Once ‘Just a Student,’ His Coach Now Sees the PGA in His Future

September 22, 2023 By Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu

No matter the time of year, no matter the weather conditions, University of Virginia men’s golf coach Bowen Sargent knew he could count on at least one UVA student always swinging away on the driving range at Birdwood Golf Course.

That student, however, wasn’t a member of Sargent’s team. His continued presence was instead a source of motivation for the Cavaliers.

“I wanted our guys to take notice of this kid’s work ethic,” Sargent said. “They have a lot of perks that come with being a college golfer, but look at the passion and drive of this guy who is doing it without those advantages. I wanted them to take notice of that because it was admirable.”

The off-Grounds home course for both the UVA men’s and women’s golf teams, Birdwood also offers playing rates for those working for or attending the University. Paul Chang, “just a student” up until a few months ago, took full advantage of the discount on a seemingly daily basis over a two-year stretch.

“Even in December and January, when there’s usually no one out there, you’d see him,” Sargent said. “And he’s got a pretty good swing, so he’s pretty easy to spot.”

Sargent once had a distant view of Chang’s game. Now, he’s Chang’s coach.

Chang, a native of China who went to boarding school in England and played two seasons on UVA’s club golf team, is now competing on UVA’s nationally ranked varsity squad. The junior has already played in two multiple-team tournaments this fall, finishing among the top 12 individual players in both fields.

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His is an atypical rise.

“The coaches we’ve been going against,” Sargent said, “they’re all like, ‘Who is this guy? Where is he from?’”

Young golfers normally show up on the radar of college coaches through good play on the junior amateur circuit. For example, Ben James, UVA’s top player and the reigning National Freshman of the Year, was recruited by the Cavaliers – and a whole host of other programs – mostly because of a highly decorated career on that level, including four wins in his last six American Junior Golf Association events.

Chang didn’t have nearly the résumé. He barely had one at all.

While he’s been playing golf since he was 9 and shot his first even-par round at 13, Chang treated the sport as a hobby for a long time before making a serious commitment to the game about three years ago. He was back home in China then, taking an academic gap year before enrolling at UVA the following fall to pursue a degree in computer science.

“I talked to my dad,” Chang said. “Like, we had several long talks about what I want to do in the future. And we thought we should give pro golf a chance because I’m decent at golf, I have some talent in golf and I have some experience in golf. And I definitely enjoy playing, so why not give it a try and get a good degree as a backup?”

Chang soon explored all possibilities to put himself on the quickest path possible to the PGA Tour. This meant starting an email thread with Sargent to seek a spot on the varsity team.

Sargent, appreciative of the persistence, simply encouraged Chang to work on his game and eventually showed him how to register for various local amateur tournaments to help build a profile.

Chang has played in two tournaments with the UVA varsity team this fall, finishing among the top 12 individual players in both fields. (Photo by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

In the meantime, Chang made a splash on the UVA club team.

“He’s honestly the best player I’ve ever played with,” said Nick Owen, a second-year student and club team member who played four years of varsity golf at James River High School in Midlothian. “He’s not a super tall or big guy – he’s 5-9, 5-10 – but he would hit the ball really, really far. And he’s very well-rounded. Great with the wedges, great ball-striker all around.

“And he was an extremely intelligent golfer. When I play, I try to play pretty systematically, but he put all my methods to shame, honestly. ... Just the way he would describe his different strategies around the course, it was fascinating for me. It was a science for him, more than anything.”

Aside from tournaments, Owen said club team members, over the course of an average week, would practice by playing maybe a full round and then spend another hour or two on the range.

Chang’s regime, though, was different.

“Paul probably averaged, if I had to guess, five-ish hours a day,” Owen said. “He would hit balls for an hour, chip and putt for a couple of hours, play nine holes. And that would be six or seven days a week.”

Because of the self-made heavy schedule, Chang, who doesn’t have a car with him on Grounds, couldn’t always rely on teammates for transportation. This meant he’d regularly take an electric scooter up heavily trafficked Ivy Road to Birdwood.

His clubs, thankfully, weren’t on his back for the rides as Birdwood stored them.

“It’s a busy road and every now and then, we’d see him on it,” Owen said. “It scared me. People drive pretty fast down there. I’ve never seen anyone on a scooter there before, except Paul.”

Paul Chang on the golf course right after making contact with the ball
Chang used to play Birdwood Golf Course just like any other UVA student. Now, he plays it as a full-fledged member of the Wahoos’ varsity golf team. (Photo by Jim Daves, UVA Athletics)

Sargent took notice of the dedication – and pointed it out to his team – but never got to see Chang’s skills up close until this past summer at a United States Amateur Championship qualifying event in Williamsburg.

Chang, with Owen as his caddy, was in the same group as a high school player Sargent was recruiting. The coach soon became captivated by Chang, who turned in a clutch final set of holes to qualify for the prestigious U.S. Amateur.

Chang’s reaction to sinking a nervy 10-foot putt on the 18th green was an eye-opener for Sargent.

“He walked over to me,” Sargent recalled, “and immediately was like, ‘I knew I was gonna make that putt.’ It just kind of struck me, like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty bold.’ He just had so much confidence. He made it a point to go up to me.”

The next day, Sargent hosted Chang in his office and offered him a spot on the varsity team. Chang not only happily accepted, but went on to sell Sargent and his staff of his lofty ambitions to make the PGA Tour.

“He was very convincing,” Sargent said. “And you combine it with everything else we knew about him – from the work ethic to seeing him on the scooter to seeing him in Williamsburg – and you’re like, ‘I think this kid has what it takes from a mental standpoint. He might just make the PGA Tour.’”

Chang has since continued to show that his rise has no ceiling. Labeled the “Cinderella story” of the U.S. Amateur last month in Colorado, Chang, among a field of 312 of the best amateur players in the world, advanced to the Round of 16.

Once a complete unknown, Chang’s name has popped up on a variety of national outlets, including NBC Sports and Golf Digest.

But don’t think any of his success has changed him. Sargent, this week, saw Chang’s scooter parked at Birdwood.

“Fame has a double-edged sword,” Chang said. “It can really add pressure. So I tend to not think about the name I’ve made for myself.

“I’m still trying to play golf just as I was before. If you think about people’s expectations and social pressures, you won’t play good golf. You’ll play scared golf, and that’s never good.”

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