Beaumont, Calif. – Henry Liaw was a can't-miss kid who appeared destined for stardom. He was all of 15 years old when he won the 2001 U.S. Junior Amateur Championship at Oak Hills Country Club in San Antonio, Texas, and the following year he advanced to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur, where he lost to Hunter Mahan.
But a funny thing happened on the way to fame and fortune. He never made it on the PGA Tour and struggled for several years in Europe, China, Japan and Korea before settling into his current role as head professional at Morongo Golf Club at Tukwet Canyon, located in this Riverside County community about 80 miles east of Los Angeles.
Though his career in golf didn't turn out exactly the way he had planned, he is happy with what he is doing. To a point.
"I miss playing a lot," he said, "especially when you watch guys you grew up with, like Anthony Kim, doing as well as they are. You see that and you're like, ‘Man, I want to go out there.’ This is different, but it's fun, too."
Liaw, who turns 26 in September, works with juniors at an academy he runs at the club with former Scottish Boys Open champion Mark Lamb, and he is an assistant coach for the women's team at the University of Redlands, an NCAA Division III program that just enjoyed the best season in its five-year history.
|Ten years ago at the age of 15, Henry Liaw claimed the U.S. Junior Amateur title. (John Mummert/USGA)
Redlands’ top player, junior Tracy Saracino of Englewood, Colo., who has been ranked as high as eighth nationally in Division III, said she had not heard of Liaw before he started working with the team, and it was only after doing some research that she discovered he not only won the U.S. Junior Amateur but once shot a 58 at Alhambra (Calif.) Municipal Golf Course when he was 13 years old.
"My jaw just kind of dropped open," Saracino recalled. "I was amazed at what he had done. I was so excited because our program was kind of new and I thought this was going to be great for Redlands, having such an amazing addition."
Head women's coach Art Salvesen said the impact Liaw has had on the team is hard to describe.
"His professionalism and the way he is around the girls really impressed me," Salvesen said. "The short-game lessons we got with him are phenomenal. His name is also a draw. We're starting to build a women's program and of the six new recruits about half of them brought up Henry's name.
"They know what he did."
But Liaw still has regrets over what he didn't do.
"My goal was to always play here in the U.S., but I couldn't break through," he said of trying to make the PGA Tour. "Each year you go to [qualifying] school and you're missing it. After a while it takes a toll. You hear about guys like Mac O'Grady trying 17 times; are you kidding me? I'd rather use that money on my kids' education or something.
"I just got kind of burned out a little bit."
It was late in 2009 when he said he "decided to start over." He had grown tired of constant traveling and not seeing his wife, Meggie, for more than two months out of the year.
But he never grew tired of the memories, particularly those from 10 years ago at the 54th U.S. Junior Amateur. He defeated Richard Scott of Canada, 2 and 1, in a final that ended a grueling week in which Liaw fell four holes shy of the Junior Amateur record for most match-play holes needed to win a championship. Liaw played 104 holes in six rounds, including a 22-hole victory over Ryan Cochran, son of former PGA Tour pro/current Champions Tour player Russ Cochran, in the second round.
There was no debate, however, regarding the highlight of Liaw's victory. It occurred late in the championship final, during which he sank an improbable 35-foot putt on the 16th hole to go 2 up with two holes to play. Liaw still vividly remembers it.
"When I first hit the putt, I thought, 'There's a five-putt waiting to happen,'" he said with a grin. “I kind of looked away and all of a sudden it kept trickling, straightened out and hit the back of the cup. It looked like it jumped up about a foot from my angle and it fell in.
"Richard Scott and I were good friends. I remember him looking at me smiling and he said, ‘You know you got lucky.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, at the right time, too.’"
Liaw says he might pull out pictures of that championship from time to time, but he doesn't talk about it much unless someone asks him what he did for a living before he arrived at Morongo Golf Club. If you're looking for awards or other mementos from his highly successful junior days, you'll have to visit his parents' home in Rowland Heights, Calif., more than an hour's drive west.
"My mom (Cindy) has every trophy," he said.
Liaw also was an All-American and a Pacific-10 Conference champion at the University of Arizona, but he left school just before his senior year to take advantage of sponsorship opportunities in China. Wildcats coach Rick LaRose still counts Liaw among his favorite players and is surprised that Liaw couldn't make a go of it as a tour professional. He attributed that to golf "being a funny game."
"I certainly thought he would make it," said LaRose, who also coached USGA champions Jim Furyk, Eric Meeks and Ricky Barnes. "It's so hard to predict. Ricky Barnes was another guy when he left school who was a can't-miss prospect and struggled, and now he's killing them. You never know. Henry certainly fit into that mold."
LaRose keeps in touch with Liaw and is pleased he has done well despite various detours.
"He's a class act," said the Arizona coach. "He was a real competitor and a winner who always thought he was going to win. That's what I really liked about him.
"He's done very well for himself in his career. I'm very proud of him."
Larry Morgan is a writer/copy editor for the San Gabriel Valley Tribune in West Covina, Calif., who has previously written stories for usga.org.