From China to Colorado
UNC golfer Eric Li Chen faced big changes when he moved to the U.S., but golf was one constant that helped him adjust.
By Kobee Stalder, Photography by Barry LaPoint
It takes roughly 18 hours by plane to get from Colorado to Guangzhou, China —
a 6,883-mile flight for UNC freshman golfer Eric Li Chen to return to his hometown.
The UNC business major lived in China?s third largest city until he was 13 years old. That?s when his life changed one afternoon on a golf course.
"I was actually in America at the time with my dad, playing in the Junior World tournament in San Diego. After I finished my last round, we were sitting in the clubhouse, and he said we were going to move to America," Chen recalls. "My parents were really excited about it, but the moment I heard that I was really devastated."
Chen's father worked for Crocs, and the shoe company transferred him to Colorado. They moved to Westminster the very next week.
Thrust into a new culture on a new continent, one thing remained the same: Chen could rely on golf as he acclimated.
"It was difficult at first, but people are pretty nice in Colorado," Chen says. "If I ever had a question, someone was always willing to go out of their way to help. Plus I had the golf team."
Chen was also beginning high school — a life transition in itself. America?s academic system was entirely different from what he was used to in China, where "you could skip every single homework assignment, but as long as you did great on the exams, that's all that mattered."
"In Colorado, I had to keep up with everything and be on point every day, which was a struggle for me. It took me a while to figure out how everything worked."
Chen finished with a 3.5 GPA his last two years of high school. He ranked No. 1 on his high school team and made All-Conference and All-State all four years. He was voted to the All-Colorado team his junior season.
Two second-place finishes in the 5A State Championships, the state's largest division for prep schools, caught the eye of men's golf head coach Roger Prenzlow.
"He has this tremendous work ethic on and off the golf course that was obvious from the first time I met him," Prenzlow says. "He's just a great person all around, and I couldn?t be happier that he ended up on my team."
Chen carded his first career under par round as a Bear, shooting 71 (-1) in the first round of the year?s first tournament.
"I expected to be nervous at first, but the people were nice and the competition was great," Chen says of his first collegiate meet. "I looked down at my shirt and saw the UNC logo on it and was proud I was representing the school and that I had made it to this level."
Chen says the most difficult thing about collegiate golf is the grind of 36-hole days, which was new to him.
"You're just on the course for so long, and when things don?t go your way on a 36-hole day, you begin to doubt yourself."
He set a goal this season to beat his career-low round of 67, which he carded twice, once in 2011 and again in 2013.
"He's a competitor inside and out," Prenzlow says. "He's still learning how to handle the game at this level, but he's picking up on it quick. Once he figures out how to be consistent and gains more experience, he'll be posting some low rounds for us."
And, along the way, proving once again his aptitude for flourishing in new environs.