Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Zhang, 14, youngest Open golfer since WWII

The site of one of golf's great miracles no longer exists. It was a run-down driving range in Beijing, one of those two-tiered setups, and it was torn down a few years back. So if you happen to be in China, looking for the place where it all started for Andy Zhang, you'll be out of luck.

Not many people, not even back home, know the story of the 14-year-old player who has found his way into the U.S. Open field. The sport only recently has ascended in Zhang's native land, which might explain why there was no sign of a Chinese media contingent as the kid played a practice round Tuesday morning.
It is known that Zhang hails from Florida, where he has lived since he was 10. It's known that that he qualified to play at the Olympic Club - the youngest to play the U.S. Open since World War II - only because two players withdrew.

The remarkable part is how he began playing golf in the first place.

"It was coincidence," he told two reporters as he sat out a backlog on the 3rd tee. "My dad liked to play for fun - usually shot in the high 90s - and he took me to this range when I was 6 1/2 years old. I hit a few balls, and after a while this Korean guy came up to me. It was something like, 'Would you like to play some golf?' "
Zhang doesn't remember the man's name, "but it was An Qi Huan in Chinese," he said. "He wanted to coach me. He took me on."

The kid must have had a hell of a swing. But think about it: What if the man hadn't been there that day?
"I wouldn't be here," Zhang said. "I might not even be a golfer. I'd be in school somewhere."
As he began working with the Korean coach, he convinced his mother, Hui Li, that golf would be his future. "My mom quit her job when I was 8 and was there to support me ever since," he told "She brought me to Florida to play tournaments." 

Zhang enrolled at the famed Ledbetter Academy in Bradenton, set up a permanent home in Florida, and now plays out of Reunion Resort in Davenport.

A polite kid who speaks a very Americanized English, Zhang entered the sectional qualifying last week at Black Diamond Ranch in Lecanto, Fla. There was a U.S. Open spot on the line, but he lost in a playoff.
"I was really depressed," he said. "That was my chance right there to make history."
Saddened, Zhang's father headed back to China after watching the event, but not before telling his son, "Go to San Francisco. You probably won't get in, but go."

At 7:40 a.m. EDT Monday, Zhang boarded a flight from Orlando to San Francisco, connecting through Phoenix. Space was tight - "I was way back in the far corner, next to the bathroom" - but he got his seat. He landed at 12:30 San Francisco time, checked into a hotel and headed straight to the Olympic Club.
As the second alternate, he needed two players to withdraw - and that's exactly what happened: first Brandt Snedeker, then Paul Casey.

"I was on the putting green, trying to act cool, when I found out," he said. "At first my mind went blank. Then I said, 'Wait! What? I'm in the U.S. Open? I just started screaming, hugging my mom and Chris," referring to Chris Gold, his caddie and part-time coach.

Checking into the locker room, Zhang was assigned stall No. 483, and according to, he was astonished: "The whole thing? This whole locker is mine?" Watching him out on the course Tuesday morning, though, was to see a very composed, mature player, solidly built (6 feet, 185 pounds) with a fine balance of raw power and finesse around the greens. 

One of his playing partners was the formidable Bubba Watson, who said later, "It's cool that he got in. It was fun talking to him, although he didn't say much. His game's good. At 14, he's got some growing up to do, but it's not like this luckily happened. You have to be able to play to get here."
Watson's caddy, Ted Scott, called it "an awesome story. I told him, don't let anyone tell you you're not supposed to be here. A lot of great players aren't here. I wouldn't want to play him for money, I know that."
Could he really be that young?

"He looks 25," said Scott, "until he smiles, and then you see the braces."

Golf has become a wildly popular sport in Korea and Japan, with spectacular results on both the men's and women's tours. That hasn't been the case in China, although things are changing fast. 

On Sunday at the LPGA Championships in Pittsford, N.Y., Shanshan Feng became the first Chinese player to win on the LPGA tour. On Monday, Zhang was granted his historic entry at the U.S. Open. That might be recalled as a two-day sequence for the ages.

"I take pride in representing China," he said. "It's my dream to someday play for my country in the Olympics. Golf hasn't really developed much in China, but we're getting there. You come to America and you play all these wonderful courses. Back home, if you go to the driving range, you're usually hitting off a mat, not real grass."

Not such a bad thing, if you're lucky. Zhang proved that when he was 6 years old. Now he's got an 8:21 tee time Thursday for the first round of the U.S. Open. In that mythical realm of "out of the blue," this 14-year-old kid steps right to the front.


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