Norman Xiong left the University of Oregon in 2018 with one of sport’s most celebrated—and fickle—labels.
It was not without merit. Xiong had the trophies, accolades and pedigree to back it up, along with testimony from fellow players. His mentor, Casey Martin, a man not prone to salesmanship in a profession full of used-car dealers, famously called Xiong the best college player since Tiger Woods. Martin would know, not just from playing with Woods at Stanford but winning NCAA titles as a player and coach.
“Easily the most talented guy at the college ranks; he was peerless,” says Martin, Xiong’s college coach. “No one was better.”
The praise continued to seem warranted when Xiong finished runner-up at Web.com Tour Q School last December, leaving him, at only 20, one step away from his ultimate dream of playing on the PGA Tour.
With the “can’t miss” stamp, however, comes a sinister alternative use, inadvertently or not. Just as fans and media toss it around to trumpet a potential star, it’s also an adjective to gauge shortcomings or unfulfilled potential. Xiong understands this, too, given what has transpired in more recent months, and more importantly, the uncertainty that lies ahead.
“That hype, that player everyone said I was going to be, I still am,” Xiong says over the Thanksgiving holiday. “I know I am. I can play at the next level.
“My job now is to prove it.”
The final stage of the now-Korn Ferry Tour Qualifying School is this week outside Orlando at Orange County National. Xiong isn’t in the field, but not for the expected reason that he had already risen to the PGA Tour. Rather, it’s because his first full year as a pro was a nightmare, one in which the “can’t-miss” star lost his way.
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“Everything I had done in Eugene gave me the confidence I was ready,” Xiong says.
In just 17 months at Oregon, he captured awards as the nation’s best freshman and top collegiate golfer, won the prestigious Western Amateur and guided the United States Walker Cup team to victory with a 3-0-1 record. He was crazy long off the tee with surprising soft touch around the greens, attacking courses with a veteran’s unflappability mixed with a boyish joy.
Says Martin: “He has such a passion for what he does, and was just so good that you thought he would do it instantly.”
After an inauspicious start—Xiong missed the cut in all six appearances on the PGA Tour in the 2017-’18 season upon turning pro after the NCAA Championship in May—his performance began trending in the right direction. He was among the 36-hole leaders at the 2018 Sanderson Farms Championship (a Saturday 76 ultimately led to a T-26 finish) and blazed through Q School with a 26-under score in the final stage. Xiong had ostensibly arrived.
The next 12 months would prove that notion was premature. Xiong missed his first seven KFT cuts, and made the weekend in just five out of 21 outings on the year. It was capped by a WD at the season-ending Portland Open, leaving him 166th on the points list. Having to re-enter Q School, he shot an 81 in the opening round of the second stage in November and failed to advance to the this week’s finals.
So it is that Xiong begins 2020 without status on any tour.
Given the contrast between 2018’s promise and 2019’s production, it is natural to wonder where things went south. There are a litany of responses—some observational, others hearsay—depending on who you ask.
To Xiong, the answer is not something that happened during the season. It’s how he felt at the start, a self-inflicted wound that eventually snowballed.
“The biggest problem was the pressure I made for myself,” Xiong says. “I felt like I know what I could be if I played my game, and I just didn’t. And when I didn’t, it became very frustrating.”
That promising start at the Sanderson Farms and the lights-out display at Q School? Norman says those weren’t enough of a boost. “Everything came pretty quickly,” he says. “It was a blur. You can forget the good quickly.”
While the rest of the world was ready to fast-track him to the tour, Xiong admits he felt differently. He viewed the year as a time to be patient and to learn. It was a mature outlook, as many his age and in his position put on blinders, solely focused on reaching the big time. Xiong was confident he was going to get there. To him, it was making sure he was fully equipped once he reached that level.
Unfortunately, perhaps Xiong was too open-minded. He jumped between teachers, fooled around with different mentalities and mindsets. It became a bit of a system overload.
“I tried a lot of things, kind of back and forth between instruction, from playing the game to approaching the game,” Xiong says.
When things didn’t click, Xiong couldn’t let them be. He had to figure out what was wrong, and why it was wrong. He said he beat himself up over it.
“You do what you think is right,” he says. “Things won’t always go your way, and sometimes you have to let it be. But doubt crept in, for sure.”
Doubt was a foreign concept to Xiong, according to Martin. Every golfer, no matter the level, seemingly goes through a crisis of conviction. But until this point, Xiong really hadn’t. He dominated the junior levels and was a wrecking ball in college. Xiong had experienced adversity in life, Martin says, alluding to Xiong’s move from Guam to Southern California as a child. But never on the course.
“He’s just been humbled,” Martin says. “Everyone who’s been around the game goes through it at some point, he’s going through it at a young age. He’s learning things, about himself as a person and a golfer.”
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This journey of self-actualization is trying in a vacuum, let alone against the backdrop of expectations. Not helping matters was the success of Xiong’s peers like Matthew Wolff, Collin Morikawa and Viktor Hovland. Their immediate leaps to the tour—along with those of Jon Rahm and Joaquin Niemann before them—remain the exception. Nevertheless, while Xiong says he doesn’t pay attention to what others are doing, Martin acknowledged the inherent burden Wolff, Morikawa and others have placed on Xiong.
“What these guys have done is incredible. So the expectation, because frankly, Norman was better than them in college, is that he should be doing this too,” Martin says. “And when he doesn’t, it’s immediately, What’s wrong?
“It probably rocked his world.”
Following his exit at 2019 Q School, Xiong knew he needed a re-set. Over Thanksgiving, he returned to Eugene for some R&R, and went to visit Martin. The coach didn’t have much time to watch Norman during the season, so he took his protégé out and analyzed his swing, trying to decipher what mechanically was wrong. (Xiong ranked 143rd in driving accuracy on the Korn Ferry and 116th in greens in regulation.)
They compared it to his swing while playing for Oregon; the parallel was cathartic.
“They were exactly the same,” Martin says. “Golf is just such a challenging sport with so many variables, and sometimes you lose your swagger, your mojo. It can be as simple as that.”
Not as simple is getting that swagger back. To Xiong, that means a return to his roots. He is no longer working with a teacher, or any instructor for that matter, save for the one staring back at him in the mirror.
“I’ve established that I’m going to do my own thing,” Xiong says. When he needs a second pair of eyes, Xiong says his uncle James—who was his shepherd into golf—will help.
Xiong seems undaunted about what’s next, which is both straightforward and complex. Without membership on the PGA or Korn Ferry tours, he will have to rely on sponsor’s exemptions and Monday qualifiers. In the spring, he will try to gain entry to the PGA Tour Latinoamérica. It is not the itinerary Xiong envisioned. An existence far from the spotlight, one that is often vexing.
Then again, he would still be a senior in college had he stayed in school. It’s too early to panic about his career trajectory. Though the year has brought its share of questions, it hasn’t corrupted Xiong’s spirit or belief. He even asserts he is thankful for the curves thrown his way.
“While I didn’t perform, I can look back at this time in the future when I’m struggling or having a tough time, and I know this time is going to help me.” He adds it will make him more appreciative when he does get his card.
Echoes Martin: “I firmly believe he’s going to be a stronger player now that he’s had some setbacks. I have no doubts.”
Golf’s graveyard is filled with can’t-miss prospects. Xiong acknowledges the looming threat. But, he adds, don’t bury him just yet.
“I think I did a pretty good job of doing everything I should have done, and learning from it,” he says. “If you look at the results, they are not what I want. But in no way do I think I’m off track. I know what I have to do to be successful.
“I will be.”