It does not matter how well Andy Zhang plays or if he even makes the cut at the Olympic Club this week. Simply being a part of the field at the 2012 U.S. Open is all Zhang needed to do to make it into the golf history books.
At 14 years old, Zhang will be the youngest competitor to ever play in a U.S. Open. He is a full year younger than Tadd Fujikawa, who was 15 years old when he competed in the 2006 U.S. Open. Zhang is originally from China, but moved to the United States at 10 years old to play golf.
After losing in a sectional qualifying playoff in Lecanto, Fla., Zhang entered the week as a second alternate. He got his chance to make history when Brandt Snedeker withdrew from the tournament with an injured rib and Paul Casey also withdrew with a shoulder injury. Zhang was tabbed to replace Casey in the 156-man field. On Tuesday, he paired up with 2012 Masters champion Bubba Watson in a practice round. Zhang is scheduled to tee off on Thursday with Hiroyuki Fujita and Mark Wilson at 11:21 a.m. ET.
Many of the people who work closely with Zhang - including his instructors at the IMG Leadbetter Academy in Bradenton, Fla. where he is a student and his caddie Chris Gold - believe the young golf prodigy is the real deal. They say Zhang already has great maturity for a young golfer and can hit the ball as well as some of his competitors who are several years older.
To put Zhang's accomplishment in perspective, Tiger Woods - the most famous golf prodigy of all time - was 15 years old when he made his first attempt to qualify for the U.S. Open. There is no guarantee Zhang will experience even a fraction of success that Woods has enjoyed. Many promising young golfers can flame out once they become PGA Tour regulars. Ty Tyron attracted tons of attention when he earned his first PGA Tour card at 17 years old in 2001. Since that time, Tyron has struggled to live up to the potential he showed as a teenager.
If Zhang plays well in his first U.S. Open appearance, the ramifications could be huge for the sport. On a marketing level, it will give the PGA Tour a foothold in China. The sport's popularity there will explode if Chinese fans have a native son to cheer on. Zhang's emergence would also offer a nice storyline for golf fans who will be eager to see how he measures up against other elite golfers from the past and in the present.
Still, there is no pressure on Zhang to do anything this week. He is simply a young golfer getting a chance to enjoy a rare opportunity to tee off with the world's best in his sport.
John Coon enjoys getting in a round from time to time in the Salt Lake City area when he is not covering golf as a freelance sports reporter.
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