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The next Tiger Woods? Give Norman Xiong some time

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BRADENTON, Fla. – The expectations placed on Norman Xiong when he turned pro last summer were astronomical. In fact, it would’ve taken some other-worldly talent to even come close to matching them.

At just 19 years old, Xiong was not only anointed the title of next big thing coming out of Oregon as a sophomore but also the best prospect since Tiger Woods.

“I think Tiger is the only guy I would defer to as being better than Norman,” Oregon head coach Casey Martin said of Xiong last spring. “I haven’t seen much better than him at that age. He’s really that good.”

It’s not that Xiong can’t someday achieve comparable success to Woods. It’s just that for those people who expected that kind of greatness right away, Xiong was likely always going to disappoint.

Being a pro golfer is hard. Especially for a teenager. And even for a player of Xiong’s pedigree – Phil Mickelson Award winner, Haskins Award winner, Walker Cup star.

Xiong, still just 20 years old, found the going to be tough in his first half-year in the paid ranks. He missed his first six cuts as a pro and has made just two in 13 starts across four different tours entering this week’s Lecom Suncoast Classic on the Tour.

But as Xiong reiterated Wednesday, “I’m still just starting my first full professional season of golf.”

After all, it’s not like immediate success is a requirement for sustained success. Current World No. 1 Justin Rose missed the first 21 cuts of his pro career. Even red-hot Bryson DeChambeau had a stretch during his first full season on the PGA Tour where he missed 12 of 15 weekends.

“I know that you have to patient,” Xiong said. “Guys have missed a bunch of cuts starting off and gone on to have a lot of success. You just have to keep your head down.”

And, in some ways, your head up. It’s easy to get discouraged as a young pro, and Xiong certainly experienced his fair share of growing pains. He’s had to rediscover the ballstriking ability that powered him to the highest echelons of junior, college and amateur golf. He’s also had to adjust to two vastly different tours, the bright lights of the PGA Tour and then the more low-key yet arguably just as competitive Tour.

Recently, Xiong has stabilized his support team and his confidence. After a brief split, Xiong is back with swing coach Jeff Smith. He also works with budding instructor Josh Gregory, the former Augusta State and SMU coach, on his short game. And he’s tapped into the strategic expertise of D.E.C.A.D.E. founder Scott Fawcett.

“Ever since college, it’s felt like this long period of adjustment,” Xiong said. “I definitely feel more at ease now.”

His body language tells a similar story. As an amateur, Xiong was known for his infectious smile. Even in cold and rainy conditions Wednesday in Bradenton, that positivity has returned.

Never mind that Xiong is playing a fifth straight week on the Tour and has yet to stick around for a weekend. He knows it wasn’t that long ago that he shot 26 under and finished second in the final stage of Tour Q-School.

One great week this season and Xiong could end the summer with his PGA Tour card, which would put him on the same time frame of current PGA Tour rookies Cameron Champ and Sam Burns, who each spent a full year on the developmental tour.

Xiong has seemed to finally move past trying to hurdle the mountain of expectations. Instead, he’s prepared for the steady climb.

“Going through it last summer and being in that moment, it didn’t feel like much at all,” Xiong said. “But looking back, it was such a whirlwind. It was so different than what a lot of people experience when they turn pro. But having to deal with all of those things, it made me tougher and a lot more patient.

“I’m way better having come out of that.”