In 20 hours, the 14-year-old Zhang would become what is believed to be the youngest golfer to ever hit a shot in 112 U.S. Opens. But on this stage under the lights, he might have been more nervous than he will be on the first tee box following the major champion threesome of Retief Goosen, Vijay Singh and Zach Johnson.
“I am shaking a little right now sitting here,” said Zhang. “I heard Jack Nicklaus was sitting in this chair this morning. Was he? Yeah? So I’m trying to get used to this.”
Zhang – also the first native of the People’s Republic of China to compete in the U.S. Open – is doing better than anyone can imagine. He’s a year younger than Tadd Fujikawa was when he qualified for the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot.
Consider that Zhang was born eight months after Tiger Woods won the 1997 Masters Tournament. He was just a 7-month-old baby in Beijing the last time the U.S. Open was played at The Olympic Club.
“I never thought I could get here this early,” he said.
Who would? Defending champion Rory McIlroy – the youngest U.S. Open winner since Bobby Jones in 1923 – laughed when asked what advice he had for the 14-year-old in the field.
“When I was 14 I was getting prepared to play in my club championship, not the U.S. Open,” said McIlroy. “So I’m not sure I could give him any words of wisdom.”
Zhang, a product of the Leadbetter Golf Aacademy now taking high school classes on-line twice a week in San Diego, flew to San Francisco as the second alternate. He lost to two-time Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Brooks Koepka in a playoff at the Black Diamond sectional and figured he’d come to Olympic to rub elbows with his idols on the practice range.
He asked his friend/caddie Chris Gold on the flight over if he could get autographs from Woods and the other top players.
“No, you are going to be the one who is giving out autographs,” Gold told him.
“And I came here and everybody knows me for some reason,” Zhang said. “Yeah. I’m signing autographs.”
Zhang went from alternate to history when Paul Casey withdrew with a rib injury on Monday. Zhang got inserted in his spot on the tee sheet with Mark Wilson and Hiroyuki Fujita.
It’s the kind of classic sports tale you only find in events with democratic open qualifying policies like the U.S. Open – the kind of process that reveals great stories like Casey Martin or Ohio club pro Dennis Miller making a memorable putt in his 12th attempt to reach the U.S. Open.
It’s certainly more than Zhang ever expected when he signed up with more than 9,000 others for local qualifying.
“When I was playing the locals my dad was like, ‘Just do your best, if you don’t get in, it’s okay, nobody expects you to get in the U.S. Open now,’ ” Zhang said.
“I got to sectionals and my dad was like, ‘All right, just have fun out there, do the best you could. If you get in top 30, we’re proud of you.
“And then I became tied for third. And he said, ‘It’s okay, buddy, you lost in the playoff. Just go fly off to San Francisco and enjoy the practice facility and meeting other great guys, learn from them. You probably won’t get in.’ ”
Next thing you know he’s playing a practice round with reigning Masters Tournament champion Bubba Watson on Tuesday morning and soaking up pointers from Aaron Baddeley and his caddie.
“I thought I was going to be looking up to him, but actually he’s just a normal person,” Zhang said of Watson. “He was really nice to me.”
Watson was also impressed with the 6-foot, 175-pound kid playing with the big boys.
“He’s a big boy for 14, and he can hit it good,” said Watson. “Obviously at 14 he’s got a lot of growing up to do with his game. But he can play. He’s in the U.S. Open. It’s not like it just luckily happened. He can play to get here.”
What’s more, the kid who first learned the game hitting off mats instead of “real grass” in Beijing’s crowded facilities ran into his idol, Tiger Woods, on the range at dawn – meeting him as a peer instead of as an autograph seeker.
“I looked back, it was Tiger walking up,” said Zhang. “I got really excited. And he actually came up to me and shook my hand. And I was like, ‘Wow, I just shook Tiger’s hand.’ ”
Oh, to be 14 years old and playing in the U.S. Open.
“I don’t have that high of expectation for this time,” Zhang said. “I just want to come out here, enjoy myself and learn as much as possible. Yeah, that’s it. Just have fun, I guess.”