Recently embarrassed and afraid, SMU junior overcomes to fire 62 in KFT qualifier

Recently embarrassed and afraid, SMU junior overcomes to fire 62 in KFT qualifier
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Arnold Palmer once said the easiest way to save five strokes was with an eraser.

Sometimes, though, it’s best not to keep score at all.

Ben Wong is glad he wasn’t tracking his total during a casual round last November at Trinity Forest in Dallas. After losing “plenty” of golf balls on the challenging yet generally wide-open layout, Wong guessed he easily would’ve shot in the 80s.

“I remember calling my dad, in tears, and telling him, ‘I don’t know what’s going on. This is not me,’” Wong recalled. “That was incredibly tough.”

At the time, Wong couldn’t have imagined shooting the round of his life eight months later in a Korn Ferry Tour qualifier. Heck, the feat would’ve seemed impossible just two months ago, when Wong was struggling to complete holes at his home club, Carlton Woods in The Woodlands, Texas.

“I literally had zero expectations,” Wong told Tuesday, a day after shooting 9-under 62 at The Quarry Golf Course – his previous career best was 64 – to earn one of eight spots into this week’s TPC San Antonio Challenge. “I just wanted to play in something.”

The 20-year-old Wong, a rising junior at SMU, hadn’t logged a competitive round since missing the cut at the European Tour’s Hong Kong Open in January. It had been even longer since he had notched a top-10 finish – nearly two years, when he began his college career with back-to-back top-10s.

For Wong, a decorated junior golfer from Hong Kong who teamed with buddy Frankie Capan to win the 2017 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball, the struggles began toward the end of his freshman season. Though he ended up with six top-25s and didn’t miss a tournament, Wong thought he should be progressing faster.

“I found myself wanting to be extraordinary,” Wong said. “It was almost like this chase I was on, I pushed myself really hard and I almost chased myself into a rabbit hole trying to find the answer or trying to find something that I didn’t really need.”

That obsessive desire for perfection created chaos in Wong’s mind, and then it crept into his physical game. He lost all confidence, and then his ability to get the ball in the hole.

As a result, Wong qualified for just one event during a shortened sophomore season – and was subsequently beaten by more than 70 collegians in the Bahamas.

“The way I was playing, it was an embarrassment,” Wong said.

When he returned home to Texas at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wong’s head was cloudier than ever. His parents were stuck in China and his 14-year-old brother, Chris, moved in with Wong and his roommates, pro Fred Wedel and instructor Matt Eschenburg, after his boarding school in Connecticut sent its students home.

And Wong’s usual refuge, the golf course, was anything but.

“I was almost afraid to play with people,” Wong said. “I sheltered myself a lot. I couldn’t own up to it, the way I was playing. I almost felt like I couldn’t live with it.

“But I knew that with what I want to do with golf and my career, this is something that I need to overcome, no matter what it takes.”

With help from his friends, including Wedel (Wong’s legal guardian since Wong’s senior year of high school), Wong dug deep. He worked to strip months of negative thoughts and feelings. He forced himself to remember his junior-golf days, where the game seemed purer and more enjoyable.

“Slowly, my mind started cleansing itself and my body followed,” Wong said, “and I started hitting it better and better.”

Two weeks ago, Wong flew to Minnesota to spend some time with Capan. That was the final dose of positivity Wong needed. When he returned home, at the encouragement of Wedel, he signed up for the Korn Ferry Tour qualifier. Initially on the waiting list, Wong found out he got into the field on Saturday.

Two days later, Wong, with his little brother on the bag, birdied six of his first nine holes at The Quarry to open in 29. Monday qualifiers are considered some of the most stressful competitions in pro golf. Between two courses were more than 200 professionals, including Wedel, most of whom are fighting for the opportunity to orchestrate a career-changing week.

But Wong, just an amateur, wasn’t even thinking about actually qualifying. It wasn’t until his SMU teammate, Mac Meissner, watching his brother from a fairway over, came over to Wong on the 15th hole that Wong realized where he stood.

At 9 under, Wong added a birdie on that hole to reach double-digits under par. A bogey at the next and two closing pars, though, was good enough to get him through.

Wong called the performance the “mental reset” that he needed, a validation of his months-long psychological purge.

“I felt like everything that I did that built into the 62 that I shot, it didn’t come overnight at all,” Wong said. “It was more of a steady progression.”

Don’t get Wong wrong, he’s excited to tee it up this week at TPC San Antonio. And he’s not going to stop trying to get better, to keeping working toward his dream of playing on the PGA Tour.

But he also knows he can’t do any of that if he doesn’t believe in himself.

Days like Monday certainly don’t hurt one’s confidence, and they sure make those phone calls to dad much happier.

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