【Players】Cheng Jin takes mature approach to golf career


By Laury Livsey

(Cheng Jin is testing his game against the pros but said he will benefit by playing in college/ Image by Liu Zhuang)

SANYA, China—Sitting at lunch last week in Jiaxing at the Nine Dragons Open, Cheng Jin looked around the course and clubhouse, remembering Nine Dragons Golf Club as the site where he made PGA TOUR history by winning a Ping An Bank China Tour – PGA TOUR China Series’ tournament – as an amateur.

On the final day of that 2014 tournament, Jin, then 16, erased a four-shot deficit on the back nine, and eventually caught and passed playing partner Lucas Lee for the title.

“Nothing has changed much,” Jin said, matter-of-factly.

Well, yes and no. Nine Dragons looked essentially the same. The course. The clubhouse. Not much difference. As for Jin, so much of his life has changed, and Jin freely admits that once he stops and considers his comment, he adds, “Everything happened so fast.”

The Nine Dragons Open win was the first in many accomplishments over the last year for the now-17-year-old, with his win at the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship getting him the most headlines. “That’s when the “everything” Jin spoke of started.

At the Asia-Pacific Amateur at Clearwater Bay Golf Club in Hong Kong in October, Jin took the 54-hole lead and then accepted congratulations from officials the following day without striking a shot. Typhoon Mujigae hit Southeast Asia and forced the cancellation of the final round, the All that victory did was earn Jin an invitation to the 2016 Masters Tournament.

After that, the hits just kept on coming for the amateur who has lived both in Beijing and Singapore. A month after the win in Hong Kong, Jin was representing China at the 27-team Nomura Cup in Abu Dhabi. Jin was cruising along with the lead late in his back nine, trying to secure points for his team, when disaster struck. He hit two balls into the water on the 18th hole at Yas Links and triple-bogeyed, going from 16-under to 13-under. But that turned out to be enough to capture medalist honors even though his team only finished sixth, 10 strokes behind Japan’s winning total. Chinese Taipei’s Han Ting Chiu and South Korea’s Jae Kyeoung Lee both dropped shots down the stretch, the duo finishing at 12-under, to give Jin the one-stroke triumph.

And what does Jin have to say about all this good fortune during the last month?

“I was just lucky.”  

He is entitled to say what he wants, but you don’t become one of the 20 best amateur golfers in the world on sheer luck (he’s currently ranked 22nd after reaching as high as No. 18). One thing easily evident about Jin is his humility.

Jin will admit that life-altering things have happened very quickly, especially over the last six weeks. Besides the two victories, Jin announced earlier this month that he will be attending and playing golf for the University of Southern California starting in the fall of 2016.  

“I think I need one more step before I go to the top standard of professional golf,” said Jin, explaining his decision to attend college in the U.S., an announcement that surprised many. Recently, the best Chinese players have turned pro as teenagers, skipping the chance to go to college. The turn-pro-early route is what Haotong Li, Zecheng Dou, Yi Cao and Zihao Chen did, all contemporaries of Jin.

“I need some time to get ready for professional golf. I’m still not mature enough for it. I think I can learn a lot from college, and not only about golf. I can be a student, and I can also learn a lot about life,” he adds.

During his recruitment, Jin really only seriously looked at Pac-12 Conference schools. He narrowed his choices to USC, Washington, Arizona State, Oregon and UCLA. “I think most of the other big colleges not on the West Coast didn’t recruit me because they thought I was going to turn pro,” Jin noted.

In the end, he based his decision on facilities and his relationship with USC head golf coach Ted Gleason. “I think they were all good schools. I don’t think I had a bad choice. I just thought USC was more suitable for me.”

Jin also has every intention of playing four years for the Trojans and graduating from the Los Angeles school before turning pro and attempting to follow in the footsteps to the PGA TOUR of former Trojans Dave Stockton, Al Geiberger, Craig Stadler, Kevin Stadler, Scott Simpson and Jamie Lovemark. Jin can even pick the brains of former Trojans Rory Hie and Yi Keun Chang who are both playing on the PGA TOUR China Series.

“Cheng is a great player. He’s a great kid with a bright future,” said Lee, a UCLA graduate who had a front-row seat to Jin’s Nine Dragons Open win. “He’s very mature for his age. I played quite a lot of times with him. He’s long off the tee and a great putter.”

For the remainder of 2015, Jin will play with professionals. Last week, in defense of his Nine Dragons Open title, he finished 10th. This week and next, he’ll play in two PGA TOUR China Series’ events—the Hainan Open and the season-ending Capital Airline – HNA Real Estate Championship—before closing his year at the Asian Tour’s Thailand Golf Championship.

He’ll continue to test his game against professionals, looking every bit the part himself even though he’s still an amateur.

Li, who just completed his first year on the Web.com Tour and recently tied for seventh at the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions, is three years older than Jin. They are both teammates on the China national team. The two have played plenty of golf over the years, and Li knows the talent Jin possesses. “His short game and putting are the best parts of his game,” Li said. “When he goes to the Masters, I think he’ll do great because his short game is amazing.”

Notice that neither Lee or Li said anything about luck when talking about their friend’s game. Jin may want to make a note of that.

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