WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — By the time Norman Xiong skies his first professional tee shot at 8:40 a.m. Thursday, he’ll be swinging into the stiff breeze of grand expectations.
The NCAA’s top freshman in 2017 who won the Haskins Award this year, Xiong is a 19-year-old wunderkind making his much-anticipated leap to the PGA Tour. He’s armed with a slew of sponsor exemptions, endorsement deals for Callaway clubs and TravisMathew apparel, and a Greenbrier following that’s sure to be buzzing.
“I’ve definitely played some great golf in college and amateur golf, but it’s a different stage,” Xiong said after two practice rounds on the Old White TPC. “It it is still golf, so on the course, hopefully I can make it the same and play the game that I have.”
Xiong’s coach at the University of Oregon, Casey Martin, was a college teammate of Tiger Woods, so the comparison seems firmer than most:
“At 19 years old, I think Tiger is the only guy I would defer to as being better than Norman,” Martin said in April. “I haven’t seen much better than him at that age. He’s really that good.”
After taking up golf at age 6 upon moving from Guam to San Diego, Xiong has emerged as the poster child for the First Tee program. With his mix of powerful drives and short-game feel, he’s primed to compete against the throngs of experienced pros, most of whom he has never met.
“I don’t know too many guys out here,” Xiong said. “Hopefully soon I can make some friends.”
The Military Tribute at the Greenbrier offers a sturdy field, though some of the world’s elite golfers are overseas prepping for the British Open. That could alleviate distractions for Xiong, who said “It’s pretty low-key here, so my mind is pretty settled.”
He’ll be grouped with 21-year-old Zecheng Dou of China and Andrew Yun, who have combined to make only seven cuts in 33 PGA starts this year.
After enrolling in college a semester early, Xiong opted to jumpstart his pro career ahead of schedule, sensing he was “mature enough and emotionally ready to handle what’s going to come ahead.”
The phenom’s Tour debut comes today on a course 105 years in the making amid the West Virginia mountain views. With a wave of amateur accolades behind him, Xiong said, “This is kind of where it all begins again.”
Bubba Watson and Tony Finau are the favorites at 20-to-1 odds, with Phil Mickelson and Webb Simpson in the next group at 22-1. Defending champ Xander Schauffele is 25-1, hoping to become the first repeat winner in the Greenbrier’s 8-year history.
“Last year I had zero expectations coming in,” said Schauffele, currently ranked 24th in the world. “This year’s different. People are kind of looking at me to play well, so I expect more of myself.”