Darren Clarke’s upcoming roles as captain of the European teams for both the Ryder Cup and the EurAsia Cup meant he was watching every move made by the field gathered for the Thailand Golf Championship last month.
But it turns out there was only really one player the Irishman had eyes for – 17-year-old Chinese phenomenon Jin Cheng.
After playing with Jin during Saturday’s third round at Amata Spring Country Club, Clarke tweeted “He’s the best 17 year old I’ve seen since @McIlroyRory … seriously impressed.”
High praise indeed considering McIlroy progressed from his teens to become a winner of four majors and world number one.
It wasn’t just Clarke that was left impressed, either – the same could be said of everyone gathered at the fifth edition of the US$1 million Asian Tour event that saw Jin sign for a four-round finish of 10-under that made him by far and away the tournament’s highest-placed amateur behind eventual winner Jamie Donaldson of Wales.
Jin, who finished in a share of 11th at alongside rising English star Matthew Fitzpatrick in Thailand, has yet to play his first major, although his victory at the 2015 Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship at our own Clearwater Bay Golf and Country Club this past October brought with it an automatic place at the Masters Tournament at Augusta in April.
The teenager said he had talked with Clarke – winner of The 2011 Open at Royal St George’s – as they made their way around the Amata Spring layout and took onboard the Northern Irishman’s advice to work a little harder on his short game.
“It was a pretty good week all over. I especially played well the last three days,” said the powerful Cheng, who hails from Beijing. “I hadn’t heard about what Darren tweeted but I have to say I played today with a guy who’s younger than me [Thai 16-year-old Phachara Khongwatmai] so maybe Darren should take a look at him. He’s pretty good too.”
The statement was enforced when Phachara finished in sixth-place at 13-under for the tournament. That result ensured the Thai teenager secured the fourth and final spot up for grabs at The 145th Open Championship at Royal Troon in July, due to the Thailand Golf Championship’s status as part of The R&A's Open Qualifying Series.
Meanwhile Jin fired rounds of 73, 67, 69 and 69 over the water-laced course and showed all week he has the length and the accuracy – as well as the poise – to mix it with the game’s very best.
“I enjoyed my time with Darren and will do what he told me. You just have to listen to a guy who’s done so much in the game,” said Cheng.
The teenager now plans a few weeks off before he turns his attention to life at the University of Southern California, with whom he has signed a letter of intent. And then there’s the other little matter of the Masters and Augusta to look forward to as well.
“This event has giving me lots of confidence. It was great opportunity to be in the field with so many great names,” said Cheng, who spent time in Singapore in his younger years. “I think I’m done for 2015 now. I need to rest a bit and I have a big year ahead with school … and of course Augusta.”
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