GUANGZHOU, China—Cheng Jin has played in 18 PGA TOUR Series-China events—even winning once. He’s played in the Masters and made the cut on three additional professional tours. One thing Jin hasn’t done, though, is play in a professional tournament as a professional, and that will all change this week when Jin, the former University of Southern California golfer, who withdrew from school and turned pro almost two weeks ago, plays in the Mainland China Qualifying Tournament at Foison Golf Club. The 72-hole tournament that will help determine 2019 membership, begins Tuesday.
If Jin earns his membership card this week—and remember, he won this tournament last year by a whopping 17 strokes—he plans to commit to PGA TOUR Series-China while also sprinkling in some Asian Tour action when it fits his schedule. Jin is already an Asian Tour member by virtue of his Q-School performance last December.
After two full seasons attending college in Los Angeles, plus half of another year, Jin made the difficult decision after the Christmas break to leave his amateur life behind and follow in the footsteps of countryman Yechun Yuan, who left the University of Washington early and turned pro, parlaying his fall season on PGA TOUR Series-China into Web.com Tour membership. Jin sees a similar path for himself even though he admits how difficult it was to leave college and his teammates behind.
“The decision was really hard because I couldn’t have asked for a better coach and better teammates. I have a lot of love for them, but my dream is to play professional golf so sometimes that’s life and life can be hard. It was difficult, but now I’ve made the decision so there is no looking back. I am definitely grateful for the team I had and for how much my coach has helped me and for my time at USC.”
Not only does Jin anticipate seeing a lot of familiar faces he knew back when he was a regular Series player, he will also be back on a Tour where he has already experienced significant success. At age 16, Jin made history when he won the 2014 Nine Dragons Open outside Shanghai, coming from off the pace late in the final round to catch and pass future PGA TOUR player Lucas Lee, who faltered down the stretch. Jin became the first amateur to win a Series event, a feat Yuan matched in 2018.
“I was just lucky,” Jin said after that triumph. However, anybody who watched both that tournament and how Jin played all season knew there was a lot more to the victory than sheer luck. Jin saw an opportunity to win, and he did, his talent showing at all times.
“No one was imagining Lucas would have three three-putts in a row,” he said following the win, remembering how he took the lead for good at the par-5 17th at Nine Dragons Golf Club. He made a birdie while Lee bogeyed the second of three consecutive holes to finish the tournament. “Seventeen is a reachable par 5. So, it’s not that abnormal to birdie it, but it was abnormal for Lucas to bogey it. All of a sudden I’m leading by one,” he recalled.
A year after that breakthrough win, Jin announced he would play college golf at USC, surprising some observers who thought he might follow in the path of China players Haotong Li and Zecheng Dou and turn pro without attending college—in the U.S., or otherwise. Prior to enrolling at USC, Jin said, “I think I need one more step before I go to the top standard of professional golf. I need some time to get ready for it. I’m still not mature enough for it. I can learn a lot from college, and not only golf. I can be a student, but I can also learn a lot about life.”
At USC, Jin’s biggest highlights came during his freshman year in 2016-17. The Trojans were the No. 1-ranked team for most of the year before losing in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Championship, while Jin had a third-place finish in a tournament and earned All-Pac-12 honorable mention honors along with a spot on the All-Freshman team. It was also that year he climbed to his highest position in the World Amateur Golf Rankings—No. 9—after winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur and The Players Amateur over a one-year period.
With his amateur life behind him as he looks forward to the next phase of his career, Jin still paused to consider his time in college.
“I think I had the best two and half years ever in my life. I was really close with my coach and my teammates and the whole USC family, and we played the best fields in college,” Jin added. “We played a lot of good tournaments, and my school has helped make a lot of great players, so I think the platform has helped me a lot—not only in terms of golf but also getting better physically, and mentally.”
He expects similar growth now that golf is his full-time job.
The PGA TOUR established PGA TOUR Series-China in 2014 as its third international developmental tour, following in the footsteps of PGA TOUR Latinoamerica and the Mackenzie Tour – PGA TOUR Canada. Since its inception, PGA TOUR Series-China players have received Official World Golf Ranking points for top finishes at official tournaments.