Someday, University of Washington golfer Cheng-Tsung Pan is going pro in … well, sports. But not right now. He’s too busy getting schooled in the collegiate model.
“It takes a lot of effort to combine being an athlete with school,” said the soft-spoken, rising sophomore student-athlete from Taiwan. “But I think it’s a good experience to learn how to cope with different situations, such as balancing your time. That’s a great process to learn and it will help me in the future.”
It’s a mature decision from someone who five years ago became the youngest U.S. Amateur quarterfinalist since Bobby Jones. He could have gone pro – the money was there. But what Pan did set him apart from some of his other talented countrymen.
“He’s chosen to be here,” said Huskies coach Matt Thurmond. “That may not seem unusual to kids in America who assume growing up that they’ll go to college. In Taiwan, though, most kids that have Pan’s skill turn pro immediately, probably at age 16 or 17. But Pan has chosen to use his golf skills to expand himself as a person, which includes getting an education, but also having a team experience and social experience outside of golf.
“When you choose to do something, it makes the value of what you’ve chosen even greater.”
That isn’t lost on the youngest of six kids raised by a nurturing mother who used to caddy at the local course and a disciplined father who pushed all of them to be their best. As influential as his parents were, Pan said the college decision was his to make.
“They believe in me, and they know that I always do the things I want to do and that I am supposed to do,” he said.
Pan describes his father as having high expectations on and off the course. Of his mother, Pan said, “Her job was to monitor my dad so that he didn’t overdo it. She took good care of me.”
The family was shaken when Pan’s father died two years ago. Pan was attending high school in Florida and was unable to be with his family.
“That was a brutal time for me,” Pan said. “He was a really good father, and I want to make his death impact me in a good way. I want to play better for him and do well in everything I have to do. I always think about him. He would be very proud of me now … but he would still be pushing me to do better.”
Pan already is ranked regularly among the top 10 amateurs in the world. His first collegiate season saw him post six top-10 finishes and help his Huskies reach the match-play quarterfinals in this year’s NCAA championship. He and No. 2-ranked Chris Williams have made Washington a national force.
For Pan, Washington was a love-at-first-sight experience. He signed on with Thurmond right after his official visit, and he hasn’t regretted the decision.
“This was my chance to get an education,” he said. “I knew I probably wouldn’t go back if I didn’t do it now.”
He told Thurmond not to have many expectations on the academic side. Pan actually entered high school in Florida with only a rudimentary understanding of English.
“It kind of makes him the ultimate story of what college athletics should be about,” Thurmond said. “Here’s a kid from a faraway place with no means who comes to America by himself and learns English the hard way and finishes high school and is in position to go to one of the top academic institutions in the country.”
It’s panning out, too.
“During one tournament, coach was following me and on the seventh hole I told him my grades had posted and that they were pretty good,” Pan said. “He was so happy – he was even happier than I was. Those grades just made his day – I thought it was kind of funny how he reacted.”
“Pretty good” is an understatement. Pan carried a 3.5 GPA through his first year, taking courses like economics and accounting to position him for Washington’s business school.
“They’re kind of interesting, but they’re hard,” Pan said.
So is playing golf, but Pan is mastering that, too.
“This past year, it feels like there have been lots of things that I really needed to do better to prepare myself to become a PGA Tour player,” he said. “I feel like I’m closer to that goal, but I know I have more time to improve.”
This story originally appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of NCAA Champion magazine.