Journeys
January 04, 2020

Xinjun Zhang's journey from security guard to PGA Tour pro

Xinjun Zhang, photographed at TPC Summerlin in Las Vegas, Nevada on October 2, 2019.

I didn't know golf existed until I was 17 years old. I grew up in a very small village in a valley, far from the city. Our town was Shanxi, China. Both my parents are farmers. We were your average farmers in rural China, farming sweet potatoes, corn, wheat, among other things. We lived off what we grew. When I was 17, I left my parents’ farm and got some odd jobs. One of my friends got me into a security academy, and I started working security jobs. An opportunity arose to become a security guard at a golf course, Xi’an International Golf Club. The pay was good, and I was sending money home to my parents as well as supporting myself.

• • •

SOMETIMES, I WAS STATIONED AT THE GATE OR AT THE CLUBHOUSE. But mostly, I patrolled the grounds, often at night when no one was there. It was so rural. I was still pretty young, so sometimes in the middle of the night, I’d hear animal noises or other things, and I remember being so scared.

• • •

THERE WAS AN OPENING FOR SOMEONE TO WORK ON THE DRIVING RANGE, AND I TOOK IT. That’s when I started playing. Some co-workers showed me the basics of how to hold the club, how to swing. It was close to winter, so there were very few members and guests out, so a lot of the time it was just me on the range hitting balls. I’d pick up the balls myself, hit them again, pick them again.

• • •

I’D SEE NEWCOMERS STRUGGLING, AND I REALIZED I WAS BETTER THAN THEM. The more balls I hit, the better I got. The better I got, the more I liked the sport.

• • •

THE COURSE DIDN’T ALLOW EMPLOYEES TO PLAY, EXCEPT FOR THE ANNUAL EMPLOYEE TOURNAMENT. I’d been practicing for a year before I played in it. Because I’d been practicing so much, I put some bets down with my co-workers. I thought I was going to play well, even though it was my first time playing on a course. I wasn’t even close to winning. They shot in the 80s, and I shot 116.

• • •

I REALIZED THAT I HAD TO GET ON THE COURSE IF I WANTED TO GET BETTER. So I applied for a job as a caddie. As a caddie, you get to see instructors work with guests. You watch them teach. And if they’re hiring new caddies, you can go out and play as a way to train the caddies. That’s how I got my first exposure to golf instruction and more access to the course.

• • •

MY GOAL AT THE TIME WAS TO BECOME AN INSTRUCTOR, BECAUSE THAT WAS THE HIGHEST PAID JOB AT THE COURSE. I felt like to do that, I had to keep improving. I never became an instructor. Instead, I got into playing.

• • •

IT WASN’T UNTIL I’D BEEN PRACTICING FOR TWO OR THREE YEARS THAT I PLAYED IN MY FIRST AMATEUR TOURNAMENT. There was a caddie who was pretty good, and he entered, so I went with him. It went a lot better than I thought it would. It was a three-day tournament. I shot 72-74-84 and finished 12th. It was really satisfying. I thought I was going to miss the cut.

• • •

I LOVED THE FEELING OF ACTUAL TOURNAMENT PLAY. It was hard to play many tournaments, though, because of the travel. I wasn’t making much money, so my only means of travel was by train and bus. Some of the tournaments were really far. It’d be 20- to 30-hour train rides, followed by five- to eight-hour bus rides, and then a taxi ride from there. It was hard, but I loved playing. I used clubs that were a rental set from the golf course. When I was 20, I’d saved enough money to buy my own clubs.

• • •

IN 2007, I BECAME A MEMBER OF CHINA’S NATIONAL GOLF TEAM. I credit the people there with how I got to where I am now. For the first time, I had a real instructor. They took care of our travel and training, which helped me a lot. I turned pro in 2010 and played in China before trying to qualify for the Japan Tour. In the second year, I made it. Then, PGA Tour China started, so I went back to China and joined the tour there. I won a PGA Tour China event in 2014 and another in 2015. [Editor’s Note: After the win on PGA Tour China in 2014, Xinjun qualified for the Web.com (now Korn Ferry) Tour. But after signing a pair of scorecards incorrectly, he was suspended by the China Golf Association for six months and stayed in China. “I’ve always believed the challenges you face in life will make you stronger,” he says. “I choose now to focus on what’s in front of me, not what’s behind me.”]

• • •

AFTER THE WIN IN 2015, I WAS ABLE TO JOIN THE KORN FERRY TOUR. I didn’t have much success, and I came back and played PGA Tour China. Again, my strong performances there earned me a spot on the Korn Ferry Tour. It went much better the second time. I finished 20th on the points list, high enough to earn my PGA Tour card for the 2017-’18 season. I struggled that season, lost my card, and had to go back to the Korn Ferry Tour. I won twice in 2019 and finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in points. I’d earned my card back, and I have status again on the PGA Tour.

• • •

IT’S BEEN A LONG, DIFFICULT JOURNEY. But I never thought about quitting. I got great support from my wife, my parents and my coach, Holton Freeman. They really encouraged me to keep going. My parents are proud of me, even though they don’t know much about golf. Our village didn’t get Wi-Fi until a couple of years ago. They didn’t know how I was doing unless I was able to call them. But once they got Internet, they learned quickly about the sport, and they get to watch the live scoring. They stream the live golf when they can, too, no matter how early they have to wake up with the time difference.

• • •

I’M REALLY EXCITED TO HAVE MADE IT. I’m proud of what I’ve come through to get here.

—WITH KEELY LEVINS (TRANSLATION BY XINJUN’S CADDIE, YUAN LIU)


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