Darren Tang’s Pursuit of the Pinnacle
Darren Tang compares his career to a slow climb up a mountain.
He joined the PBA tour in 2016, fresh out of college. Tang’s seen it all; he’s made the show, missed the cut, and everything in between.
But the pinnacle had eluded Tang. He had approached the zenith a handful of times, but he’d been unable to plant his flag atop the mountain.
A half-decade later, Tang’s steady ascent reached a new altitude this summer.
The 28-year-old not only captured his first career PBA title at the PBA Bowlerstore.com Classic presented by Moxy's Xtra Pair in Coldwater, Ohio, but emerged as the PBA Summer Tour points leader.
One mountain conquered. Countless to go.
A single mountain fails to encapsulate the highs and lows of a life’s travels; a journey worth taking is more like the Rockies, rich with peaks and valleys.
A promising season appeared on the horizon after a berth in the Players Championship West Region finals. Instead, a dismal spring ensured.
“After that, I had probably the worst stretch of bowling I’ve had in the past few years,” Tang said over Zoom.
Tang failed to cash at the Tournament of Champions, as well as each singles event at the World Series of Bowling. He did not fare much better at the Masters and US Open, finishing 33rd and 43rd, respectively.“I started doing things physically to create ball reaction. That wasn’t beneficial to me in the long term,” Tang said.
Despite his struggles on the 2021 National Tour, Tang’s confidence never wavered.
Not that he needed reassurance of his belonging at the highest level of bowling, but he could always rely upon his previous telecasts, including three runner-up finishes, as evidence of his abilities.
During his rookie season, he made his TV debut on the 2016 Cheetah Championship show. After advancing to the title match with a 237, he nearly joined the century club with a 143 in the title match, losing to Mike Wolfe’s 279.
“I had a chance to win and it was pretty early in my career, so it’s not a big deal,” Tang said. “I took it as a learning experience.”
In 2020, Tang led the Hall of Fame Classic through qualifying and match play. Entering his third career title match appearance, he said he felt assured of victory.
Tommy Jones defeated Chris Barnes in an excruciating semifinals match 190-169. Neither player looked comfortable on the lanes.
“I’m telling myself, ‘You’ve won this tournament. You just have to go out there and get it,’” Tang said. “I felt, ‘If I have what I feel like I have, and I bowl a decent game, I’m going to win this tournament.’”
Tang held up his end of the bargain, shooting a 237 with only one subpar shot. But it wasn’t enough -- not even close.
Tang said that loss stung, but the near-victory that haunted his dreams was the 2018 Roth/Holman Doubles Championship.
He, of course, teamed up with his brother, Michael. From the fifth-seed, the duo climbed the stepladder to reach the title match.
As the lanes broke down, the eldest brother struggled to adjust.
“I wasn’t skilled enough to handle what was happening with the lanes. I didn’t strike like the last seven shots. If I strike once, we probably win,” Darren said. “That one hurt a lot because Mikey bowled really good. I had nightmares for like two weeks.”
The frustration of coming up short paired with the mediocre pay on tour weighs on players, even some of the world’s finest. As Tang was finding his footing, he kept hearing other pros talk about the tour life grind.
“I can’t tell you how many days, how many months, I just kept hearing, ‘I should just get a real job. I’m gonna quit. Why am I doing this?’”
He considered stepping away himself, perhaps doing something with his mechanical engineering degree, but that idea did not last long. His mom interjected during his moment of self-doubt with a simple message:
“Then quit. What are you doing?” his mother told him.
“My mom’s always been the go-to parent, you know, the one I can fall back on to say ‘yes’ to anything. But she’s never really yelled at me until that moment,” Tang said.
He realized he needed to change something.
Learning how to manage his early timing has been a constant battle over the years.
“I never really feel great about my physical game because I know my timing is a little off, so I kinda have to manage that on top of just playing the game,” Tang said. “I don’t want to say I embrace it, but I’ve gotten really good at separating the mentalities from practice to competition.”
“I used to be super cerebral about it. If I didn't feel good, I’d try to fix it on the spot,” Tang said. “Now, I’m a lot better at just focusing on what I need to do. Understanding that I have what I have on that given day and playing for a certain miss.”
He’s adapted a quality over quantity approach to his practice regime. He’s found that throwing meaningful, purposeful shots for half an hour yields greater benefits at this stage in his career.
“I used to practice for hours, just trying to get stuff done and get the reps in,” Tang said. “The reps are important, but if you get to a point where you're not really focusing on what you’re trying to accomplish, you’re only hurting yourself.”
Those physical evolutions in his game helped contribute to his development as a player, but changing his perspective unlocked his success on the lanes this summer.
He doesn’t believe in absolutes; for the most part, there is a time and place for everything. His favorite answer: It depends.
“I think my biggest mindset shift has just been to try and enjoy the game. To remember that I am where I am for a reason and enjoy the fact that I am one of the best in the world at what I’m doing,” Tang said.
After working with a new mental game coach in 2018, he implemented a pair of changes. He started to appreciate the power of self-affirmation; there is no downside to believing in yourself.
He also channeled his focus onto only what he can control. That lesson paid dividends down the stretch of the season finale in Chesapeake, Virginia. Entering the last game, Tang found himself trapped.
“I’m like 60 pins off the show with one game to go. I’ve got no ball reaction,” Tang said. “I know I’m probably not making the show.”
Anthony Simonsen, who Tang believes to be the most versatile player in the world, entered the final game within striking distance of Tang’s lead in the Summer Tour points race. Based on Tang’s likely placement, Simonsen needed to make the show in order to jump Tang on the summer tour points list.
“I wasn’t thinking about the money at all. I wasn’t thinking about the points. I was just trying to take it one shot at a time,” Tang said.
The points race -- and the $20,000 bonus -- were out of Tang’s hands during the last game. In fact, Tang had no knowledge of points list implications until he chatted with Jim Callahan, one of Storm’s ball reps.
As Simonsen struggled in the last game, Callahan updated Tang on the situation, letting him know that he was going to win the points.
In the moment, Tang didn’t believe Callahan; but a matter of minutes later, he found himself $20,000 richer.
An athlete’s first career title often serves as a milestone, but Tang likens his to a stepping stone -- an sign he’s on the right path.
“I don’t think anything changes,” Tang said on his future outlook.
He always believed he’d win a title eventually -- he, too, believed victory on the PBA Tour to be a matter of when, not if, despite his past foibles.
Keeping perspective aided his ability to persevere through the winning drought. He recognized that making the show is an accomplishment in and of itself.
“You don’t make shows out of pure luck that consistently,” Tang said.“That’s what kept me going, kept me confident.”
“You know, bad things happen, but the faster you pick yourself up, the faster you get back on track and give yourself more opportunities to win.”
Tang knocked on the door of victory once again back in August.
The Las Vegas native led the opening eight-game qualifying block in Coldwater, averaging a hair over 217 and edging out the third member of the “RUN DMC” trio, Chris Via.
Though he maintained his lead through the first four games of the cashers round, Tang had just two words on his mind: Feelin’ good. He knew his great weekend of bowling would all be for naught if he didn’t win the match that mattered.
One final hurdle stood in the way of his pursuit to the summit: the Afro-sporting, pick-wielding Player of the Year frontrunner, Kyle Troup.
After looking back on his previous experiences, Tang applied a fresh approach to his fourth career championship match.
“This time, I didn’t go in with ‘I have to win’. It was more of ‘Do your best, enjoy the moment,” Tang said. “And whatever happens, happens.”
Two decades of dedication paid off, the culmination of a five-plus year odyssey: Tang defeated Troup 254-174 for his first career PBA title.
“I never really had quick success in my career, at least winning things. I was late to the party making Team USA. In college, I rode that slow growth curve where I got a little bit better every year,” Tang said. “The tour’s been the same thing.”
At long last, he had reached the mountaintop.