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Sneak preview of teen Zhang's bright future coming up at U.S. Open

by | Senior Golf Columnist
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Former pro Chris Gold, all of 25, is expected to be a mentor as well as caddie to Andy Zhang. (Getty Images)  
Former pro Chris Gold, all of 25, is expected to be a mentor as well as caddie to Andy Zhang. (Getty Images)  

SAN FRANCISCO -- The middle-aged man, armed with a pen and some sort of Olympic Club memorabilia, hovered along the gallery rope in the wee hours of a practice round this week, trying to catch the attention of players as they toured the course in their practice rounds.

He was having a good bit of success, too. First, Bubba Watson, the reigning Masters champion, happily scribbled his name for the man, as did Australian star Aaron Baddeley.

Yet the third member of the group walked past without so much as a glance, happily oblivious.

With the whirlwind of events around him, the fact that teenager Andy Zhang might get asked to sign an autograph had not really occurred to him.

"Who, me?" Zhang said after walking past the guy.

In a far more noteworthy fashion, he has already indelibly penned his name in a more important place -- the 112-year-old U.S. Open history books.

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Getting the call after Paul Casey withdrew Monday afternoon, Zhang moved from the alternate's list into the field at Olympic Club, where on Thursday he will become the youngest player in Open history by a full year, as well as the first player from China to tee is up in the American national championship.

Shortly after dawn Tuesday, as he toured the course for the first time alongside Watson and Baddeley, the outgoing 14-year-old was soaking it all in like some sort of living, breathing SpongeBob. Watson showed up Tuesday and met the kid for the first time.

"He's 14, his name is Andy, and he got here yesterday," Watson said.

That's more background than most of us had.

In a sport where players seem to get younger every year, the red American Junior Golf Association tag hanging on Zhang's undersized nylon bag said it all. As is AGJA's wont, it listed his name and the year he will graduate from high school.

In the class of 2016.

That's right: Zhang, who lives outside Orlando, just completed the eighth grade.

Put another equally incomprehensible way, 23-year-old Rory McIlroy is nine years his senior. Zhang, whose family moved to Florida four years ago to help foster his golf aspirations, wasn't yet born when Tiger Woods won the 1997 Masters, his first major.

Other than some decidedly nervous shots in his practice round, Zhang handled it all like a guy 10 years older.

"A 24-year-old head on a 14-year-old body," cracked David Leadbetter, the noted swing guru at the facility in Orlando where Zhang is coached.

Well, it's not the body of most 14-year-olds, either. He has a 115 mph swing speed that compares with many top PGA Tour players and is already nearly 6-feet tall, has shoes the size of pontoons and weighs 174 pounds. We know the latter for certain.

"He weighs himself every day," Zhang's caddie, Chris Gold, 25, laughed.

His legend grew this week, to be sure. Zhang lost in a playoff at the Florida Sectional two weeks ago, to a college player from Florida State. After a series of Monday withdrawals by Brandt Snedeker and Casey, Zhang got the call. He was already in California, hoping his number would come up.

About 10 hours later, on Tuesday morning, he was working the range like a veteran. Well, sort of. He shook hands with Woods, who may or may not have had a clue as to his identity.

"I guess [he knew]," Zhang laughed. "He said hello to me."

Perhaps the former world No. 1 best puts this accomplishment into context. Woods noted that he tried to qualify for the U.S. Open at 15 and failed. On that age-group front, trudging along with the players in Zhang's practice round was Alex Gotz, who plays on the golf team at Redwood High in nearby Tiburon.

Gotz, who turns 16 soon, stood there and watched, no doubt feeling a bit over the hill.

"I think he's still a little nervous," Gotz said as Zhang played his final hole of the day. "He was hitting it great on the range. He has a great short game.

"It's just incredible. That's why it's the U.S. Open -- it gives everybody a chance."

After the round, Zhang was surrounded by a cadre of TV cameras and scribes, trying to glean a few morsels of information about his quick ascent into the toughest tournament in the game. Zhang was stunned that anybody wanted to talk to him at all.

With braces on his teeth, the kid grinned like it was Christmas Day.

"I didn't know that you guys would care about me that much," he said.

Oh, he surely had an inkling. Midway through his round, somebody from ESPN walked up and asked for his cell-phone number. They needed it so he could conduct a phone-in segment on SportsCenter later in the day.

As he played the course, Watson was half-jokingly asked what he was doing at the same age.

"Same thing. Still not hitting it straight. Trying to graduate from sixth grade," Watson joked.

Watson somehow managed to keep a straight face when, on the first tee of the day, Zhang carved his opening drive deep into the Olympic rough and asked, "Can I hit another one?"

Absolutely.

"Obviously he can play -- he's in the U.S. Open," said Watson, who at the not-so-ripe age of 33 could actually pass as Zhang's biological father. "It's not like it just luckily happened. He can play, to get here."

Zhang obviously has a quick learning curve. In just four years, he has picked up enough unaccented English to communicate fluently in teen-speak, as evidenced by the sense of shock and awe he experienced when he was asked to sign autographs.

"I never thought I would, like, have an opportunity this young, when people were asking me for autographs," he said. "Before I got here, I was like, 'Chris, can I go onto the range and ask them [players] for their autograph?'

"He said, 'No, you are giving out autographs.'"

If not a few goosebumps. Gold, who played professionally on the mini-tours before signing on a few months ago as Zhang's caddie, chauffeur and big-brother mentor, is practically giddy at the young man's upside.

"I honestly think he is going to be a star," Gold said, excitedly. "I have played with [PGA Tour winner] Kyle Stanley, I played with all those guys, and they are unbelievable and they are winning on tour.

"But this kid is 14. I have high expectations for him."

Zhang hardly seemed overwhelmed, his nervousness on the course notwithstanding. From the pack of journalists surrounding Zhang came a question about whether this week felt like some sort of dream.

Sure, he admitted. Then Zhang left no doubt as to where he wants his trajectory to go from here.

"It is," Zhang said. "I am taking a step forward. But this is only, like, one of the 100 steps I will probably take."

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