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The next big thing: Xiong 'wasn’t born to be ordinary'

By Ryan LavnerApril 24, 2018, 1:45 pm

The details are etched in Casey Martin’s memory, the rare where-were-you-when moment in college recruiting.

In the summer of 2014, Oregon was coming off another successful season, but Martin couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for the next wave of juniors. No one dazzled him. It was a similarly frustrating start to the AJGA event at Mayacama, as he watched a highly regarded prospect labor through a painful pre-shot routine and then smother-hook his opening tee ball. No, that’s not it, Martin thought. That’s a meltdown.

But then they announced Norman Xiong – a 14-year-old man-child, decked head-to-toe in Nike gear, pushing 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds. In the span of a few seconds, he nonchalantly pegged it, waggled his club and then smoked a 330-yard drive, center cut.

“When you evaluate, you’re looking for a moment of clarity, like, Wow,” Martin says, “and I had that from the very first shot.”

That euphoria continued throughout the round, as Xiong [pronounced Zhong] hammered drives, sauntered down fairways and brushed in 6-footers without even marking his ball. Smitten, Martin texted his assistant: Dude, I’m going for this. He canceled his plans and devoted the next few years to recruiting Xiong.

“For his age, it was just so massively different – like that’s the real deal, right there,” Martin says. “I didn’t leave his side. It was selfish, but I just loved watching him play. There was a joy about him, and it was easy. I couldn’t stop watching.”

And so Martin has watched that man-child blossom into the top recruit in the country, the NCAA Freshman of the Year, the frontrunner for all of this year’s major college awards, and now the envy of talent agencies and equipment reps everywhere.

Xiong’s play during his sophomore season has been so awe-inspiring that college coaches and players are whispering that they’re competing against a future world No. 1. Blessed with a unique combination of power and touch, humbleness and swagger, he’s the most tantalizing 19-year-old prospect in golf since … well, that’s up for debate.

Few understand college hype better than Martin – after all, he played alongside Tiger Woods at Stanford – so he doesn’t make this statement recklessly. He knows that future success is not guaranteed. He knows that Jordan Spieth won a PGA Tour event as a teenager, and that Jon Rahm rapidly climbed the world rankings after college, and that they’re special talents on a Tour that has chewed up and spit out can’t-miss phenoms like sunflower seeds. He knows that simply invoking Woods’ name in any age comparison is blasphemous, but he also knows what he’s seen, firsthand.

He genuinely believes this: “At 19 years old, I think Tiger is the only guy I would defer to as being better than Norman. I haven’t seen much better than him at that age. He’s really that good.”


THE TROPICAL ISLAND OF Guam, in the Western Pacific, is an unusual starting point for a prodigy, but that’s where Xiong learned the game, as a chunky 4-year-old with supernatural hand-eye coordination. His uncle, James, bought a pitching wedge off the rack, dumped him on the range and told him to swing as hard as he could at a target for a half-hour. Before long, Norman could keep up with his uncle and a family friend at the Navy’s Admiral Nimitz Golf Course.

“Even then he was always a step ahead of me,” says Devin Hua, one of Xiong’s best friends growing up. “We’d compete in everything, and I’d always be mad that he was beating me.”

Granted, it wasn’t a fair fight. As a youngster, Xiong scarfed down everything in sight, especially sushi rolls at his family’s Chinese restaurant, Joy Food, and was “enormous” for his age. But in many ways he also won the genetic lottery – his father, Jackie, was a talented athlete, and his mother, Jing, competed on the Chinese Olympic developmental sharpshooting team, her only son inheriting her focus and precision.

Despite his pudgy physique, Xiong proved such a natural that his parents flew him to San Diego to compete in the 6-and-under division at Junior Worlds. He finished second, but more importantly that’s where he met Rick Johnson, who was fresh out of Cal State San Marcos. Working in the First Tee of San Diego program at the Pro Kids Golf and Learning Center, Johnson camped out at the 125-yard sixth hole. Most players ran up driver or 3-wood; Xiong flew his 6-iron into the middle of the green, his ball taking one hop and stopping.

“I’d never seen anything like it,” Johnson says.

That auspicious performance convinced the family that Norman might have a future in the sport. A few months later, Jing sold her restaurant and returned the family to Southern California, cramming into a one-bedroom apartment. Raising Norman was a group effort: Jing waited tables five nights a week at a local Chinese restaurant, while James served as a father figure and Johnson the protective older brother.

“Looking back, it was a struggle,” Xiong says. “We didn’t know where my golf game was going to lead. My uncle believed in it, and I was just hoping it was going to work out for us.”

After the initial culture shock, Xiong thrived under Johnson’s guidance at Pro Kids. It became his second home, a safe haven in a hardscrabble community. After school and on weekends, he played as many as 100 holes a day at the par-3 course, Colina Park, with his best friend and now Oregon teammate, Donald Kay. (Little wonder Xiong now has 26 holes-in-one.) During the day he learned how to score, but at night he smashed drivers at Stadium Golf Center, unwittingly training his body to be explosive.

The unorthodox regimen worked, because the tales from Xiong’s junior career are legendary – and not just how he’d inhale two Double-Doubles, two sides of Animal Style Fries and a shake while at In-N-Out Burger.

He routinely won nine-hole tournaments by double digits. He once shot 29 – with a water ball. Tired of blowing away his competition, he intentionally tried to drop into a playoff by five-putting the final green, except he miscounted and still won by one, leading to a tearful trophy presentation. In such command of his self-made swing, he could pull off shots even when they called out the shape (“Low draw! High cut!”) at the top of his backswing.



“It was like a freak show,” Johnson says. “Hey, here’s this chubby kid: What do you want him to do with the golf ball?”

But that baby fat melted away once Xiong hit his early teens, once he discovered the gym and stuck to a stricter diet, once he graduated to big-boy courses, thanks to a citywide, $5-a-round junior special. By the time he played that AJGA event at Mayacama, in 2014, he was an imposing physical specimen, no longer fighting with Johnson over the final helping of twice-cooked pork.

“I was quite impressed when I came back to see him at events,” Hua says. “I couldn’t even recognize him.”

Still a man amongst boys, Xiong became a Junior World champion, a first-team AJGA All-American, the top prospect in California and the winner of the Junior PGA Championship, which earned him a spot on the Junior Ryder Cup team.

A constant presence throughout has been Johnson, now 39, who serves many roles: golf pro and travel planner, confidant and matchmaker, dinner companion and hype man, gatekeeper and adviser. He traveled to several of Xiong’s junior tournaments, making contact with coaches, and then naturally handled his college recruitment.

It was an overwhelming process, because he could have gone anywhere, but Xiong surprised some by signing with Oregon. He listed three reasons: Growing up in San Diego, he already knew how to win when it’s 78 and sunny; Martin played the Tour, and now he’s arguably the best coach in college golf; and he wanted to make history, delivering Oregon its first NCAA title. (He was a year too late – the Ducks won on their home course in 2016, after he committed.)

“Norman likes to do things his own way,” Johnson says. “He was trying to create his own legacy.”

After graduating from high school a semester early, he enrolled at Oregon in January 2017. Martin had raved to colleagues and players that Xiong was a game-changer, and in blustery conditions he fired the lowest score in his first practice at SandPines, earning his teammates’ respect and validating his coach’s hype.

“When you build someone up, typically they don’t live up to expectations,” says Wyndham Clark, a senior on last year’s squad, “but I can honestly say that Norman is one of the very few who did. He’s the rawest player I’ve ever seen. He can step out of bed, a car, an airplane, use someone else’s clubs and still shoot under par. He’s just really impressive.”


SO IMPRESSIVE THAT XIONG won in his second college start. So impressive that he earned the Phil Mickelson Award as the nation’s top freshman despite playing just one semester. So impressive that he helped lead Oregon to the brink of consecutive NCAA titles, before losing to Oklahoma in the finals.

The transition to college was seamless, and he continued to roll into the summer. His biggest goal was to make the U.S. Walker Cup team – at 18, he’d be the second-youngest in history – but the selection process is notoriously secretive. Asked what Xiong needed to do to be considered, captain Spider Miller coyly replied: “Something special.”

Xiong got the message. At the Western Amateur, the summer’s most grueling event, he earned medalist honors after 72 holes of stroke play and then beat all four of his match-play opponents to take the title. Two weeks later, he breezed to a 64 at Riviera and finished second in the U.S. Amateur’s stroke-play qualifying.

“Is that something special?” he asked, smiling.

In one of his first showcases on national TV, Xiong went unbeaten (3-0-1) at Los Angeles Country Club, earned the clinching point during an American rout and left a lasting impression on his teammates.

“He’s a really quiet, reserved kid, the last person you’d label as over-confident or cocky,” says Walker Cup teammate Maverick McNealy. “But seeing him stand up and smash driver gives the complete opposite impression.”

It’d become abundantly clear that Xiong wouldn’t be eligible for the next Walker Cup match in two years. Ranked fourth in the world, Xiong and his uncle always had a vision for the future, and it didn’t involve an extended stay in the amateur ranks. Last fall was filled with important meetings and decisions, and the daily distractions began to affect his performance. Even his “B-minus game” resulted in two early-season victories – supreme talent usually prevails – but some of the joy with which he played had disappeared. “I felt like I was going 100 mph every single week,” he says.

So Xiong shelved his clubs for a month, the longest break of his career, and traveled overseas with his girlfriend, Erica Wang, the captain of the women’s team at California Baptist. Rusty to start the new year, he missed the cut in his PGA Tour debut at Torrey Pines, then returned to Eugene to fine-tune his game.

His uncle remains the only swing coach he has ever had, but for the past four years, with James spending most of his time with his family in China, Xiong has essentially managed it alone. His brisk pace of play and powerful swing is uniquely his own, but there’s an old-school feel, with a bowed left wrist, minimal shift off the ball and raised left heel. Martin doesn’t tinker with Xiong’s action – “I ain’t touchin’ that” – and his only formal lesson was three months ago, with instructor Jeff Smith, to tidy up his wedge play. 

“I always tell him: ‘If you’re great from 100 yards and in, there’s no telling what’ll happen,’” Martin says.

But today’s elite players aren’t renowned for their wedge play – it’s for their otherworldly driving distance that puts them in position to attack. Xiong fits the modern prototype, as well. Over the winter, while showing off for teammates, he consistently registered a 133-mph swing speed, 194-mph ball speed, carry distance of 340 yards and spin axis less than 1.

Translation: “Full-pummel rips, dead straight,” Martin says.

Even on a demanding home track like Eugene Country Club, Xiong’s scoring average is 68, the lowest in Martin’s 12 years as coach. (He estimates Xiong’s handicap there would be a plus-9.) The team’s statistician recently asked if Xiong’s numbers were a mistake, if it was possible to average 330 off the tee and also find 85 percent of the fairways. “From what I see from him,” Martin said, “yeah, it’s certainly possible.”

During his current three-tournament win streak, Xiong closed with 64 to take the Duck Invitational, then shot a combined 25 under par to top strong fields at The Goodwin and Western Intercollegiate. That prompted one coach who competed against Xiong to describe him as a “runaway freight train.”

“It’s not like he’s just getting in the zone for tournaments, either,” Martin says. “This is who he is.”

With an NCAA-best five wins entering this week's Pac-12 Championship, Xiong is among the leading contenders for Player of the Year. Claiming the award would be an honor, of course, but he doesn’t need the validation – anyone has seen him play knows that, talent-wise, he’s in a league all his own, that he’s ready for the Tour at 19.

“He just has so many tools and can literally make birdie from anywhere,” says one Pac-12 coach. “He’s a fearless kid who believes he can accomplish anything.”

In fact, Martin’s only concern is how Xiong will handle adversity, because, frankly, there hasn’t been much throughout his charmed career. He’s won prolifically at every age, while seemingly impervious to pressure.

“There are three things that I think you need to be on Tour,” Xiong says. “The talent and the skill. The mental game. And the experience. The only thing I’m lacking now is the experience, because I haven’t been out there. But I think I’m ready.”


A FEW WEEKS AGO, while on the 13th hole at Eugene Country Club, Xiong started talking with Johnson about the future. About how he’d love to have a normal life. To get married. Have a couple of kids. Cook them dinner each night.

Then he stopped himself.

“But I wasn’t born to be ordinary,” he said, “and I’m OK with that.”

It’s fair to wonder if Xiong’s boundless joy will fade in the pressure cooker of pro golf, if another 19-year-old is ready for Tour life, for fame and fortune and scrutiny. Those closest to him have brushed off concerns. He doesn’t drink or smoke. He doesn’t party or swear. He’s smart and unmotivated by money. He’s soft-spoken but self-assured – “an absolute gem of a human being,” Martin says.

“What’s impressed me most is that he hasn’t changed who he is,” says Kay, his longtime pal and roommate. “Most players, when they get to his level, they become a different person than they were. But he’s still the same. He’s still just Norman.”

In college, away from his family, Xiong is becoming his own man, with his own interests and values and dreams, but he’s also wise to assume that nothing in his immediate future will be ordinary. Conversations over the past few months have confirmed as much.

The CEO of a prominent club manufacturer told him that he’d heard from others that he was the best player of this generation.

“And they’re right,” Xiong replied matter-of-factly.

The CEO of a top apparel company pressed him on how good he thinks he’ll be.

“The No. 1 player in the world,” he said.

“And how long do you think it’ll take?”

“That part I don’t know,” he said, grinning.

Even in the most cutthroat and unpredictable of professions, there’s a growing inevitability about Xiong among those who have seen him play.

After the six-shot victory at TPC Harding Park, a coach approached him after the round, offered his congratulations and then asked for a small favor.

An autograph.

“Part of me felt like I should get this now,” he said, “before it’s too late.”

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Twitter spat turns into fundraising opportunity

By Rex HoggardMay 25, 2018, 6:30 pm

Country music star Jake Owen, along with Brandt Snedeker, has turned a spat on Twitter into a fundraising campaign that will support Snedeker’s foundation.

On Thursday, Owen was criticized during the opening round of the Web.com Tour’s Nashville Golf Open, which benefits the Snedeker Foundation, for his poor play after opening with an 86.

In response, Snedeker and country singer Chris Young pledged $5,000 for every birdie that Owen makes on Friday in a campaign called NGO Birdies for Kids

Although Owen, who is playing the event on a sponsor exemption, doesn’t tee off for Round 2 in Nashville until 2 p.m. (CT), the campaign has already generated interest, with NBC Sports/Golf Channel analyst Peter Jacobsen along with Web.com Tour player Zac Blair both pledging $100 for every birdie Owen makes.

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Noren so impressed by Rory: 'I'm about to quit golf'

By Golf Channel DigitalMay 25, 2018, 5:33 pm

Alex Noren won the BMW PGA Championship last year, one of his nine career European Tour victories.

He opened his title defense at Wentworth Club in 68-69 and is tied for fourth through two rounds. Unfortunately, he's five back of leader Rory McIlroy. And after playing the first two days alongside McIlroy, Noren, currently ranked 19th in the world, doesn't seem to like his chances of back-to-back wins.

McIlroy opened in 67 and then shot a bogey-free 65 in second round, which included pars on the pair of par-5 finishing holes. Noren walked away left in awe.

"That's the best round I've ever seen," Noren said. "I'm about to quit golf, I think."

Check out the full interview below:

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Bubba gets to drive dream car: K.I.T.T. from 'Knight Rider'

By Grill Room TeamMay 25, 2018, 4:42 pm

Bubba Watson is a known car aficionado.

He purchased the original General Lee from the 1980’s TV show “Dukes of Hazzard” – later saying he was going to paint over the Confederate flag on the vehicle’s roof.

He also auctioned off his 1939 Cadillac LaSalle C-Hawk custom roadster and raised $410,000 for Birdies for the Brave.

He showed off images of his off-road Jeep two years ago.

And he even bought a car dealership near his hometown of Milton, Fla.

While recently appearing on the TV show “Jay Leno’s Garage,” the former “Tonight Show” host surprised Watson with another one of his dream cars: K.I.T.T.

The 1982 Pontiac Trans Am was made famous in the ‘80s action show “Knight Rider.”

Though, Bubba didn’t get to keep this one, he did get to drive it.

Bubba Watson gets behind the wheel of his dream car—the KITT from Knight Rider from CNBC.

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Cut Line: USGA readies for Shinnecock 'mulligan'

By Rex HoggardMay 25, 2018, 3:26 pm

In this week’s Memorial weekend edition, the European team adheres to the Ryder Cup secret formula, the USGA readies for the ultimate mulligan at next month’s U.S. Open and a bizarre finish at the Florida Mid-Am mystifies the Rules of Golf.

Made Cut

Cart golf. When the U.S. side announced the creation of a Ryder Cup task force following the American loss at Gleneagles in 2014, some Europeans privately – and publicly – snickered.

The idea that the secret sauce could be found in a meeting room did stretch the bounds of reason, yet two years later the U.S. team emerged as winners at Hazeltine National and suddenly the idea of a task force, which is now called a committee, didn’t seem so silly.

To Europe’s credit, they’ve always accomplished this cohesion organically, pulling together their collective knowledge with surprising ease, like this week when European captain Thomas Bjorn rounded out his vice captain crew.

Lee Westwood, Graeme McDowell, Padraig Harrington and Luke Donald (a group that has a combined 47-40-13 record in the matches) were all given golf cart keys and will join Robert Karlsson as vice captains this year in Paris.

Perhaps it took the Americans a little longer to figure out, but Bjorn knows it’s continuity that wins Ryder Cups.



Made Cut-Did Not Finish (MDF)

The USGA’s mulligan. The U.S. Open is less than a month away and with it one of the most anticipated returns in recent major championship history.

The last time the national championship was played at Shinnecock Hills was in 2004 and things didn’t go well, particularly on Sunday when play had to be stopped to water some greens that officials deemed had become unplayable. This week USGA executive director Mike Davis was asked about the association’s last trip to the Hamptons and, to his credit, he didn’t attempt to reinvent history.

“Looking back at 2004, and at parts of that magnificent day with Retief (Goosen) and Phil Mickelson coming down to the end, there are parts that we learned from,” Davis said. “I’m happy we got a mulligan this time. We probably made a bogey last time, maybe a double bogey.”

Put another way, players headed to next month’s championship should look forward to what promises to be a Bounce Back Open.

Tweet of the week:

Homa joined a chorus of comments following Aaron Wise’s victory on Sunday at the AT&T Byron Nelson, which included an awkward moment when his girlfriend, Reagan Trussell, backed away as Wise was going in for a kiss.

“No hard feelings at all,” Wise clarified this week. “We love each other a ton and we're great. It was a funny moment that I think we'll always be able to look back at, but that's all it really was.”


Missed Cut

Strength of field. The European Tour gathers this week in England for the circuit’s flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship, and like the PGA Tour’s marquee stop, The Players, the event appears headed for a new spot on the calendar next year.

As the PGA Tour inches closer to announcing the 2018-19 schedule, which will feature countless new twists and turns including the PGA Championship’s move to May and The Players shift back to March, it also seems likely the makeover will impact the European Tour schedule.

Although the BMW PGA currently draws a solid field, with this week’s event sporting a higher strength of field than the Fort Worth Invitational on the PGA Tour, it’s likely officials won’t want to play the event a week after the PGA Championship (which is scheduled for May 16-19 next year).

In fact, it’s been rumored that the European Tour could move all eight of its Rolex Series events, which are billed as “unmissable sporting occasions,” out of the FedExCup season window, which will end on Aug. 25 next year.

Although the focus has been on how the new PGA Tour schedule will impact the U.S. sports calendar, the impact of the dramatic makeover stretches will beyond the Lower 48.

Rules of engagement. For a game that at times seems to struggle with too much small print and antiquated rules, it’s hard to understand how things played out earlier this month at the Florida Mid-Amateur Championship.

In a story first reported by GolfChannel.com, Jeff Golden claimed he was assaulted on May 13 by Brandon Hibbs – the caddie for his opponent, Marc Dull, in the championship’s final match. Golden told police that Hibbs struck him because of a rules dispute earlier in the round. Hibbs denied any involvement, and police found no evidence of an attack.

The incident occurred during a weather delay and Golden conceded the match to Dull after the altercation, although he wrote in a post on Twitter this week that he was disappointed with the Florida State Golf Association’s decision to accept his concession.

“The FSGA has one job, and that’s to follow the Rules of Golf,” Golden wrote. “Unfortunately, there’s no rule for an inebriated ‘ex-caddie’ punching a player in a match-play rain delay with no witnesses.”

Because of the conflicting statements, it’s still not clear what exactly happened that day at Coral Creek Club, but the No. 1 rule in golf – protecting the competition and the competitors – seems to have fallen well short.