Looking for the next college golfer to make noise on the pro level?
Oregon sophomore Norman Xiong is at the top of many lists, including that of Oregon head coach Casey Martin.
Martin has coached and played with many talented golfers. He was a college teammate of Tiger Woods at Stanford. Martin made 43 PGA Tour starts and won once on the Nike Tour (now the Web.com Tour) in 1998. And in 12 seasons leading the Ducks, he has coached an NCAA Championship-winning team (2016), NCAA individual champion (Aaron Wise, 2016) and Nicklaus Award winner (Eugene Wong, 2010).
The 19-year-old Xiong, who has won five times this season, might be the best golfer Martin has seen not named Tiger.
“When he does eventually turn pro and get out there, I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I hate predicting what’s going to happen because you just don’t know. I don’t have a crystal ball,” Martin said. “But from what I’ve seen, at this age, I don’t know if I’ve seen another 19-year-old in my 12 years of coaching that’s where he is.
“Obviously the only player that I would defer to would be Tiger. … But everyone else that’s come out recently, I’m not saying he’s going to do what they’ve done, but I think at this stage he’s every bit as good or better than anyone you could put in there.”
Embracing his inner-Tiger
Xiong doesn’t shy away from the lofty comparisons. To him, it proves he’s going in the right direction.
“That’s something that I love to hear, because ultimately I want to do what Tiger did, go out there and really be a dominant golfer and change the game in some way,” Xiong said.
Soon he’ll get the chance. Xiong has yet to officially declare his intentions to turn pro after this spring, but most expect him to do so. He had the talent to make the jump a year ago, and Martin is among those who wouldn’t be surprised to see Xiong make a quick transition onto the PGA Tour, much like Jon Rahm did two summers ago after graduating from Arizona State. (Rahm was projected to move up one spot to third in the Official World Golf Ranking after winning his fifth pro title Sunday at the Spanish Open.)
“I’m amazed because of how good he is, but I’m also not amazed because I’ve watched him play so much golf the last four years that I’m not shocked at all,” Martin said. “It’s going to be exciting to see his career unfold.”
Xiong has had quite the golf journey so far. He was born in Guam and raised in Southern California. He starred at Temescal Canyon High School in Lake Elsinore , Calif., and on the national junior circuit, even representing the U.S. in the Junior Ryder Cup in 2016.
He signed with the Ducks in November of 2016 and enrolled early, competing for Oregon last spring and playing well enough to not only win the Phil Mickelson Award as the nation’s top freshman but also secure a spot on the U.S. Palmer Cup team.
Last summer Xiong notched his biggest win to date, capturing stroke-play and match-play honors at the Western Amateur, a performance that helped him earn a spot on the U.S. Walker Cup team. (He went 3-0-1 in September at Los Angeles Country Club.)
“I went out there and showed everyone – and even myself – that I could go out there and play that high level of golf,” Xiong said of his Western Amateur win. “It set a foundation that I am one of the top amateurs in the world.”
Xiong, ranked fifth in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, combines a rare mix of eye-popping length off the tee and an impressive ability to sink big putts. He recently has improved his game from 130 yards and in, and learned to play “a more mature brand of golf,” Martin calls it.
“When he came in, he would go for every pin – and quite frankly he could pull it off a lot,” Martin said. “But now he’s been more willing to lay up or play to the fat side of a green. He’s more refined.”
Said Xiong: “I realized a round is like a marathon and you don’t need to be perfect on every shot. It’s a long race, and the one who makes the least amount of mistakes will win.”
Ducks line up behind Xiong
Xiong, ranked fourth in the country by Golfweek, leads the Ducks in scoring average this season at 68.78 and has recorded just four of 29 rounds over par. He did tie for 42nd at Trinity Forest in the fall and has two other finishes outside the top 20, but he’s either won or finished second in six of his seven other starts. He enters the Pac-12 Championship this month with three consecutive victories.
“He has taken us on his shoulders,” said Martin, whose team is ranked 35th. “We really haven’t played exceptional except for him, and he has been amazing.”
Martin loves talking about Xiong the golfer – just not as much as Xiong the person. Martin has never heard Xiong use profanity. Xiong’s teammates say he’s never had a sip of alcohol. Xiong doesn’t brag and is known for his wide smile.
“He’s just an absolute gem of a human,” Martin said.
And a pretty good gin rummy player, too. Xiong calls himself a scratch player at gin, but also concedes, “Gin is a lot of luck, like every card game.”
As for Xiong’s golf game, no luck is needed. The skill he possesses is rare. And golf fans likely will get to see it in action on the pro level in the near future. Gwk