Torrey Pines golfer Josh Chung perseveres on, off course to lead Falcons into state championships

Josh Chung and Torrey Pines will play Wednesday for the CIF state golf championship.
Josh Chung and Torrey Pines will play Wednesday for the CIF state golf championship.
(Chung family )

Josh Chung nearly walked away from golf after his mother died. Now, the Torrey Pines senior is using his gift to lead the Falcons into the biggest tournament of their season.


The high, arching wedge shot appears ready to clear the green-side bunker until the wind kicks in and the ball plops inches below the lip, leaving the golfer with a buried, fried-egg lie. The 290-yard drive splits the fairway, only to settle into a divot someone was too lazy to repair.

Golf is often seemingly unfair, and dealing with adversity as important as a repetitive swing.

Torrey Pines High School senior Josh Chung knows about adversity, the kind that leaves staring at a 6-foot par putt trivial.

Chung’s mother died of a brain tumor at 48, barely one month before Josh’s 13th birthday. Struggling with his mother’s death, he quit golf for nearly a year. Born and raised in Hawaii before moving to San Diego less than two years ago, Chung dealt with the islands’ strict COVID-19 protocols that limited his tournament golf.

The 5-foot-8, 134-pound golfer persevered. On a Torrey Pines team that has won San Diego Section championships 13 of the last 14 seasons, Chung is the Falcons’ No. 3 scorer, has earned a scholarship to UC Santa Barbara and is averaging just a fraction below par in 11 matches this season.

On Wednesday at Poppy Hills Golf Course in Pebble Beach, Torrey will compete against five other teams for the CIF State Championship. The Falcons have won nine state titles, their last in 2018. Torrey has finished second the past two years.

Of Chung’s development, Torrey Pines coach Chris Drake said: “He’s a good young man. He’s not a kid anymore.”

Chung was 6 years old when he began playing junior golf in Hawaii. By 10, he was regularly winning tournaments.

“He had very good hand-eye coordination,” said David Ishii, Chung’s former coach. “He was very serious about his golf, and he enjoyed it. He wanted to be out there. He loved hitting golf balls.”

Chung said his mother didn’t see him play often. But when he was about 10 she didn’t like his behavior at a tournament. Frustrated, he was banging his putter against his shoes.

“Do that one more time,” she told him, “and I’m going to drive you out of here.”

“It definitely helped me control my temper,” he said.

Josh said his mother, Chieko Chung, “Was like the best mom I could ask for.”

She emphasized academics, would console him when his golf results were mediocre and stressed that he be independent, teaching him to do his laundry at a young age.

About a year after his mother’s death, Chung quit golfing.

“My mental state was all over the place,” he said. “I didn’t really know how to handle losing a mother. Golf is a mental sport. When you have these emotions and are trying to play golf, it’s hard. I sort of lost this passion for a lot of things when my mother died. It all went downhill.”

He returned to the game after encouragement from multiple people in the Hawaii golf community.

“People around me were telling me I had a gift, and that I should use it,” he said.

COVID-19 canceled most of Chung’s sophomore season in Hawaii and all of his junior season. He had met players who attended Torrey Pines during junior tournaments and his father, Sunny, decided to move here before Josh’s junior season.

“The community is good and safe,” said Sunny. “The school, academically, and the golf, it’s a good environment.”

In the past year, Chung has played seven American Junior Golf Association tournaments, recording four top-nine finishes. Despite his modest size, Chung is long off the tee, averaging nearly 300 yards on drives.

But accurate iron play is the strength of his game.

“He puts the ball where he wants it,” said Drake.

In Hawaii, one person who helped Chung with his game was 1987 U.S. Open winner Scott Simpson, now the University of Hawaii men’s coach. Chung said Simpson, a San Diego native and Madison High School graduate, helped him primarily with the mental side of the game.

“Most people, (under pressure) complicate the situation,” said Chung.

He said Simpson told him, “Let your muscle memory take over.”

The loss of his mother at a young age has forced Chung to be independent.

“He doesn’t need to be told to study or practice,” said his father, who sometimes returns to Hawaii to visit family, leaving Josh home by himself.

When he leaves, “nothing bad is going to happen,” Josh Chung said. “No accidents, no parties at the house.”

Sitting outside a coffee shop about a driver and pitching wedge away from Torrey Pines, Chung looked back on the events that shaped his life.

“I don’t look at my mother’s death as something bad,” he said. “Everyone goes through something. Everyone has their own story. It’s just how you deal with it.”

Asked what he would say to his mother if he could talk to her, Chung said: “I would say everything turned out fine. Everything turned out great.”