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For the first time in over two years, Norman Xiong will tee it up in a PGA Tour event.
This time he won’t need an exemption.
The former Oregon standout, now 22, shot 7-under 64 Monday at Victory Links Golf Club in Blaine, Minnesota, to earn the final of four spots into the crosstown Tour event, the 3M Open, which begins Thursday.
"It felt really good when the last group came in; no playoff, no guy that kicked me out, that was definitely a relief," Xiong told GolfChannel.com on Monday evening. "I played a good round today, but there were so many other guys who played solid rounds, and I've been one of those guys so many weeks...
"Walking off the course today I was thinking that no matter what happens, I'll take today as a win and carry it on to whatever I play in next, and just try to build off that."
Next up for Xiong: not another Monday venue but rather TPC Twin Cities, where he'll compete against the likes of Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed and Louis Oosthuizen.
Stephen Stallings, Tom Lovelady and Justin Raphael Quiban were the other three qualifiers. Lovelady, a former Tour member, was part of Alabama’s 2014 NCAA title-winning lineup, but neither he nor Stallings, a solid player at Kentucky, were the type of can’t-miss prospect that Xiong was.
Xiong won the Haskins and Nicklaus awards in 2018 following a six-win sophomore season with the Ducks. He turned pro that summer, foregoing his final two years of eligibility, and immediately was faced with lofty expectations. He signed millions worth of endorsement deals, and his college coach, Casey Martin, even said this of the uber-talented teenager: “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.”
However, Xiong struggled immediately, making just two cuts in nine professional starts between the PGA and European tours. His rookie season on the Korn Ferry Tour the following year wasn’t much better, as he missed the weekend 16 times in 21 starts despite finishing runner-up at Q-School to earn his card. He couldn’t keep it either, shooting 81 in the opening round of second stage in 2019 to miss out on a repeat trip to final stage. Xiong called that moment his "rock bottom."
“I know that you have to be patient,” Xiong told GolfChannel.com back in 2019. “Guys have missed a bunch of cuts starting off and gone on to have a lot of success. You just have to keep your head down.”
Xiong's last Tour start came in 2019 at Memorial, where he tied for 68th. His last world-ranked appearance was a missed cut at the KFT’s Lincoln Land Championship last September. Currently relegated to mini-tours and qualifiers, Xiong is ranked No. 1,892 in the Official World Golf Ranking and holds zero world-ranking points.
But now he’s got another shot on the big tour – and he's more prepared than before.
The ball-striking that earned him accolades as an amateur has returned, but the biggest change has been mentally. It's no secret that Xiong was not well-equipped to handle the pressure, both external and internal, when he first turned pro. Now, he's got a mental coach, Alex Weber, who divides his time between working with athletes, giving motivational speeches and training for America Ninja Warrior.
Xiong began working with Weber two Aprils ago, right as COVID-19 shut down Xiong's line of work. In some ways, the pandemic was a blessing in disguise for Xiong.
"That was the perfect timing for me to get quiet and really clear my mind," Xiong said. "That was the beginning of my re-rebuilding, my re-foundationing."
Xiong still lives in Las Vegas, where he first moved after turning pro. He's still his own swing coach, bouncing thoughts off of his uncle – a system that's been in place for a couple of years. But the difference now is he's maturing, and he's thinking better – when he was in college, Xiong's confidence came from others telling him how good he was; now his confidence comes from within.
"It feels like I'm at the point where I've already hit the bottom, and ever since then I've been just trying to chip my way back up, trying to build trust and belief in what I'm doing, not only in golf but life in general – becoming an adult, basically," Xiong said. "It feels like I'm entering this new chapter in my life."
Xiong watched Sunday as Collin Morikawa, one of his former Walker Cup teammates, lifted his second major trophy in less than a year. He could've said how much he wished he was in Morikawa's shoes, how that could've – and as some believed maybe should've – been him, but Xiong didn't.
He was happy for Morikawa, whom he battled with throughout junior and college golf, but Xiong's focus is not what he's missed – or missing – out on.
It's what he himself, still only 22, can accomplish moving forward.
"The way I look at it is what has happened has already happened," Xiong said. "Obviously, it's been really tough and I wish it was quicker and easier and I was more successful, but this has just given me more perspective and patience, and I hope it happened for a good reason and that it will just add more to the journey, wherever that leads me."