Editor’s Note: This article appeared in Cascade Golfer Magazine last May. It was planned to set up the Masters but the tournament was postponed until this week.
By Bob Sherwin
In the early morning of Mon., Apr. 14, 1997, Jung-ho Pan sat in his tiny living room in Miaoli County, Chinese Taipei, watching TV with his son, Cheng-tsung. They were transfixed by a young phenom, Eldrick Tont “Tiger” Woods, a 21-year-old American golfing prodigy with multi-racial ancestry and an intriguing nickname.
In addition to identifying with Tiger’s Asian (Chinese/ Thai) roots, Jung-ho was excited by his sudden and spectacular splash on the world stage. Separated from Augusta National by the international date line and more than 8,000 miles , Jung-ho and Cheng-tsung watched together as Woods became the youngest player ever to win The Masters, breaking records for 72-hole score (an 18-under 270) and margin of victory (12).
As Tiger walked off Augusta National’s 18th green, he was greeted by his father, Earl, with a long, tearful embrace. Jung-ho switched off the TV, turned to his youngest son and implored, “I want you one day to do that for me.”
Cheng-tsung was five years old.
Now 28, Cheng-tsung — or C.T., as he has been known since turning pro in 2015 following an All-American career at the University of Washington — says that while he didn’t necessarily understand exactly what was going on in the moment of Tiger’s infamous victory at Augusta, he definitely understood a certain responsibility. He perceived that his father’s directive was something between a commitment and a commandment, and he has spent the past 23 years chasing that “Tiger Tail.”
Later this year, the 84th edition of The Masters Tournament will be played at Augusta National. For the first of those 84 years, it will include C.T. Pan, along with a five-time and defending champion, the now 44-year-old Tiger Woods.
Twenty-three years after that memorable Masters morning, Pan is finally in position to fulfill his father’s dream. And, while Jung-ho, who passed away in 2010, may not be at Augusta to embrace his son on the 18th green, no one should ever doubt that he’ll be there alongside Pan every step of the way.
While it may be his father who charted a path for Pan to golf stardom, it was his mother, Yueh-Mei Kang, who first put a golf club into his hands. A caddie at a local Taipei course, Yueh-Mei would bring her toddler to the golf course to putt around on the practice greens, and gave him his first taste of the game that would come to mean so much.
As his skills developed, Pan’s parents, with five older children, could not financially support his need for frequent play, so Pan would sneak onto the course for a quick nine holes before it opened, then another nine after it closed. Pan says he’s pretty sure that the course manager knew what he was doing, but benignly looked the other way.
Jung-ho’s vision, however, was not diverted. He was laser-focused on his son’s development.
“My father was very strict. He was tough on me,” Pan says. “He always found special training for me. At my home club in Taiwan, he would have me run a kilometer straight uphill to make me tough, physically and mentally.”
Pan accepted his father’s treatment, because he believed it gave him the necessary drive, self-discipline and humility to one day be an accomplished player.
“I think he had a complicated relationship with his father, who was very hard on him,” says Matt Thurmond, who coached Pan at the University of Washington and is now the head coach golf coach at Arizona State. “But, C.T. had a deep love and respect for him.”
Pan progressed so quickly in the game that, by 2007, it was decided that he should move to America and attend IMG Academy, the marketing and sports development institute in Bradenton, Fla. It was around this time that he met Yingchun Lin, who would become the most influential person in his life and career. Pan spoke not a word of English at the time; he couldn’t travel, couldn’t check into hotels, couldn’t drive and could hardly function in the United States.
“The first year and a half was rough,” Pan recalled in a story for Golfworld magazine. “I couldn’t speak the language. I vividly remember that it took three months to form my first sentence. If I got a writing assignment, it took two hours for a single paragraph. I didn’t have a translator.”
During this time, it was Lin, who later took the name Michelle, who arranged host families to care for him. The families would feed him, transport him and make him feel comfortable as he traveled around the country for tournaments. As Pan began traveling internationally more and more frequently, Lin became his adviser, interpreter, travel guide, companion and, as Pan says, “my rock.’’
She also would later become his wife.
At the 2007 U.S. Amateur at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, Pan, then just 15 years old, reached the quarterfinals, in the process becoming the youngest player to advance that far in nearly 100 years, since Bobby Jones in 1916.
Over the next few years, Pan sharpened his skills competing at junior events across the country against an outstanding 2011 prep class that included Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Patrick Rodgers, Ollie Schniederjans, Daniel Berger and Emiliano Grillo.
Thurmond, who had been aware of Pan since the latter placed second at the 2006 Asian Games, didn’t think he had a chance to recruit him. But, then-UW assistant coach Garrett Clegg (now the head coach at the University of Utah) sent a recruitment letter anyway, doing due diligence.
“We had no connection. We had no feeling that he wanted to be (at UW),” Thurmond says. “There were rumors that he was not even going to go to college. But, Pan responded (to the letter). He really wanted to go to Washington.”
On that first visit to UW, Pan made his verbal commitment, in front of the fireplace at Aldarra Golf Club in Fall City. Pan, who has since moved to Houston for year-round training, still maintains a residence in Bellevue, and remains an Aldarra national member.
“It felt like family at UW,” Pan says. “That helped me settle into the environment. Guys (teammates) like Chris Williams, Charlie Hughes, Chris Babcock were all great guys to hang out with. We were all close. But, the most important thing for me was learning how to be a good captain. We (with Thurmond) always talked about leadership.”
Just as Pan was about to embark on this next phase of his journey, with the PGA TOUR dreams his father had instilled in him inching ever closer, tragedy struck. In 2011, as Pan was beginning his freshman year at Washington, Jung-ho died of an illness. Worse yet, Pan was unable to attend the funeral, honoring warnings from family members that he should not return to Taiwan at the risk of being conscripted into the military, as is customary for Taiwanese men of his age. While he had received a deferment for school, the family believed it was too risky for him to return, fearing that government officials would ignore his deferment, consider him eligible for immediate service, and bar him from leaving the country.
Pan and his family knew that Jung-ho wouldn’t have wanted anything to get in the way of Pan’s ability to pursue the dream they shared together — even his own passing. There was nothing he could do.
“It’s the biggest regret of my life,” he says.
But, oh, how his father would have relished his son’s college career. Pan’s game blossomed at U-Dub, where he won eight titles and earned four All-America honors during one of the most decorated careers in Husky golf history. In fact, for eight weeks during his sophomore year in 2013, Pan was ranked as the No. 1 amateur in the world, ahead of Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Bryson DeChambeau and others.
What better opportunity, he figured, to change his swing.
“He had just played (as an amateur) at the U.S. Open at Marion after his sophomore year,” Thurmond says. “He called me from the plane on the trip home. He told me what he wanted to do.
“I told him, ‘I’ve seen a lot of golfers change their swings and they’re never the same. They totally screw up their swings and are never heard from again,” he adds. “But, I had complete trust in him. He was wise beyond his years. He did not do things idly.”
Pan’s short game was solid, good enough to be competitive. His mid-irons were accurate, too, but at 5-foot-6 and 145 pounds, Pan struggled for distance. That U.S. Open at Merion (one of three majors he’d play in as an amateur, including two U.S. Opens and an Open Championship) had highlighted for him that while he could hold his own against most competition, to truly be the best and compete on golf’s highest stage, he was going to have to hit the ball farther.
Pan heard Thurmond’s warnings, “but I was pretty stubborn,” he recalls. “I knew what kind of skill level was needed to compete. To be competitive (as a pro), I had to get better. I had to change.”
Pan hired a fitness coach, a mechanics coach and a swing coach. He spent hours on the range and watching videos, and focused on using his big muscles to generate more speed and power.
“For about half a year,” he says, “I was a different person each day on the range.”
Thurmond recalls that during Pan’s swing transition his junior year, “he was not good. But, he hit his stride his senior year and was back to No. 2 amateur in the world (behind Jon Rahm).”
Pan also was a finalist for the Ben Hogan Award, and placed second at the NCAA Championships his senior year. With UW as his springboard and Michelle by his side — they would marry not long after graduation in 2015 — Pan was ready to turn pro, but not without bringing a little of his Husky background with him. Pan insists that his clubs be manufactured with purple shafts, while his bag has purple accents and he uses a purple Sharpie to mark his ball with a “W.”
“If things are going south,” he jokes, “I just flip it over and it’s an ‘M’ for Michelle. So, at least I still have my wife supporting me.”
Pan began his professional career at one of the game’s lowest levels, the 2015 PGA TOUR Mackenzie Tour in Canada — but he wouldn’t be there for long. Pan won twice in just seven events on the Mackenzie Tour, and qualified for the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, where dozens of friends and family cheered him on to a 64thplace finish. Pan moved up to the Web.com Tour in 2016, and earned seven top-10s to claim his PGA TOUR card for the 2017 season. In all, Pan went from college to the PGA TOUR in fewer than 30 professional starts.
Though he won $1.27 million during his rookie season in 2017, it was a struggle. Pan missed the cut in 15 of 29 tournaments he entered, yet showed promise with three top-10s, including a second-place finish at The Farmers Open at Torrey Pines.
Pan improved in 2018, winning $1.88 million and missing just eight of 30 cuts, with two top-10s and another tantalizingly close second-place finish at the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, N.C. That tournament saw Pan earn his first real moment in the PGA TOUR spotlight — though, not entirely because of his success on the course.
Usually reliant on local caddies, Pan had struggled to find one to carry his bag in Greensboro, and arrived in town for the tournament with no one scheduled to be by his side. So, Pan did what he had always done when he found himself lost and needing someone to pick him up — he turned to Michelle, who found yet another way to be her husband’s rock.
“This is a true test of my marriage,” Pan wrote on Twitter, following the tournament’s opening round with Michelle on the bag. “Hopefully, she will be with me by the end of the week.”
She was — though, Pan did carry his own bag at times throughout the weekend, showing that love and support does definitely go both ways. In fact, Michelle was by Pan’s side the entire weekend, as he shot up the leaderboard and found himself standing on the 18th tee box tied for the lead, with just a few hundred yards standing between him and, potentially, his first PGA TOUR win. Pan, though, sprayed his drive out of bounds by mere inches and took a double-bogey six, handing the victory to veteran Brent Snedeker.
Afterwards, though, Pan — and Michelle — were all smiles in the media tent.
“Had an unbelievable experience with my wife on the bag,” he said after the event. “She’s retired from caddying. I paid her with multiple rounds of massage.”
While the 2018 season ended on a high note, the 2019 season started off slowly. Pan made just four cuts in his first 12 events, with just one top-20 finish. After returning home following a second-place finish at The Players Championship, Pan sat with Michelle to watch the 2019 Masters.
Together, they watched as Tiger Woods, no longer a young golfing prodigy but a 43-year-old seeking to recapture the glory of years gone by, put together a once-more-for-the-ages performance, winning his fifth green jacket by one stroke. Pan couldn’t help but think of his late father’s wish, still as yet unfulfilled.
The following week, Pan had long planned to welcome 12 young golfers from Taiwan for a tournament sponsored by Houston’s American Junior Golf Association. Pan had paid for their trip, and had even invited Thurmond to help him host the event.
Yet, Tiger’s remarkable effort stirred something in Michelle. Perhaps it was just a hunch, perhaps it was her intuition, but she suddenly suggested a dramatic schedule change for her husband.
“You should play the RBC Heritage,” she told him. “I’ll take care of the (Taiwanese) kids. Don’t worry about it.”
She followed that with a substantially more urgent appeal.
“I am not patient,” she said. “So, you’d better get me to Augusta as soon as possible.”
Pan couldn’t help but hear his father’s directive in Michelle’s words. Focus on the game. Believe in yourself. Never be willing to settle.
Pan followed Michelle’s advice and entered the RBC the following weekend. And, he won it, in grand fashion. Trailing Dustin Johnson by two strokes entering the final round, Pan overcame DJ and held off Matt Kuchar for his first PGA TOUR victory.
Similar to the Wyndham a year earlier, Pan pushed his tee shot on the par-5 15th hole. This time, though, rather than rolling out of bounds, the ball struck a tree and dropped straight down, saving Pan a stroke. Given a break, Pan responded with a birdie at 16 and pars on the final two holes for a one-stroke win.
“I always knew I was good enough. It was just a matter of time,” Pan says. “But, it was definitely out of the blue. I was struggling before that. Tiger winning The Masters gave me a lot of inspiration.
“The lesson,” he later wrote, ”[is to] always listen to your wife.”
What one victory can do. Pan’s victory earned the third-year pro a two-year Tour exemption, not to mention $1.3 million in first-place winnings that pushed his budding career earnings past the $5 million mark. Pan also became the first player from Taiwan to win on the PGA TOUR since T.C. (Tzechung) Chen won the 1987 Genesis Open.
Using that win as a springboard, Pan rose as high as 47th in the 2019 World Golf Rankings, finished 35th in the PGA TOUR FedEx Cup, and was named to the International Team for the the 2019 Presidents Cup, winning two of the three matches he played last December.
“I think he’s doing great,” Thurmond says. “I’m actually surprised he hasn’t done more. I have such a high opinion of him. I see him becoming a super-elite player who wins a lot.”
Most significantly, though, Pan’s win qualified him for the 2020 Masters. When the mist rises off the fairways and the game’s greatest players step onto the course at Augusta National, Pan will, for the first time, have the chance to make his father’s dream a reality. He’ll finally have the chance to give Jung-ho the win he always wanted.
After his interviews following the RBC were finished and the fans, media and cameras departed, Pan was alone in his thoughts, but not alone.
“I realized how big it was. It was pretty emotional,” he says. “When things settled down in my mind, I had time to think about my family, how they supported me.
“I remember I watched the sky,” he adds. “I was thinking, ‘Dad, finally, we’ve done it.’”