BRADENTON, Fla. – Washington coach Matt Thurmond needed to watch only a few swings to notice the difference.
His best player, Cheng-Tsung Pan, had left for winter break on the cusp of a breakthrough. He returned to school looking like a world-beater.
“Oh my goodness, it looks awesome,” Thurmond told him after the team’s first practice round this spring. “You might win every tournament you play.”
“I know,” he said.
The All-American senior didn’t win every tournament he played, of course, but he did rip off three victories in his first four spring starts and four wins overall as he continued to compile one of the most impressive four-year résumés in recent memory.
Pan’s eight career wins are the most in school history. His scoring average likely will go down as the lowest, too. He qualified for U.S. Opens and ascended to the No. 1 spot in the world and captured two gold medals at the Asian Games and became the first four-time Hogan Award semifinalist. Entering this week’s NCAA Championship, Pan is the No. 4-ranked player in the country, a spot he’s occupied nearly his entire college career.
Yet he still faced some internal questions as to whether he would ever take the next step, to become not just a consistent player but a consistently great one. And it all came together over that winter break, when a long, extensive swing change finally clicked.
“He’s really, really good right now,” Thurmond said.
Pan rebuilt his swing after contending at the 2013 U.S. Open, of all places. He moved within a few shots of the lead during the third round at Merion before backing up over the weekend.
After that, though, Pan “went into hiding for a while.”
His junior season wasn’t great, by his lofty standards – four top 10s, including a victory in the fall – as his game remained in transition.
After all, this was a massive overhaul, everything from his lower-body action to his turn to his swing path to his weight transfer to his release. A totally different move.
And Thurmond had argued with him, even advised against it: Why tear down something that made you so successful?
“I’d never say something like that to a guy unless I really felt it,” Thurmond said, “and I said, ‘Pan, I just want to make sure you really believe in this, because it’s not looking good.’
“But he knows himself. He said, ‘Look, I know I can be good with this swing, but I don’t think I can be the best with it.'"
Mostly, Pan was worried about how his swing would hold up under pressure. Sure, he could find a way to make it work, but always patching it together was exhausting.
So he worked tirelessly at his action, mostly by himself but also with the assistance of his coach back in Taiwan, and the payoffs have been significant.
With a revamped swing and a seven-day-a-week fitness regimen, Pan is about 25 yards longer off the tee. This week at beefy Concession, the 5-foot-6 Pan is easily topping three bills. Once the shortest hitter on the team, he now blows it past his teammates. They’re baffled.
Pan’s physical strengths are his accuracy and short game, but Thurmond believes that it’s his ability to concentrate and focus on what matters that separates him from his peers.
“That’s a very sophisticated skill,” Thurmond said, “and most people will learn it when they’re 35 and they look back and say, ‘Oh, I wish I had focused on that.’ But he already knows that stuff. He has a command of his mind and a great sense of who he is.”
That maturity was on display this spring, when Pan set a school record with his seventh career title at the San Diego Classic, then summoned one of the best performances of his college career at NCAA regionals. With the Huskies on the verge of missing the five-team cut – on one of their home courses, no less – he birdied five of his last seven holes to not only claim the individual title, but also send his team to the NCAA Championship.
“Nobody’s been better than Pan,” Thurmond said.
Players with his credentials usually bolt early for the pros, but Pan stuck around all four years. His reason for staying was simple: He came to the U.S., first and foremost, to get an education. The youngest of six children, he wanted to become the first person in his family to earn a degree, and that’s exactly what he will do in a few weeks’ time.
“I completed something I’ve always wanted,” he said.
Pan will join the play-for-pay ranks after this week’s NCAAs, and he already has status on PGA Tour Canada after a high finish at Q-School. Sponsor exemptions on the PGA and Web.com circuits are more difficult to procure for international players, but Pan’s stay in the minors will be short if he plays well in his limited appearances.
“I think there’s no question he’s going to be a good pro,” Thurmond said. “He’s hungry, he’s humble, and he knows himself. He’s not going to get distracted by fame or money. He’s very mature, both in his game and with his social and personal life.
“If he was already playing Tour events right now, he’d be doing well.”
Pan’s pursuit of an elusive national title began Friday at Concession, where he opened with an even-par 70 that left him only a few shots back after the first round of stroke play.
He hasn’t fared particularly well at past NCAAs, either because the weight of expectations (Riviera, 2012) or the course didn’t suit his game (Crabapple, 2013) or the swing that was in transition (Prairie Dunes, 2014).
Finally, he is not bothered by any of those issues.
“I feel like I’m rolling,” he said.