Good first impression

Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents
June 18, 2012
Good first impression

SAN FRANCISCO -- Michael Allen was 14 when he joined The Olympic Club as a junior member back in 1973. Shortly afterward, he and his dad braved the fog at 5:30 in the morning and Allen broke par for the first time, shooting 68.

Now he's 53 and playing back home at this week's U.S. Open, the oldest player in the field. When told the youngest player was 14-year-old Andy Zhang, a look of disbelief crossed Allen's face.

"Did you check his birth certificate?" Allen asked, only half kidding.

Zhang, who tees off Thursday at 11:21 a.m. ET with Mark Wilson and Hiroyuki Fujita, is believed to be the youngest player ever to compete in the U.S. Open. He got his chance as the second alternate after Paul Casey withdrew on Monday with a shoulder injury.

"I'm baffled," Allen said. "I can't imagine. I wouldn't let my 14-year-old kid go backpacking over the weekend, besides letting him go to the U.S. Open. My God. Well, you watch some of these young kids, they're so good and the kids that qualified with me, how far they hit it, I'm sure this little 14-year-old punk hit it past me already so ... Oh, excuse me, kid."

At first glance, Zhang, who was seven months old in 1998 -- the last time the U.S. Open was held at The Olympic Club -- doesn't look like a kid. He stands 6 feet tall, after all, but those braces in his mouth and that penchant for injecting "like" into almost every sentence give him away.

The remarkably composed teenager flew to San Francisco on Monday to live his dream. He really had no expectations of getting to play, but he wanted to take advantage of the practice facilities at Olympic and learn from the experience. Truth be told, he had another ulterior motive.

"It was funny, like I was on the airplane, and then I was asking Chris (Gold, his caddy), I was like, so I get to practice on the driving range and putt and chip in the U.S. Open facility," Zhang said. "So is that OK if I go up to Tiger and those great players for autographs. And he goes, like, no, you are going to be the one who is giving out autographs. And I came here and everybody knows me for some reason."

The reason became evident at 5:20 p.m. on Monday evening when Jeff Hall, a USGA official, called Zhang, who was on the putting green, and gave him the news that he had a spot in the field.

"I got really excited," Zhang recalled. "I didn't really care what other people were thinking. And I was giving my mom and Chris hugs and just really excited."

That level of excitement was racheted up a notch early Tuesday morning as Zhang was hitting balls on the range and Tiger Woods appeared. Gold got his friend's attention -- "He was like, 'Hey, Andy look behind you, it's Tiger,'" Zhang recalled -- and Woods walked over to say hello. "And I was like, 'Wow, I just shook Tiger's hand.'"

On Wednesday, Zhang had a similar epiphany during an interview session in the media center. "I heard Jack Nicklaus was sitting in this chair this morning," Zhang, his eyes wide, said, looking out at the 50 or so reporters gathered in front of the dias. "Was he? Yeah? So I'm trying to get used to this. I'm not doing quite well right now."

Actually, Zhang did extremely well. A native of the People's Republic of China, he grew up in Beijing. For the past four years, though, he has lived in Florida where he attends The Leadbetter Golf Academy and gets to hit balls off "real grass" rather than mats like he did in China. His English is as good as any American teen and he hasn't forgotten his homeland, answering several questions Wednesday in Mandarin.

Had he not qualified for the U.S. Open, Zhang said he'd be back home, watching the championship on TV and "thinking why I didn't get in. But I would be still practicing and just working hard for next year, if I'm not in it." Instead, Zhang found himself playing a practice round on Tuesday with Aaron Baddeley and reigning Masters champion Bubba Watson.

"You all know he's the Masters champion for this year," Zhang said, in case anyone needed reminding. "I thought I was going to be looking up to him. But actually he's just a normal person. He was really nice to me. He gave me a lot of good tips. They show me like on certain lies how to hit shots, especially Aaron and his caddie kind of helping me out every hole and giving me strategy on each tee ball and stuff."

Most importantly, though, Watson told Zhang to relax, have fun and enjoy himself -- which were exactly the teenager's goals coming to California. He'd be the first to admit playing in the U.S. Open at the age of 14 "is a little in front of my plan." But he's having fun with the fans, signing all those autographs, and he sees the opportunity as an "honor."

Zhang, who spent Tuesday evening watching the NBA Finals -- he's a Miami Heat fan -- considers his iron play and his short game to be his strengths. While Watson said Zhang has a "lot of growing up to do with his game," the raw talent was impressive. "Obviously he can play," Watson said. "He's in the U.S. Open. It's not like it just luckily happened. He can play to get here."

Defending champion Rory McIlroy said he was probably preparing to play in the Holywood Club Championship when he was 14. But eight years later the Northern Irishman won the U.S. Open, so McIlroy knows what a whirlwind ride life can be.

"I'm not sure I could give him any words of wisdom," McIlroy said. "... It's an unbelievable experience for someone so young. I think he should just enjoy it and you take it all in and just realize that he's got so much more time to develop and mature. By the time he's 18 he'll feel like a veteran."

Matt Kuchar, who was a Georgia Tech sophomore when he earned low amateur honors in 1998 when the U.S. Open last came to Olympic, figured he was probably still trying to break 90 when he was 14. He thinks Zhang's story is "quite amazing" but cautioned that Olympic will be a huge challenge.

"It will be interesting, a 14-year-old playing a course like this," Kuchar said. "I think that a course like this takes so much mental strength ... and also playing out of this rough takes a lot of physical strength. It's quite the test for all of us. But in particular a 14-year-old, this is a demanding championship and I'm certainly excited to see how he does."

Zhang, who put his hands on his head and let out a deep sigh of relief when the interview session was over, isn't worried one way or another.

"I don't have that high of expectation for this time," he said. "I just want to come out here, enjoy myself and learn as much as possible and, yeah, that's it, just have fun, I guess."