C.T. Pan's hard road from Taiwan to the PGA Tour
Editor's Note: This story first appeared in October 2019 issue of Golf Digest.
We didn’t have much when I was a kid. I was the youngest of six, and we had cousins living with us, too. There was so little room that I shared a bed with my parents and other siblings until I was a teenager. The only way I could play golf was by sneaking on our local course. I’d wake up before 4 a.m. and get in nine before the clubhouse opened, and another nine after it closed. I didn’t know until later that the golf shop knew—they always know, right?—but looked the other way. Especially when they found out I was good.
My mom introduced me to the game when I was 5. She was a caddie, which is not a very good paying job in Taiwan, but she thought I might enjoy it. Then Tiger Woods blew up in 1996, and my dad looked at me and my potential and said, “You’re going to do that.”
My father was harsh on me, very strict. In the morning he would drop me off a mile down the hill from our house, and I had to run back to earn breakfast. I loved to play golf, but I didn’t really have a choice—he was going to make me play and practice every day.
They are tough memories … but he did it because he wanted the best for me. And, looking back, it gave me my drive and self-discipline, and most importantly, humility.
I met my wife, Michelle, before I came to the United States. She spoke English, so she helped me apply to schools, found Taiwanese host families when I was coming up the pro ranks, helped keep my goals on track. What happens outside a golf course can affect you on it, and she always made sure everything was taken care of so I could focus on golf. She is my rock.
At 15, I moved to America to attend the IMG Academy in Florida. The first year and a half was rough. 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.
All my emotions came flying out in an incident with my roommate. He was messy and stunk up the joint. And I’m harboring all these strong emotions but unable to articulate them, and it manifested in me punching a wall and making a big hole. I was so embarrassed, plus I had a huge bill to pay for the damage. That was the most isolated time of my life.
Now, looking back at the rough period, I’m proud of it. I worked so hard, every day, to grasp the concept of English. To take that jump to another country at a young age to chase a dream was a brave choice. And a choice that changed my life.
My father died when I was a freshman at the University of Washington. I missed the funeral. In Taiwan, when you’re 18 years old, if you can’t prove you’re in college, the government makes you serve in the military. My family thought it was too risky to return. I don’t talk about it much because it still hurts. It’s my biggest regret.
My junior year in college I was the world No. 1 amateur. Then I decided to change my swing. I had played in two U.S. Opens, and I knew that if I wanted to play on tour, I needed more accuracy and distance. Simple, right? [Laughs.] People thought I was crazy for making a switch at that point, and my senior year was a slight disappointment because of it, but I was willing to have troubles in the present for a bright future.
It worked. I played seven events on the Mackenzie Tour, winning twice and finishing third to earn a Web.com promotion, and with seven top-10s on the Web [now the Korn Ferry Tour], I locked up my card. I know Matthew Wolff and Collin Morikawa make it look easy, but getting from college to the tour in under 30 starts is hard!
I had a couple of close calls in my first two years, none closer than at the 2018 Wyndham Championship. I hit my drive out-of-bounds on the 72nd hole to lose. I got unlucky—the ball hit a cartpath and was just across the line—but I had bad thoughts, doubts on the tee. I should have backed off. Being under pressure is an abstract notion, but I found out how real it could be.
That lesson helped me at the 2019 RBC Heritage, which I won by a stroke. The last few holes I wasn’t feeling great, very tired. But I remembered Wyndham, and I focused. I wasn’t going to let myself or my family down. I pushed harder than I ever have. I knew my first win would be special, but to do it when I wasn’t feeling my best was a testament to willpower, and something I’ll remember forever.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Funny thing is, I wasn’t going to play Hilton Head. I was sponsoring an American Junior Golf Association event in Houston that week, my first one, and I have a program of 12 kids from Taiwan that I bring here to help give them an opportunity. I didn’t want to let them down. My wife talked me into playing, that she and my agent would handle things back home. The lesson: Always listen to your wife.
People don’t believe it here, but golf is growing across the globe. I’ve seen it, I’ve lived it. That’s why my AJGA program is so important to me. There are kids in Taiwan who can play; they just don’t get exposure. The chance to be that bridge, to be the person that can make others’ dreams come true … how cool is that?