NCAA champ Hiroshi Tai, who spent over a year on warship, gunning for U.S. Open title

NCAA champ Hiroshi Tai, who spent over a year on warship, gunning for U.S. Open title
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PINHURST, N.C. – The U.S. Open is traditionally the toughest test in professional golf.

Hiroshi Tai is used to tough.

Tai, the reigning NCAA individual champion, might be making his major debut this week at fast and fiery Pinehurst No. 2, but the 22-year-old rising Georgia Tech junior is the only player in the 156-player field who is a former third sergeant (sorry, Gordon Sargent doesn’t count).

More specifically, Tai was a weapons specialist for the Singapore navy after graduating from Windermere Prep in Orlando, Florida, a semester early in December 2019. He then entered basic training as part of his mandatory 22-month national service (Tai was born in Hong Kong, but his father, Jacky, is a Singapore citizen). After three months, Tai transitioned to a specialist program for an additional six months. The rest of his service was spent on the R.S.S. Tenacious, a stealth warship.

“I was gunner,” Tai said. “I got to shoot a machine gun at floating targets in the ocean. All training, though. Nothing real.”

During his service, Tai went as much as three months without touching a golf club. When he’d get shore leave, he’d sneak in a round or two, but not much. He hit most of his balls on his back patio into a small net.

He’d occasionally send Georgia Tech head coach Bruce Heppler a swing video, asking how it looked.

Heppler would usually respond something like, I don’t know. I saw it travel 5 feet.

“He was so concerned that he’d forget how to play,” Heppler said. “He’d send me those videos, and he’s barefoot hitting into this tiny net, and I said, ‘Look, I think you’re looking at this the wrong way. The things you’re going to learn in that scenario are some of what I’ve would’ve tried to teach you when you got here.’ From the standpoint of doing hard things, the resolve, he learned a lot of things over there.

“Golf doesn’t seem as hard when you think about being on a battleship in the middle of the ocean.”

Added Tai: “What that made me more than anything was more grateful that I get to play this game.”

Tai completed his service and enrolled at Tech in Spring 2022. He redshirted that semester but still practiced and qualified with the team.

“If he was playing, he would’ve qualified for a number of events that spring,” said former teammate Bartley Forrester, who is caddying for Tai this week at Pinehurst. “He didn’t show a lot of rust.”

That next fall, Tai won twice, including the prestigious Golf Club of Georgia Collegiate. He later helped the Yellow Jackets to the NCAA Championship final, earning the clinching point in a semifinal victory over North Carolina.

At last month’s NCAA Championship at La Costa, Tai notched his biggest win yet, holding off a slew of top-10 amateurs – Sargent, Auburn’s Jackson Koivun, Florida State’s Luke Clanton and Virginia’s Ben James – by a shot to become Tech’s fourth NCAA individual champ and secure his spots in this year’s U.S. Open and next spring’s Masters. In the final round, Tai showed off his battletested resolve, bouncing back from a triple bogey on his penultimate hole and making an up-and-down par from 40 yards to not only secure his own title but send the Yellow Jackets, down world No. 1 amateur Christo Lamprecht to a back injury, into match play as the eighth seed.

“He just does all the right stuff,” Heppler said of Tai. “He’s a really good iron player. He’s worked really hard on his putting. Great student. He’s easy to root for.”

Forrester, who had Tai on his bag two summers ago when he won the Monroe Invitational, says, more specifically, that Tai’s distance control with his irons is elite, a skill that will serve Tai well at Pinehurst No. 2.

“With how these green complexes are, you need to hit your targets,” Forrester said.

Targets that will seem bigger than what Tai was gunning at from the decks of the R.S.S. Tenacious.

“I wasn’t very good at shooting; that’s why I was in the navy,” Tai joked.

Luckily for Tai, this time he’ll have a golf club in his hands.

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