The last few months have been a whirlwind for Virginia junior Paul Chang. Just this spring, he was competing on the club golf team, yearning to get the attention of the Cavalier coaching staff. But after an incredible round at the premier amateur golf championship in the United States, he finally was offered a spot on the Cavalier varsity team. In just his first match, Chang has already made a real impact on the team that he strived to get a mere place on.
For Chang, golf has been a lifelong fascination.
“I was nine when I started — it was just a hobby,” Chang said. “I loved it though, I loved golf, and I always hit balls around when I was free,”
It wasn’t until he moved from China to England to attend Oakham School that Chang started to play in tournaments. Chang still considered golf as nothing more than a fun pastime. That all changed when Chang decided to take a break from academics after finishing high school.
“From the gap year onwards, I played in some very serious tournaments and I wanted to win every single one,” Chang said.
Even then, he still had no prospects of playing in college. He came to Virginia for all of the other reasons that appeal to so many aspiring students.
“My grades weren’t good enough for Ivies, so I applied to a couple of schools and made my early decision here,” Chang said. “I liked the campus and there is a good history.”
Upon his arrival at the school, Chang reached out to golf coach Bowen Sargent — he was quickly met with a disappointing reality. Sargent denied him a spot in the program due to obligations to recruits but urged him to play on the club team, which he did for the next two years with a revitalized drive to improve his game.
“I’ve made quite a few leaps during my time here,” Chang said. “I have always been a good ball striker but now I have gained 20 to 30 yards off the tee. I got much better at putting, much better at chipping, so it's really better all over.”
This development was certainly on display when he and his partner qualified for the 2023 USGA Amateur Four-Ball in September of last year, but it was even more glaringly obvious when he came out of nowhere to qualify for the U.S. Amateur Championship two months ago. Chang shot a scintillating 64 in the opening round and was lucky enough to catch the eye of Sargent, who was scouting a potential high school recruit. Chang’s performance was simply too shocking to overlook, and Sargent finally rewarded him with a spot on the squad for the upcoming season.
With a spot secured in Charlottesville, Chang set his eyes on Denver, where the renowned Cherry Hills Golf Club and the Colorado Golf Club would be hosting the U.S. Amateur. He entered the tournament as one of only a few players not named in the World Amateur Golf Rankings.
“I arrived and no one knew who I was but, inside, I knew that I have game that I can work with,” Chang said. “I had never played with them and I didn’t know how good they really are, but I was confident in my skills so I just went out there and tried my best.”
And try his best he did, firing an opening round 69 and following it up with a 73 to qualify to advance to matchplay although the Cherry Hills’ short yardages didn’t necessarily fit his game.
He continued his stellar play with a 2-and-1 defeat of Caden Fioroni in the Round of 64 and stunned the golf world with a 22-hole sudden-death victory over former world number-one Caleb Surratt in the Round of 32. Later that day, Chang was set to play the 11th-seeded John Marshall Butler as the only remaining unranked player in the field.
“This is David versus Goliath,” Sargent said. “This just doesn’t happen in today’s world.”
David gave Goliath one final blow in his afternoon match against Butler, holing out from the fairway on the 16th hole to take a one-up lead. A spot in the quarterfinals was not to be, however, as Butler won on the first playoff hole the next morning.
With his name fresh in the minds of fans, pundits and players alike, Chang returned to Charlottesville to begin his career as a Cavalier. It did not take long for him to make an impact. His final-round 69 was a team low for the Cavaliers at the Valero Texas Collegiate over a week ago now, and it propelled Virginia to a fourth-place finish and a tenth-place individual finish for Chang in his first college event.
“It really feels like I am part of the team, that I can contribute to this insane team that we have this year,” Chang said. “For this season, I want to play every event. Obviously, I want wins. If not wins, then top-20s and top-10s to get my ranking up.”
The junior currently holds the 4,042nd position in the World Amateur Golf Rankings, and he is bound to rise even more with the new opportunities that college golf will provide him. Chang’s success is proof of the depth of talent that exists beyond the eyes of college recruiters.
Not only has Chang become a hero to so many young golfers around the globe — he also represents the Cavalier way, a man who has defied the odds at every step of his career and found success in the strangest of circumstances. It is now clear — Virginia has a burgeoning star in Paul Chang.