In his first trip to the area, one of golf’s brightest young stars didn’t make the pilgrimage to the gates of Augusta National Golf Club.
In fact, Andy Zhang didn’t see much of Augusta at all when he arrived earlier this week.
“I was sleeping on the way here,” he said.
The 14-year-old Zhang gained fame as the youngest competitor in U.S. Open history when he qualified for the June event at Olympic Golf Club in San Francisco. On Tuesday, he opened the first round of the E-Z-GO Vaughn Taylor Invitational with 1-over-par 73 at Jones Creek Golf Club.
Zhang is tied for 11th place, six back of leader Connor Smith of Birmingham, Ala. Smith birdied five of the final 12 holes for a bogey-free 67. He leads by two over Harry Lambert of Suwanee, Ga., and three over Corey Carlson of Green Cove Springs, Fla. David Hemann of Evans shot 71 and is tied for fourth with Connor Slane of Helena, Ala.
In the girls division, Strom Thurmond High’s McKenzie Talbert leads with 71. North Augusta’s Jessica Hoang had 72.
Zhang is looking to rebound after his 40 on the back nine in the 54-hole event. He said he’s working on a swing change.
Zhang got in the U.S. Open as an alternate, and posted rounds of 79-77 to miss the cut.
“I was kind of floating a little bit after I played in the U.S. Open,” Zhang said. “But I realized I’ve got to stay calm and stay who I am and play golf. In junior golf, there’s a lot of great players out there better than me. I still have to work hard.”
Zhang attends the Leadbetter Academy in Reunion, Fla., and in the fall he will attend an online high school based in San Diego. He began playing golf at age 6 in China, becoming a fan of Tiger Woods. In 2008, Zhang came to the United States for two events, winning the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship. He fell in love with the Orlando, Fla., area and remained in the U.S. for 2½ years. He returned to Beijing for a year before coming back to the Leadbetter Academy in June 2011.
Zhang said one of his main objectives is playing in the Masters Tournament. He has no plans to grab a glimpse of Augusta National, which is closed for the summer months, on his way out. He doesn’t have the time.
On Friday, he’ll appear on The Golf Channel show Morning Drive. The following day, he has a tournament.
Then he’ll gear up for next month’s U.S. Amateur, where the top two finishers qualify for the 2013 Masters.
“The Masters, that’s definitely another goal I want to accomplish,” he said. “I definitely want to play it, but I shouldn’t rush it.”