Zhang hot topic at U.S. Open

Fourteen-year-old Andy Zhang of China tees off on the first hole during a practice round for the...

Fourteen-year-old Andy Zhang of China tees off on the first hole during a practice round for the 2012 U.S. Open golf tournament on the Lake Course at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, California June 12, 2012. (Jeff Haynes/REUTERS)

KIRK PENTON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:32 PM ET

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIF. - He's too young to shave, is only in Grade 9, and is still two years away from getting his driver's licence.

Yet there Andy Zhang will be Thursday morning, teeing it up in the 112th U.S. Open at the Olympic Club. At 14 years of age, USGA officials believe he is the youngest competitor in tournament history.

Zhang probably won't be the last 14-year-old to play in one of golf's majors, either.

"I saw a few of these kids over in Korea, and they've only been playing the game for a year, and six months of it was all indoors hitting golf balls," Tiger Woods said after playing eight practice holes Tuesday. "All they did was put the club in the correct position to hit balls, hit balls, hit balls, and that's it. They come out, and they have perfect golf swings."

Zhang isn't a golfing robot, though. He admitted he was nervous Tuesday when he played a practice round with Masters champ Bubba Watson and Australian Aaron Baddeley. He's a big fan of the Miami Heat.

He even joked around with the large group of media types who met him just off the eighth green following his practice round.

"I didn't know you guys cared about me that much," Zhang said in nearly perfect English, with a little 14-year-old sarcasm thrown in. "Thanks."

Zhang was born in China in 1997, the year Woods won his first major, and his dad took him to a driving range when he was 6 1/2 years old. A Korean coach just happened to notice his smooth swing, and three and a half years later he was winning international junior golf tournaments in Florida.

It was at that point, at the age of 10, his parents decided living in the U.S would be the way to go. They enrolled him at David Leadbetter's golf academy in Florida, and now he's competing in his first major.

"I think I'm taking a step forward," he said, "but this is only like one of a hundred steps I'm going to take."

Not sure what you were doing at 14, but we're guessing it involved more firecrackers.

Naturally, Zhang said his phone has been "exploding" since word broke Monday night he had eked his way into the field after Paul Casey withdrew because of a shoulder injury. His caddie/manager, 25-year-old Chris Gold, believes Zhang is going to be something special.

"I honestly think he's going to be a star," Gold said. "I mean, I played with Kyle Stanley, I played with all those guys, and they're unbelievable and they're winning on tour, but this kid's 14.

"I'm not going to say anything, but I have high expectations for him. If he plays great, he'll make the cut."

That's probably pushing it a tad.

Zhang admitted Olympic's Lake Course was the toughest he's ever played. Plus, he's never had a crowd around him like he did Tuesday, and there will be 10 times as many fans on Thursday.

The biggest thing going against him? He's only 14 years old, for crying out loud.

Zhang's presence was on the tip of many tongues Tuesday, as it was brought up in nearly every veteran's press conference. Zhang is even making defending champ Rory McIlroy feel old, and he's all of 23.

"When I was 14, I was getting prepared to play in my club championship, not the U.S. Open," McIlroy said with a chuckle. "So I'm not sure I could give him any words of wisdom. Just got to go out there and enjoy it. It's an unbelievable experience for someone so young.

"He should just enjoy it and 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."

At the rate the game is getting younger, it's only a matter of time before there will be several 18-year-old veterans out there.

kirk.penton@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/PentonKirk


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