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June 15 2012

12:38 AM

Teenager quashes nerves, battles hard

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Andy Zhang won a legion of fans on Thursday as the 14-year-old played in his first U.S. Open.

By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM

SAN FRANCISCO -- Andy Zhang admitted he was very nervous as he prepared to hit his opening drive of his first U.S. Open on Thursday.

"I was like, just please don't hit a hundred yard slice off the first tee and I was shaking really hard," the 14-year-old said. "But I hit a great shot."

Unfortunately, though, that was the highlight of the first hole. Zhang, who is the youngest player to ever compete in the U.S. Open, ended up with a triple bogey that started a nightmarish stretch where he played the first five holes in 8 over.

"I didn't think very much," Zhang said, "I got my buddy Chris (Gold, his caddy) right there telling me to calm down. And then to triple the first hole, I mean it's the U.S. Open, you can't expect too much."

Zhang, who gained a spot in the field on Monday when Paul Casey withdrew with a shoulder injury, ended up shooting a 79 that included a birdie on the 18th hole. That means, he was a respectable 1 over on his final 13 holes -- making two birdies, one more bogey and a double bogey.
 
"It was really tough," the remarkably-poised Zhang said. "I didn't hit the ball quite well, but my putting was okay. But the course is really tough. So I'm actually okay with what I shot today. ... At least I broke 80."

Zhang was born in Beijing but has lived the last four years in Florida where he attends the the David Leadbetter Golf Academy. He has only attended one PGA TOUR event but on Thursday he found himself playing in his first along with Mark Wilson, who won the Humana Challenge earlier this year, and Hiroyuki Fujita, a 13-time winner on the Japan Tour. Wilson shot 76 and Fujita 75.

"Everybody in my group was shooting better than me," Zhang said. "I liked the way they hit out of the rough, the strategy when they hit it in the rough, like when they lay up and on a few chip shots, it's a lot of things that I learned."

Zhang was proud of the way he played after the disheartening start, and he thinks that his performance will go a long way toward making him stronger.

"It's something that I can never learn playing the junior tournaments," Zhang said. "The junior tournaments, I start bad with maybe with a triple or double and then I can work my way in like probably finish around 1 over or even. But not here. Not in the Olympic Club.
   
"But still I think I kept myself pretty calm out there. I think I'm pretty happy with that." 

Zhang is also honored by the support he's felt from the crowd, as well as players like Tiger Woods, Rory McIlory and Masters champion Bubba Watson, who played a practice round with him on Tuesday. He hopes to get off to a better start on Friday, but most of all, he just wants to enjoy the experience.

"I never played a course like this before," Zhang said. "The greens are just unbelievable. Everything is, to me, the rough is like impossible to chip out of.  I don't know how they, like, shot 4 under; Michael Thompson, that's just amazing."

At least Zhang has a late tee time in the second round. The teenager, who tees off at 4:36 p.m. ET, can watch his beloved Miami Heat play the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second game of the NBA Finals on Thursday night. The Thunder leads the series 1-0.

"They have to win," Zhang said. "They have to. They can't go 2 0. No. No." Someone suggested LeBron James needed a big game. "Yeah, exactly," Zhang said. "I shot 79 so he has to, himself, score 79 points." 

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