Why Tiffany Chan can change the face of Hong Kong golf
Youngster has risen to become one of the best college players in the US and won a world title
Golf, a game played on velvety greens and vast courses, seems out of place among the densely packed high rises of Hong Kong. But Tiffany Chan Tsz-ching, a young resident of Tuen Mun, is on the cusp of changing the face of the sport in the city forever.
Chan, 54th in the world female amateur rankings, is the number one ranked junior college golfer in the United States. She has verbally accepted a coveted offer to attend the University of Southern California - ranked number one for college golf - next year .
And last month she won the World University Championship in Switzerland, beating a strong field that included two members of this year's winning United States Curtis Cup team - a result likely to see her crack the top-50 amateur rankings.
Just how did a young Hongkonger from Tuen Mun make such an impact?
"I think at least 20 per cent of it is luck," says the quietly spoken 20-year-old, shrugging modestly. Her friendly demeanour is difficult to reconcile with the steely-eyed aggression she's known to summon on the golf course.
"Everyone is as good as you are out there," she says. "Golf is a difficult game - time spent on training doesn't equal results. It's about timing; you're playing against nature ... But then again," she smiles coyly, "the harder you work, the more luck you get."
Unlike many of her counterparts, Chan is not the product of a carefully crafted golfing career. She only picked up a club at the relatively "late" age of six, at the local driving range, because she was too young to be left home alone. Even though she showed promise, golf remained a hobby in the early years, sidelined by study. Only when she finished fourth (and just two shots behind the eventual winner) at the 2008 Junior World Championships, aged 14, did she realise she might be any good.
"I was surprised," she says. "My goal was just to make the cut and be among the top 40 or 50."
The result came off the back of a four-week training camp in the United States over the summer, funded through the then newly established EFG Bank sponsorship programme.
"I never knew I could play that hard because we could hardly practise in Hong Kong ... Before me, no one from Hong Kong had done well in that tournament."
The result stirred confidence and vision within Chan. "I realised I could achieve something. If I spent more time on golf, maybe I could do well."
During the past year, while studying at Daytona State Junior College in Florida, Chan has won five individual titles and raised her institution to the top of the junior college golf rankings.
She won the individual title at the 2014 NJCAA Golf Championship, becoming the college's first national champion since 2011. Her opening four-under par 68 tied for the second-lowest individual round in NJCAA history.
Such accolades are only the tip of the iceberg of her achievements, which include a handful of top-10 finishes at professional tournaments in Asia since she started playing seriously about seven years ago.
Her talent lies in thriving where most golfers wilt - when under immense pressure.
"I love the challenge of golf," she says. "You're not out there to beat somebody, you're there to beat yourself."
At the World University Championships, she staged a remarkable comeback to defeat Spain's Marta Sanz on the second hole of a sudden-death play-off after the pair tied at 10-under 278 through four rounds. Chan calmly holed a 10-foot birdie putt on the 18th for the win.
It is an endurance sport, she says, and one that suits her iron resolve.
"[Golf] is not like swimming or running where the buzzer goes and you just go without thinking. Golf you are all on your own … it's long hours and your mental attitude is really important."
"She's always been good in those situations - she enjoys it," says Hong Kong Golf Association national coach Brad Schadewitz.
"I call her the 'ice queen' when she's on the course. I tell her to smile more," he chuckles.
Apart from a stellar work ethic, Schadewitz lists perseverance as one of her many talents.
"She's never thought there's a shot or a situation she couldn't overcome," he says. "I find girls generally have a reluctance to try, thinking that if they fail someone will laugh at them. Tiff wasn't like that, she always wanted to give it a go."
At just 18, her brash, raw talent landed her a scholarship with Arizona State University, the second-ranked college for golf in the US. The euphoria did not last, however, when three weeks before leaving she discovered she was ineligible for college, lacking sufficient academic credit in science - a product of the differences in school systems.
"It was brutal. Everything changed in an instant," she says.
With no time to re-apply, Chan spent six months waiting. It took her 18 months to navigate the bumpy road of the American college system, finally finding her way into Daytona State.
Despite the disappointment, she counts the experience as crucial: she learned sporting highs are often short-lived.
"You have to take it step by step and remain humble," she says emphatically. "You have to focus on only what you can achieve in that moment and control what you can control.
"Winning is important, but in golf you can't always play well - there are so many elements at any one time. You have to focus on what you can improve. Knowing what to focus on is more important than just winning."
Her hunger sets her apart. She has not followed a path in Hong Kong. There was none - she has blazed the trail. Being good in Hong Kong is "difficult", says Schadewitz, given the lack of facilities and support.
"Kids in Hong Kong get out of school late, then they have extra work and then they have to practise golf, and even then a course may be 45 minutes away ... It's challenging.
"You have to have role models - someone like Tiff, who is able to prove that, even with the challenges, 'I did it'. Once you have those role models, and success stories, things tend to open up ... If you have star players coming through, people want to support that."
Chan, too, is motivated to show what she, and many others, might be capable of. "I really want to prove Hong Kong can produce some good players.
"Many people told me to quit early on; they told me there was no future playing golf," she says. "I'm proud of being the first Hong Kong female golfer to get into top world amateur rankings."
It remains to be seen just how good Chan can be, says Schadewitz, but all signs point to something special.
"She is excelling at every level she puts her mind to," he says. "Every time her confidence goes up, and she believes in herself, there's no stopping her."
Daytona State coach Laura Brown also believes she will go all the way to the top.
"Her ball striking is very impressive … She had a 71 scoring average in her freshman year, which was phenomenal," Brown said. "She has a great short game and … her long game is as good as anyone I've seen. I would look for her to be one of the top players in the world."
In the meantime, level-headed Chan is keeping a check on things. "I can't say that I want to be world number one right now - it's just not achievable right now," she says matter-of-factly.
"My focus is on my studies. After that I'd like to go professional and hopefully make the LGPA Tour qualifying school … Because I practise at the LGPA golf course at Daytona State I've seen many of the players and know many of the players - it seems achievable."
Next up for Chan is an event on the China LPGA Tour next month followed by the Asian Games and the World Amateur Championship in September.
"After this win I can aim higher," she said, fresh off the scenic Crans-sur-Sierre course in the heart of the Swiss Alps last week.
"I'm going to spend the next couple of months working hard on my weaknesses and will try to do my best."