Courtesy of The Dodge City Daily Globe.
Over the past couple of decades, the sport of golf has exploded as an international game. While the Professional Golfers Association has been traditionally dominated by Americans, it has seen an influx of superstars from across the globe who are turning the sport into a global commodity. With the rapid spread of golfers spanning the globe, community colleges and university programs alike are attempting to tap into those once undiscovered resources. At Dodge City Community College, a majority of the roster is comprised of athletes from Kansas, Oklahoma, and Colorado, but two golfers stand out. And it just so happens they are leading this team to a potential conference title.
Alex Tiong of Sawarak, Malaysia, and Mariano Rossi of Buenos Aires, Argentina, may come from different corners of the world, but they now have one major thing in common. They both don the purple and gold of the Conquistadors on the golf course.
While many prospective college students fret about going to school too far away from home, these young men had no choice but to relocate themselves a world away from family and friends if they wanted to continue their golfing career.
Tiong's introduction to the game started at a young age in an attempt to earn a little extra money from his dad. And from that experience, his curiosity about one of the oldest sports in the world took off. “Golf is quite an expensive sport in Malaysia, so I always used to caddy for my dad and he paid me every time, and that’s how I started,” Tiong said. “After that, I started going to the driving range, which is where I met my coach, and he taught me everything. So then I started just playing and playing in the local tournaments.” Coming from a town with a population close to 250,000 people, Tiong found himself as the only junior golfer in his hometown. So in order to improve his game and compete against other golfers his age, he often traveled to West Malaysia to pursue the game he had fallen in love with. “Where I’m from, we don’t have high school golf or junior golf. We don’t have those things at all,” he said. “So being the only junior, I performed as an individual. You had to join a club, and it wasn’t popular at all. In West Malaysia, there are a lot more junior golfers there because it’s more popular. I was often the only kid from my state in that part of the country to play with those people.”
As for Rossi, who currently leads the Conqs in scoring average as a freshman, the road to a golfing career didn’t always seem as clear. Growing up in Buenos Aires, which has the same population as the entire state of Kansas, it was hard to ignore the country’s most popular sport — soccer. So, as many young children do in Argentina, Rossi grew up wanting to play the nation’s most famous sport. However, that passion quickly changed because his father asked him a simple question. “When I was about seven, I started playing soccer, which is very famous in my country. And when I was around 10 or 11, my dad asked me if I wanted to go hit some balls, which is something neither of us had done,” Rossi said. “So me and him went one day, and I became addicted to it.” But, once Rossi became entrenched in the world of golf, he was faced with a major dilemma, as are most international kids who want to continue playing the sport past their high school or junior days. With no colleges in his country that have golf as an organized sport, Rossi's options were to either turn pro coming out of school or play recreationally for fun. So with the intent to continue his golf career, Rossi turned to an agency that would promote his game and his personality to different colleges in the United States. And that is where Dodge City came into the picture. “An agent in Buenos Aires got in contact with (head coach) Chris Robinson, the head golf professional here, and we got to talking and they were able to offer me a scholarship,” Rossi said. “I really liked the golf program here, it’s very nice. We took things very seriously, and that was something I liked.”
Moving to America
Tiong's journey to the Old West wasn’t as clear-cut as it was for his teammates. He knew that in order to improve his game and — most importantly — his use of the English language, he would have to make the move to America. So upon reaching his final year of schooling in Malaysia, he was shipped off to LaCrosse, Wis., to take part in an international student exchange program. While golfing in America was Tiong's primary concern, his original intent was to learn English to give himself a better chance at improving his life once school was complete. “After my high school, my father wanted me to come to America to learn English, because it’s better for my future,” Tiong said. “I was originally supposed to go to Hutchinson, but my dad talked to the coordinator and they said that everything was full. So, I went back to Malaysia for a year and a teammate from there said he was going to Dodge City, and he gave me coach (Casey) Malek’s email address. That’s how I ended up here.” Under Malek, the Conquistador golf program excelled at levels never seen before. The Conqs were a constant threat to win the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference, and contend for national titles. With that type of notoriety, the top international golfers who want to come to the United States found it very easy to choose Dodge as a potential landing spot.
Taking a risk
Tiong enters his second and final year as a Conq golfer, the last international recruit from Malek’s tenure. Now the program is under the control of Chris Robinson, the head PGA pro at Mariah Hills Golf Course. For Robinson, bringing in Rossi as his first overseas recruit was a no-brainer, and Malek provided advice in order to help Robinson avoid taking too big a gamble. “The international golfers have just changed college golf in general. Most Division I or II schools that are powerhouses have foreign golfers,” Robinson said. “Mariano (Rossi) sent us a six-minute video and once he got to drive and hit it, we instantly knew how good he was. "You kind of take a gamble, not being able to see them play, but if you do your research, it will all work out. Before I make any decision with an international kid, Casey will be involved. He’s been doing it for 20 years, so it’s a no-brainer to have him take a look.”
Breaking down barriers
So once the recruiting period is over, the biggest obstacle remaining is breaking down the cultural barriers that exist between Dodge City and the rest of the world. Players like Tiong and Rossi not only uproot their entire lives to move thousands of miles away from their families, but they are placed dead in the middle of an area where their cultural upbringing might conflict with the norm. While adapting to Dodge City life can be pretty seamless, one of the biggest challenges in jelling with teammates is communication. Both Tiong and Rossi had a background in the English language, but the dialects from their part of the world made it difficult to get their point across. “When I was 15, I knew I wanted to come here to golf, so I began studying English, and it has been very hard,” Rossi said. “The day I got here, no one could understand me and I couldn’t understand anybody else.” Despite his squad's differences in background, Robinson said that regardless of where the golfers come from, they welcome each player as one of their own. “For the most part, as a teammate, their welcome is second to none. Those nine boys harass each other and love each other and do all kinds of stuff together,” he said. “There’s cultural stuff that we’ve discovered, where they come from a different country and that’s just the way they were born and raised, and it’s just different than America. It’s been a transition, but I think we’ve both grown throughout the year.” So now that Tiong and Rossi are both in the United States, their life after golf continues to float up in the air. “When I came here, it was all about golf, golf, golf, but I’ve learned life is about a lot more,” Rossi said. “I want to go to a Division I school when I’m done here, and making a living from golf would be the best. If golfing doesn’t work out, I’ll do something with golf, whatever it may be.” For Tiong, while golfing is a bonus, athletics have always been a way for him to afford an education to give him a career after college. He has already committed to Colorado State University-Pueblo to continue golfing in Division II. “My main goal has always been to study, and golf has always been a way to help me save money,” he said. “After college, I’d like to take my degree and open a pro shop or be an assistant coach in order to get my PGA license. Once I get my license, I’d like to go home, or maybe China, since I can speak Mandarin.” While he may only have a couple of semesters left with his international duo, Robinson will enjoy it while he can. And he can look at the work ethic they’ve provided to turn them into two of the best golfers in the conference. “Their work ethic is second to none. They’ll outwork you, they’ll figure it out. Those two live and sleep out here,” Robinson said. “Just because the practice is over doesn’t mean they leave. That’s the huge difference. They will work as hard as they can to get over here because they want to play against the best competition.”