James Leow
James Leow of Singapore plays a tee stroke on Round 1 of the 2022 Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship being played at the Amata Spring Country Club in Thailand on Thursday, October 27, 2022. Photograph by AAC

Leow Wears the Pride of Singapore on His Back

James Leow’s hard-fought yet prosperous journey is at the forefront of his fifth Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship

by Jordan Perez

Ever walk away from golf for two years, injure yourself, and then play the best golf of your life?

A stellar amateur resume might convince you otherwise, but James Leow’s rite of athletic passage didn’t involve putting on the freshman 15 or picking up every last range ball. College golf had to wait; his first steps into adulthood were dressed in military boots.

“I think it really did help me grow from a boy to a man,” Leow says of his two-year mandatory service in the Singapore Civil Defence Force, which began at age 18. Before he was a pillar of an Arizona State team that made it to the final match at the national championship tournament, he was a platoon sergeant delivering orders to recruits.

The fabled golf life post-grad is not so structured. But the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship has remained a constant in Leow’s journey. The fifth-time returnee is coming off a banner year, and having twice finished fifth, he is in position to climb one of the biggest mountains of his career.

The champion is invited to the Masters and receives an exemption to the Open Championship. Most amateurs approach the week with hopes of securing the experience of a lifetime. The long-term implications aren’t typically in sight, but for Leow, this week could shift the trajectory of his career.

“Nobody in my country has ever made it to the PGA Tour,” he says. “I think it’d be pretty cool to put Singapore on the map.”

You may be wondering why this Arizona State golf grad with big dreams has yet to part with his amateur career. But with the kind of year he’s had, why ruin a good thing?

James Leow

Patience pays off

Yes, he’s among the top players in the 2022 field. But within his best year of golf came one of his greatest disappointments: missing the cut at the second stage of Q school. The expectations are always sky-high for the Arizona State alum, but they were higher for a boy who has been dreaming about professional golf since he was 15.

“It took me two days to get over it,” Leow says. It was time to prepare to play in an arena he was more familiar with. But how does a player who spent so much time away in his athletic prime dominate the game? Patience and resolve like no other.

“I was a mischievous kid growing up,” Leow says of his introduction to golf. “I needed some discipline and patience in me.”

Leow committed to Arizona State just before his mandatory service concluded. After a heavy dose of reality, the only growing pains for the 21-year-old freshman were in his golf game. Adjusting to a new country was one thing; rediscovering a golf game left dormant for a couple of years was another. He frequently finished in the bottom two in qualifiers. Coach Matt Thurmond suggested that he redshirt for the spring of 2018. 

There was just one problem: a stretch gone wrong produced a labral tear in his hip that same semester. His options were to work through it or undergo surgery. While discovering the latter wasn’t financially feasible in Singapore, he refined his status as the country’s top player in December. In 2019, he brought home an individual title for the first time in 30 years. For a year and a half, he pressed, but the weakness mostly overshadowed his game. He grinded out his first collegiate win, but rounds became draining.

“It got to a point where if I went anywhere cold to play golf, I couldn’t swing the club more than three-quarters of the way,” he says. After COVID cut his sophomore year short, he consulted with trainers at Arizona State: Hip surgery was a necessity; he had the procedure at the end of 2020.

Sidelined again. He couldn’t touch a club for a few months, and for two years, he didn’t make a collegiate start. Anxious to get back into competition mode, a new James Leow emerged. In his third start post-op, he won the 2021 Southwestern Invitational in a cathartic summer breakthrough.

“Everything felt good,” he recalls of the three-shot victory. “It’s a different kind of feeling versus playing with injuries and having doubts.” It was the freest his game had been in years, and the liberation was just beginning. Adjusting to more receptive and firmer greens in the United States meant lower scores, as his short game flourished. 

Then came his third collegiate victory, which led to a role in ASU’s NCAA title match. Thurmond is emphatic about Leow’s mental game, a key element in any collegiate locker room. “He has a special belief in himself that allows him to really capitalize and win when things go well,” Thurmond says. “(But also) brush it off and avoid discouragement when things don’t go well.”

The Sun Devils ultimately fell to Texas, but Leow proved he belonged with his lightning-fast ascendence. 

“I wouldn’t trade that for anything,” Leow says. “That’s one of the biggest events in the world, and I don’t think you would feel any pressure like that unless you were playing in a major.” Leow welcomes that and knows it’s his time. His renaissance has continued through the summer, taking the Pacific Coast amateur title and making it to the Round of 16 in the U.S. Mid-Amateur.

Should he win the Asia-Pacific Amateur title this week, he will delay turning professional. Yes, James Leow has always done things a little differently from the rest. But clearly, it’s working.

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