Once regarded as a ‘skinny kid’ from Dalian, Carl Yuan will live out his dream when he tees off against the big boys in the season-opening Fortinet Championship in Napa, California on Thursday, becoming only the third mainland Chinese player to compete at golf’s highest level as a new PGA TOUR card holder.
And Yuan is certainly not your typical orthodox swinging golfer.
The 25-year-old earned his PGA TOUR status via the recently concluded Korn Ferry Tour following an impressive campaign with one win and three runner-up outings to finish second in the rankings. Yuan will be joined in the new 2022-23 season by compatriot Marty Zecheng Dou, who returns for a second crack in the big league following a low-key debut in 2018. Xinjun Zhang is the other mainland Chinese golfer who has held a TOUR card, also in 2018.
Now that Yuan’s golf journey has led him to the game’s ultimate destination, he is not in a rush to attain quick success as he is aware the hard work which propelled him through the ranks – which included one season on PGA TOUR Series- China in 2018 – must continue.
“I hope I can have a PGA TOUR title within five years, and be in the world top-30,” he said thoughtfully. “The PGA TOUR is a new platform, and I may need some time to get adapted.”
Yuan’s involvement in the sport was largely due to the influence of his father, a businessman in the shipping trade where Dalian is known as a port city in northeast China. At age seven, Yuan tagged along when his father, Dahai Yuan, played casual rounds with friends, and the older Yuan conceded he did not see any inclination his only child would one day become a professional athlete.
“He was so curious about the golf course, and my friends and I playing golf,” said Dahai. “He was running everywhere and when he got tired, he would lie on my golf bag. He was so small and skinny at that time, and my caddie would drag the golf bag and him along for 18 holes.
“We let him try golf as one of his activities which included ping pong and football (soccer). Carl was not outstanding compared to the other kids at that time. But he practiced hard according to his own rhythm. He really likes and enjoys golf.”
While Yuan received formal coaching as in his growing years, he has since developed a unique swing and style which has somewhat made him a social media sensation.
At most times, he produces the textbook golf, free-flowing swing but on other occasions, his follow-through action resembles those of a Shaolin master (Chinese martial arts exponent) where he produces the “helicopter” finish with his hands, or have only one leg on ground as he coaxes his ball into the air.
His warm-up routine at the range includes a ‘hosel drill,’ which involves shanking shots on purpose to get his clubface square at impact. Fellow competitors often get thrown off watching Yuan warm up but for likeable Chinese, it is simply a matter of trying to get his ball to the intended target as consistently as possible.
“I think everyone has his own style. My style, and my swing fits my personality. I need to be comfortable when I swing. I follow my feelings, not those technics when I play,” said Yuan, who represented China in the Tokyo Olympics.
“It is a little different, it gets the ball into the hole. For me. it’s not really about a hard swing, more on how I get the ball from A to B and my body takes care of that. I’m not doing those swings intentionally. They just come out.”
In reflection, a big step in Yuan’s rapid development was through his parents’ decision to send him to Florida to study and pursue his golf dreams when he was 14. There were challenges growing up in a new environment thousands of miles away from home, including the language barrier, but Yuan, who now speaks fluent English, thrived and showed maturity beyond his years.
His mother, Xiaohu Li, recalls the drive Yuan showed from a very young age, and also spoke of his level headed nature.
“At that time, Carl was just taller than a golf club. Later we bought him a kid’s 7-iron and sometimes, he can hit between 600 to 800 balls. He told me the sound of golf club hitting the ball is the most beautiful sound in the world,” smiled Li.
“Carl never lost this passion, never gave up. He told his teacher in elementary school he wanted to drop some classes in the afternoon to practice his golf. Both the school and us supported him. He was also really good at solving problems by himself.
When he was 12, he didn’t play well in a tournament and I found him crying. Several days later, he told me ‘Mom, don’t worry about me, I found a way to handle pressure and I solved my problem’.”
Yuan spent three years at the University of Washington which proved to be life-changing, both from a personal and professional standpoint. Aside from reinforcing his calling to make golf a career, he also met his wife, Cathy Luo, who is also a professional golfer. They have since set up base in Jacksonville, Florida and are widely regarded as the “Dream Couple” amongst the Chinese media.
“I have my wife accompanying me for tournaments, and I discuss golf all the time with my wife. We are a team,” said Yuan.
The Fortinet Championship will be played at Silverado Resort and Spa (North) from Thursday to Sunday.