Golf's Own Chen Dynasty

June 16, 1986
June 16, 1986

Table of Contents
June 16, 1986

French Open
The Mets
Horse Racing

Golf's Own Chen Dynasty

For T.C. Chen, of Taiwan, who nearly won last year's U.S. Open, golf is very much a family affair

Chen Chi is 95 years old. He is the oldest man in the village of Linkou, Taiwan, Republic of China. His face is weathered to the color of a pecan, and wrinkles have engulfed his features. Chen Chi used to be a farmer. He grew rice in the bottom land and tea on the hillsides.

This is an article from the June 16, 1986 issue Original Layout

Chen Chi's son-in-law is Chen Soon-ling. When Chen Chi grew too old to work his land, Soon-ling took over. Now Soon-ling is 73. If the Linkou of today were the Linkou of 30 years ago, Soon-ling's sons would take over. But Linkou, like the rest of Taiwan, has changed. Chen Chi's farm is now the front nine holes of the Linkou International Golf Club. Soon-ling is the greenskeeper, his fourth oldest son is his assistant, another son manages the locker room, a daughter is the caddiemaster, and his two youngest sons are famous golfers. Last year the younger of the two, Chen Tze-chung, almost won the U.S. Open.

T.C. Chen of Linkou, Taiwan, Republic of China, grandson of a farmer, son of a greenskeeper, was the true hero of Oakland Hills. He was the little-known pro with the modest smile and the physique of a chopstick who nailed Ben Hogan's monster with a 65 on opening day; who holed a 256-yard three-wood shot for the first double eagle in Open history; who tied Jack Nicklaus's Open scoring record of 134 for 36 holes; who still led the tournament after four holes on Sunday, which was at least two days longer than anyone thought he could; and who finally threw away a four-stroke lead with a miserable quadruple-bogey eight on the 5th hole. Not just any quadruple bogey, but one that included a double hit, a ball hit twice with one swing.

Andy North won the tournament, but Chen won the galleries and the press. Through it all, the triumph and the trauma alike, Chen set a modern standard for grace under pressure—make that sustained grace under continuous pressure. As he walked down the 18th fairway that Sunday afternoon, two strokes behind North, with almost no chance left to win, he tapped his caddie, Mike Lealos, on the shoulder and said, "Sorry about today."

"Hey, it's not over yet," said Lealos.

"I know," said Chen.

Sure enough, Chen's third shot from the bunker beside the 18th green missed the hole by an inch. Had it gone in, Andy North's two putts to win would have become one putt to win, two putts to tie and, who knows, the U.S. Open might have had its first Asian winner.

On a cold day this spring the Chen brothers, T.C., who is 27, and T.M. (Tzeming), 33, sat at one end of a long table in the clubhouse at Linkou International with their father beside them. At the other end of the table were Major Generals Lu Wei-hsiang and Charles C. Chang of the Golf Association of the Republic of China (GAROC).

"Fighting spirit is very difficult to train," said General Lu (army, retired), whose military bearing is evident even in a sitting position. General Lu heads the selection and training committee of GAROC. It was he who first saw golfing promise in T.C. and T.M. and who captained many of the amateur teams on which the brothers played. "The family of T.C. and T.M. is farmers, so they were born with fighting spirit. T.C. has a very strong personality. He does not want to listen to other people, but he will listen to reason. He learns quickly."

General Lu is clearly proud of his protégés, the best he has seen in his 20 years of scouting golf talent. But he does not hesitate to point out their shortcomings, even in front of reporters. "T.C. has the making to be a good champion," said the general. "However, he has not had maturing experience."

T.C. and T.M. may be the best golfers Taiwan has produced since Lu Liang-huan, little "Mr. Lu" of British Open fame. Even though they are grown men who are asked for their autographs on the streets of Taipei and Tokyo, when General Lu speaks, the Chen brothers listen—at least they maintain a respectful silence that passes for listening.

"Sometimes he is tougher than a father," says T.C. of General Lu. "He likes to talk, but he is good to the players. He takes care of everything."

Chen set out on his path to the U.S. Open when he realized there were finer things in life than fiddling with motorcycles. As a young man T.C. liked engines, so when he left school at 14 ("not really interested") he went to work in a Bridgestone motorcycle factory in Taipei for about $110 a month. After a year of "coming home dirty every day," T.C. quit and joined T.M. on the driving range at Linkou International. T.M. was already an established amateur player.

"Every day I just picked up balls," says T.C. "I don't know why I liked golf." After six months of stoop labor, T.C. decided to become a golfer.

"When I was a little kid, after school I came to the golf course every day and watched. I didn't know anything about golf, only read about superstars like Nicklaus and Trevino, those who were in the papers every day. Mr. Lu had finished second at the British Open, so at the time he was very famous. I was thinking someday I will be just like him. That was part of the reason I started to play golf."

In 1970 golf was not a popular game in Taiwan. Only a handful of courses were worthy of the name, and equipment was difficult to obtain even for the few who could afford it. The Japanese, who ruled Taiwan from 1895 to 1945, had introduced golf on the island at the turn of the century, but it was played only by Japanese government officials and a few wealthy Chinese.

When Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist followers retreated to Taiwan from the mainland in 1949, they took over where the Japanese had left off. A small group of mainland military men, led by a four-star general named Chow Chih-jou, founded GAROC to promote and govern the amateur game.

In 1971 Lu Liang-huan (Mr. Lu) finished second to Lee Trevino in the British Open and won the French Open a week later. The next year, Mr. Lu and Hsieh Min-nan beat the favored Americans and Australians for the World Cup. Mr. Lu became a national hero, and the Taiwanese began to follow golf.

And they began to play it, too. As the number of golfers grew, so did the number of professionals. Today more than 150,000 amateurs play the game on 33 courses, and 89 professionals ply their trade. The best of the professionals move on to the Asian circuit and the Japanese tour—women, too. Tu Ai-yu, nicknamed the Taiwan Hurricane, won seven tournaments in Japan last year and has been the leading money winner in the women's game there for four years.

When T.C. took up golf, T.M. was already a member of the national amateur team. Within a year T.C. was on the team, too. Together the brothers won amateur trophies near and far. They won by large margins, and they broke course records. Once, T.M., playing in an open tournament in Malaysia as an amateur, beat the low pro by 13 strokes.

T.M.'s greatest success as a professional has come on the Japanese tour. In 1983 he won two of Japan's five major tournaments. To commemorate the feat, Japanese Premier Yasuhiro Nakasone, himself, executed a piece of calligraphy that hangs on a wall of the Chen living room in Linkou alongside dozens of lesser awards, THE BEGINNING OF THE HUMAN'S LIFE, it says, in bold black brushstrokes.

The parents, Chen Soon-ling and his wife, Mai, 67, live on the second floor of an eight-room house on Linkou's main thoroughfare. On the ground floor of the Chen house is a grocery store that Chen Mai operates. On the roof are quarters for 200-odd racing pigeons, the hobby of an older son. When he is at home T.C. lives in a one-room apartment at the rear of the second floor. He shares with his brothers the use of a Ford, a Jeep, a Toyota and a BMW.

T.M., his wife, Pao-Kuei, and their two daughters live next door. Chen Chi, the grandfather, lives one door farther on, in a 200-year-old brick farmhouse. Gnarled cypress trees flank the gate to its inner courtyard, and red banners lettered in gold decorate the archway, CONGRATULATIONS FOR THE NEW YEAR reads one banner; THE WHOLE PEOPLE WILL CAUSE THE CULTURE TO CONTINUE Says the Other. A small red light burns in a Buddhist shrine in the center wing of the U-shaped house.

In their polyester slacks and cashmere sweaters, T.C. and T.M. look slightly out of place in their home surroundings—too contemporary for a simple country town where a monkey skips along the top of a garden wall. T.M. is 10 pounds lighter and a couple of inches shorter than T.C. He is a wizard, it is said, of the short game. When T.M. won the 1983 Dunlop Phoenix in Japan, beating Tom Watson in a playoff, he was up and down out of 18 bunkers. Some people, T.C. included, think T.M. is the better player of the two.

T.C., at 5'10", is a big man in Taiwan, a long-ball hitter. "For my weight, I'm a long hitter," he says. "In the States a lot of other guys are longer. When I started to play I was just trying to see how far I could hit it and I really didn't practice the short game. My short game is terrible."

T.M. spoke up for the first time. General Chang translated: "His brother says T.C. is also good with short game."

T.C. muttered under his breath, "Did you see the U.S. Open?"

In 1980 T.C. turned pro. For two seasons he played the Asian and Japanese tours, winning one tournament and losing two others in playoffs the first season. His second season was less successful, but T.C. was encouraged enough to try the U.S. tour. He went home to Linkou in the summer of 1982 and for three months did nothing except hit golf balls by day and study English by night.

In October, with a loan from GAROC in his pocket, T.C. flew first to Los Angeles and then to the PGA Qualifying School in Ponte Vedra, Fla. He finished fifth in a field of 200. In the year that followed he won $79,030 on the American tour. In his three seasons in the U.S. Chen has conquered the problem of jet lag, which used to leave him feeling sick for several days after every flight, and of stomach problems caused by a new diet. Although he is friendly and the players like him, he rarely initiates conversation because he thinks his English is bad.

"I think it's good," says caddie Lealos. "He's a very intelligent guy. Once in a while he'll hear a word he doesn't understand. Appreciate was one of them. Someone said, 'I appreciate your coming.' So I spell it for him, and he looks it up in a Chinese dictionary and then he kids me with it. He uses it every chance he gets for the next two days."

After his collapse on Open Sunday last year, Chen missed the cut in his next three tournaments. What befell him at that 5th hole is the sort of golfing nightmare that can linger. Chen, with a four-stroke lead, had hit his second shot into the tall rough short of the green, and his next shot landed in the rough just in front of the green. His fourth shot was a sand wedge, which hit behind the ball. On the follow-through the ball was struck a second time by the face of the club, and squirted off to the left. Two strokes in one. Shaken, Chen chipped past the pin and two-putted for the eight. He bogeyed the next three holes. "It upset me a lot," he said later. "It stayed on my mind."

Of his Open experience, T.C. says, "For about a month it bothered me really every day. I cannot forget it. But now I'm fine. Everything is gone. This is a new year." As evidence of such, Chen played splendidly at the Masters, leading the tournament at midround Friday before fading, eventually finishing 23rd.

"What bothered T.C. at Oakland Hills was not so much that it was the Open as that it was Sunday afternoon," says Lealos. "He lost a little confidence. I think all he needs is one week when he's close, and he plays well on Sunday. He doesn't have to win, just play well."

"Every player has the pressure," says Chen. "It depends on how you handle it. For me it is still not too good when I have pressure. But the Open last year was good experience for me for the next time it is the same."

Suddenly next time is this week at Shinnecock Hills. Chen can rest assured, though, that however else his second U.S. Open may turn out, at least it won't be the same. Double eagles, double hits, quadruple bogeys and lightning rarely strike in the same place twice.

PHOTOLANE STEWARTNational hero T.C. attracts the admiring attention of Linkou's all-female caddie corps.PHOTOLANE STEWARTWhen he's home, T.M. visits the Buddhist shrine at his family's 200-year-old farmhouse.PHOTOLANE STEWARTChen Chi, 95, on whose former farm the golf course is located, is Linkou's oldest citizen.PHOTOLANE STEWARTChen Soon-ling, 73, still tends the course where his youngest sons learned the game.TWO PHOTOSJACQUELINE DUVOISINT.C. (above) led the Masters briefly during the second round, but T.M., who tied for third in the '85 PGA, missed the cut there.