Brandon Wu plays a shot on the 18th hole during the final round of the Orange County National Championship at Orange County National Golf Club on October 11, 2020 in Orlando, Florida. [Photo/Agencies]

Chinese-American eyeing PGA Tour card after challenging 2020

All the talk on golf’s Class of 2019 has so far centered around Collin Morikawa, Viktor Hovland and Matthew Wolff, whose prodigious talents and youthful exuberance have seen them take the PGA Tour by storm.

Brandon Wu, a Chinese-American who graduated from the same class, is determined to join the conversation via a different route. Had it not been for COVID-19, fans would have already seen Wu competing on golf’s biggest stage.

Fate dealt Wu a different hand in 2020, one that forced him to endure a rockier road. Instead of teeing up in million-dollar tournaments, Wu, who turns 24 on Feb 17, found himself Monday-qualifying for events on the Korn Ferry Tour for much of last year after failing to secure full-exempt status at the qualifying school.

Wu’s considerable achievements in his amateur career suggest greatness could follow in the pro ranks.

He reached a high of eighth in the amateur world rankings, became the first amateur since 1967 to qualify for the British and US Opens, represented the US in the Walker Cup, and led Stanford University to its first NCAA championship in 12 years.

In his first start on the Korn Ferry Tour, at the Price Cutter Charity Championship last July, Wu led by three shots heading into the final round before finishing tied for ninth. Instead of fretting over that setback, Wu took it on the chin, and a month later went on to claim his first professional victory at the Korn Ferry Tour Championship in Newburgh, Indiana.

Two more runner-up finishes and another top-10 saw him enjoy a successful 2020 in fourth place on the tour’s regular-season points list.

In any other year, these achievements would have secured Wu a PGA Tour card, but following the disruptions caused by the pandemic, the development circuit combined its 2020 and 2021 seasons, which means Wu must now wait until later this year for his chance to line up alongside Morikawa, Hovland, Wolff and the rest of golf’s elite.

The manner in which Wu, whose Chinese name is Bi Yuan, has persevered throughout his trials and tribulations is ultimately a reflection of his upbringing.

“At home, we’ve built a strong sense of the value of working hard, being respectful and doing things right. I think it’s almost natural my parents have instilled those values in my life,” said Wu.

“It’s cool to come from this background, with the family heritage and history. Being immersed in the culture helps my perspective in the other things that I do.”

As a child, Wu enjoyed building things, making his decision to major in engineering at Stanford something of a natural progression.

His father, Wu Yichun, and mother, Zhang Xiaobing, moved from Beijing to California in 1996. A year later, Wu was born as the first of three sons.

With their home being close to a golf course in Danville, California, he was introduced to the sport at the age of 6, when his dad got bitten by the golf bug.

“Like all kids, I played lots of different sports, did swimming, baseball, tennis… did them all. I played a lot of golf at a young age though just because it was fun to have my dad take me out to the course, driving around on the cart and hitting balls. It was good father-son bonding for sure,” reflected Wu.

He recalls shooting a 56 in his first nine-hole tournament when he was just 8.

“I thought I did OK, but dad thought I could have done better and he was right. I started trying to shoot better scores after that. I’m glad my parents pushed me to play golf. They saw the big picture on what golf can help bring, whether that was the opportunity to go to Stanford or being a professional golfer. They set the course for me.”

Although he is an American citizen, Wu is very much Chinese at heart. He speaks fluent Mandarin, thanks to his parents’ insistence on talking to their kids in their native tongue, and also six years of living in Beijing from 2005.

It was during his sojourn in the Chinese capital that Wu’s passion for golf intensified after his father took him to see the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions in Shanghai. He also participated in the pro-am one year after winning a junior event that was part of the HSBC Junior Golf Program in China.

“I played a lot in the HSBC junior circuit … It was really fun,” said Wu. “We watched Tiger (Woods) when he played. On one occasion, I was on the 10th tee box right up against the barriers and Tiger walked up, kind of looked right at me and said hi, and I said hello, and it ended up with him giving me his golf ball.

“Another year, I got into the proam and interacted with Trevor Immelman, Retief Goosen, KJ Choi and Sergio Garcia. It was a cool experience. To see the progression from playing in China to competing with these guys who I looked up to, it is super cool to have that.”

When the Korn Ferry Tour restarts this month, Wu is expected to safely stay within the top 25 on the points list by the time the regular season concludes in August, which would be enough to secure a PGA Tour card.

But he is aiming just a little bit higher. “Every spot you move up, you get better status. Just strive to be the best and winning the money list would be a nice goal,” he said.

Now based in Dallas, Texas, he is close friends with Morikawa, whose early success includes winning last year’s PGA Championship. Hovland has won twice on the PGA Tour while Wolff has one victory.

“It’s cool they have set this path and showed everyone that it can be done and can be done very quickly,” Wu said of the trio. “It kind of motivates me to join them out there.”

Through qualifying and sponsor exemptions, Wu has enjoyed a taste of PGA Tour life, racking up eight starts to date, including three majors.

A tied-17th at the 2019 Houston Open is his best result to date, but Wu believes his time will come.

“Playing in majors, that was so cool. The US Open (in 2019) was kind of a blur, it was so special for me to be at Pebble Beach and so close to Stanford,” said Wu.

“I ended up missing my graduation which fell on the final day. After playing with DJ (Dustin Johnson), the USGA(United States Golf Association) gave me my diploma after the round which was pretty special and memorable.”

After savoring those highs, Wu’s 2020 felt a little different.

“Last year was an interesting year as I experienced the tough parts of professional golf, stuff like Monday qualifying, trying to get into events and losing in a playoff. But I also got to experience some highs, playing really well and winning my first pro tournament. It was kind of a relief to have finally won. It’s almost like I learned a different kind of patience in 2020. I think I am a patient person but you have to really believe and be confident in yourself.”

Wu knows a golfer’s life is a never-ending journey of discovery and learning.

“There’s definitely room for improvement. I do think I can compete with the best on the PGA Tour but I also know I can get better. I need more work to get to where I like to be. My goal is to be one of the best in the world. I think I have a good plan and idea on what I need to do to get there. Winning multiple tournaments and majors are big goals to strive for.”

The writer is senior director of international marketing and communications for the PGA Tour’s Asia Pacific division and is based in Kuala Lumpur.