From Darlington to Pebble Beach, via China: Callum Tarren's unorthodox route to US Open

James Corrigan
Tarren earned his place at the US Open via the feeder route of the Tour - Getty Images North America

To some, Darlington to Pebble Beach will sound enough of a fantastical journey as it is, yet the fact Callum Tarren has arrived on the beautiful Monterey Peninsula via China and after running away from the North Korean border makes his tale one of the more intriguing in this week’s US Open.

Tarren, 28, will be playing alongside the game’s elite in his first major courtesy of winning a sectional qualifier in Florida last Monday and, after his agony of the previous year, it understandably meant a great deal. “I missed out by a shot after three-putting the last,” he says. “So I watched Shinnecock [Hills, the venue of the 2018 US Open] in a hotel room in Yunnan Province.”

As it turned out, that was not such a bad break. Tarren ended up losing a play-off in that week’s Kunming Championship and, although it hardly boasted the glamour of the Hamptons, without that result he would not have topped the PGA Tour China’s money list and would not have earned the only guaranteed place on the Tour, the feeder to the PGA Tour.

Tarren stamped his ticket to the US with a 62 on the final day of the season, prevailing by about £250. His courageous Far East mission was complete. 

“It is incredible that it came to just one shot over an entire season, but that is golf,” he says.

Tarren took on odd jobs to finance his attempt to break into professional golf Credit: GETTY IMAGES

His infatuation with the sport began as a teenager in the County Durham market town. “My best friend’s mother worked behind the bar at the local golf club and she arranged for us to have some coaching,” Tarren recalls. 

As a promising centre forward, he had a choice at 16 and chose the individual pursuit. He probably did not realise how individual it would be as he accepted a scholarship at Radford University, an unfashionable college in Virginia.

On graduating, Tarren returned home and took on odd jobs to finance his attempt to break into professional golf, but missed out on his European Tour card and was inspired to look further afield. It was 2016 and China came into focus. “Everyone asks me, ‘Why didn’t you play in Europe?’ but it’s not that I’ve chosen to do this route,” he says. “It’s just that China led to the Tour and the Tour leads to the PGA Tour and that’s the ultimate aim.

“It was a gamble on my behalf as I didn’t have much in the bank. It’s an odd existence on the China Tour as, unless you are winning, you are paying to go to work. There was another English guy [Michael Skelton, who is still on the China Tour] and we travelled together and shared rooms, beds even, to keep down the costs.

“We’d wake up with bites all over because of the bugs in some of the rooms and flying could be problematic. Sometimes the flights would be cancelled and we wouldn’t know why. It might be the military, the weather. We’d sleep on airport floors, but there was no other way to do it as the tournaments were all over that vast country. The language, the food, everything was a big culture shock, but you just had to roll with it. The courses were great, though, and there was plenty to see.”

Pebble Beach's glorious location is a far cry from some of the venues Tarren has had to visit recently Credit: AP

The sights included the body of water that divides China and North Korea. “We went to the big lake at the top of the mountain [Heaven Lake] and were having a look when a huge storm came in and we had to run down,” Tarren says. “When I say it people think we were chased. We were quite safe. I think.”

The same did not necessarily apply on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica. By finishing eighth in his first year in China, Tarren was granted some playing privileges on this other access circuit that operates in Central and South America. “It goes to some very poor places, dangerous places,” he says.

“There was one story we heard in which the players were on a coach in Honduras that was held up by a couple of kids with machine guns, demanding $5 [£4] a man. Fortunately, nothing like that happened to me, but I did play a tournament in Guatemala that was at the bottom of a volcano. It was a beautiful resort, but not long later, the volcano erupted. It killed hundreds and that resort is not even there any more.”

Carmel-by-the-Sea is obviously a world apart, but Tarren is happy to still possess the experiences. At 459th in the rankings and 68th in the standings, with only the top 25 receiving their PGA Tour cards at the end of the season, he knows he has plenty of ground to make up, but there is a palpable sense on the famed Californian layout that the hard yards are behind him, despite receiving a speeding ticket last week as he raced through the night to play in an event in South Carolina.

“I wouldn’t change the way I’ve got to where I am in my career – it was good for me as a golfer and as a person,” he says. “It’s surreal I’m in the US Open, but I do believe that I have what it takes to compete at the highest level. This is just another step in my journey.”