The next big thing: Xiong ‘wasn’t born to be ordinary’
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.
“Part of me felt like I should get this now,” he said, “before it’s too late.”