan righted himself quickly, posting back-to-back 67s and then shooting a scorching 65 on the fourth and final day that included three birdies in a row on the front side, and four in a row on the back.
It wasn’t quite enough to get the victory – and that very special trip to The Masters. But it still made for a very satisfying trip back home.