14-year-old golfer Andy Zhang set to make U.S. Open history

Andy Zhang, who came to the U.S. from China at 10, has a local caddie. ERIC GAY / Associated Press
Andy Zhang, who came to the U.S. from China at 10, has a local caddie. ERIC GAY / Associated Press
Posted: June 13, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO - He's about to become the youngest player since World War II to compete in a U.S. Open golf championship, but Andy Zhang doesn't look like a 14-year-old from a distance.

Zhang, who came to the United States from China at the age of 10, is 6 feet tall and weighs 174 pounds. He has a fluid golf swing that can propel the ball a consistent 280 yards off the tee. On Tuesday, playing his first practice round at the Olympic Club with Masters champion Bubba Watson and PGA Tour veteran Aaron Baddeley, he looked the part of a seasoned player, in a blue shirt, black TaylorMade hat, and sunglasses.

But once you get closer, he's truly a 14-year-old. He has a full set of braces on his teeth. He peppers his conversation with words such as "like" and "actually." The one thing he wanted to do the first time he arrived on the course late Monday afternoon was to walk out on the practice range and get autographs, especially the signature of Tiger Woods.

Now the reverse is true.

"People are asking me for autographs and I'm like, 'What?' " Zhang said in excellent English.

Zhang, the third alternate nationally in last week's final stage of qualifying, advanced into the field late Monday after Paul Casey withdrew with a shoulder injury. The amateur from Reunion, Fla., will be exactly 141/2 years old when he tees off Thursday for the first round.

The thought is he may be the youngest player ever in an Open but the U.S. Golf Association's records on contestants don't go back for all 111 previous Opens. So it has adopted the caveat: "Since World War II."

Tadd Fujikawa held the previous mark at 15 years, 5 months, and 7 days when he competed in the 2006 Open at Winged Foot outside New York.

Zhang called his inclusion in the field "the best feeling I've ever gotten." But when a number of reporters and camera people surrounded him off his final green and asked if he understood the historical implications, he replied, "I didn't know you guys cared about me that much."

It's a formidable challenge for a young man in what is universally considered the toughest test of golf in the world. But one supporter who believes he can function successfully is Chris Gold, a former Philadelphia-area amateur standout from Haddonfield who is Zhang's caddie and "manager" in the sense of guiding him through tournaments.

"He's got great talent," said the 25-year-old Gold, who plays mini-tours in Florida while chasing his dream of making the PGA Tour. "He does better when he's not expected to win. If he plays great here, he'll make the cut. He's not going to have to press. Pars are good."

Zhang, a Beijing native, took up golf at age 6 when his father took him to a driving range. He came to the United States shortly after winning the 10-year-old division of a junior tournament and learned the game under the tutelage of famed teacher David Leadbetter while attending school. He will be a freshman this year and take high school courses online.

Asked how he became so fluent in English, he shrugged and said, "I don't know. I just talk to people."

Zhang has attracted the attention of Woods, a three-time Open champion who is vying here to win his 15th career major and get within three of Jack Nicklaus' record.

"I tried it when I was 15, but he earned a spot," Woods said. "He went through both stages and 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."

Hearing that, Zhang smiled wide enough for people to spot all his braces and said he was "very honored."

"I'm a Tiger fan," he said. "I grew up watching him on TV. When the accident happened, I was really depressed. I believe he's going to come back."

Zhang was referring to the November 2009 accident when Woods ran his car into a neighbor's tree, an incident that led to revelations of his off-course transgressions.

Earlier Tuesday, Zhang shook Woods' hand. What did he think?

"I said, 'Wow, I just shook Tiger's hand. I guess he [knew me]. He said hello to me."

Zhang said Watson, who played 10 holes with the group, and Baddeley were nice and quite helpful to him. He admitted he was "shaking on the first tee" and called Olympic "definitely the hardest course I've ever played."

Though just 14, he appears to have the maturity to handle what is coming this week.

"I think I'm taking a step forward," he said. "But this is one of the 100 steps I'm going to take."

Contact Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or jjuliano@phillynews.com. Follow, @joejulesinq on Twitter. Read his blog, "Golf Inq," at philly.com/sports/golfinq

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