Big stage for golf prodigy, 14
Andy Zhang doesn’t know a lot about how the world works, but at the age of 14, he knows enough. He knows kids his age are expected to ask questions, not answer them.
And yet there Zhang was Wednesday, talking to an audience of curious adults about what it was like to be the youngest golfer ever to compete in the U.S. Open, getting the sense the only thing normal about the experience was how it seemed anything but normal.
“I am shaking a little right now, sitting here,” Zhang said. “I heard Jack Nicklaus was sitting in this chair this morning. Was he? Yeah?
“I’m trying to get used to this. I’m not doing quite well right now.”
Actually, Andy was doing better than well. Speaking the second language that has become his everyday tongue, the Beijing-born resident of Florida was honest and earnest and authentic and charming.
Someday, when he’s all grown up, with a stomach that is numb to butterflies on the eve of a major tournament, Zhang might watch a tape of his first interview-room performance and wince.
That’s OK. Someday can wait.
Whatever fate awaits Andy Zhang at the Olympic Club – and it’s difficult to imagine a golfer who’s younger than Ferris Bueller surviving the cut – he’ll always have the 112th U.S. Open.
Precisely how Zhang got here is a long and winding story involving sectional qualifying, alternate bids, an exemption list and the withdrawal of a player. Put it this way: Zhang, on the advice of his father, went to San Francisco hoping to land a spot, and when Paul Casey was announced as a Monday scratch, Zhang was in.
“ ‘Just go fly off to San Francisco and enjoy the practice facility and meeting other great guys. Learn from them,’ ” Zhang recalled his father telling him. “ ‘But you probably won’t get in.’ ”
Father knew best, except he was wrong about that last part. As an anticipated crowd of 33,500 passes through the Olympic Club entrance gates today, fans will pick up a starting-time sheet that’ll find an amateur representing the People’s Republic of China teeing off at 8:21 a.m.
What the starting-time sheet won’t explain is how Zhang was 6 years old and growing up in Beijing when his dad took him to a driving range for the first time. A golf coach from Korea noticed, and within a few years Zhang was excelling to the point his mother accompanied him to Bradenton, Fla., where he was enrolled in the Leadbetter Academy.
Although Zhang and his mother maintain a permanent residence in Florida, he plays out of Reunion Resort in the San Diego area, where he “attends” an online high school twice a week. Most of the rest of his days are spent practicing golf.
It’s an unconventional alternative to a Wonder Years childhood, but Zhang is not all that different from a typical American teenager.
During the flight that delivered him from Orlando to San Francisco as the ultimate stand-by passenger, Zhang asked Chris Gold, his caddie and part-time coach, if it would be OK to approach Tiger Woods and other superstar players for an autograph.
“And he goes, like, ‘No,’ ” Zhang said. “ ‘You are going to be the one who is giving out autographs.’ And then I come here and everybody knows me for some reason.
“Yeah, I’m signing autographs, I guess.”
Zhang was on the practice range early Tuesday morning when Gold spotted a familiar face.
“Chris, he was like, ‘Hey, Andy, look behind you. It’s Tiger,’ ” he said. “I looked back, it was Tiger walking up. I got really excited.
“He actually came up to me and shook my hand. And I was like, ‘Wow! I just shook Tiger’s hand.’ ”
A golfing child prodigy who was 2 when he appeared on Mike Douglas’ nationally syndicated talk show, Woods made PGA Tour history before his college classmates graduated. But not even Tiger Woods was able to play in the U.S. Open as a teenager, which explains his apparent admiration for Zhang.
“He qualified, he earned a spot,” Woods said Tuesday, when asked if he thought 14 was too young for the bright stage of a U.S. Open.
“I tried it when I was 15, but he earned a spot. He went out there and went through both sections, both stages, and I’m sorry, he did it. It’s not too young if you can do it.
“That’s the great thing about this game: It’s not handed to you. You have to go out and put up the numbers, and he did.”
The flip side about golf, of course, is that it can – and will – humiliate the best players in the world. Zhang, at 6-foot and 185 pounds, appears to have the physical potential to challenge some of the most daunting holes ever set up in a U.S. Open.
But mentally? That’s another issue.
Either way, Andy Zhang will have an amazing story about how he spent his summer vacation when he was 14 – the week Tiger Woods introduced himself, the week he sat in a seat Jack Nicklaus had just occupied, the week he headed off to a golf paradise hoping to collect autographs, and ended up giving them away.