Phenomenal Zhang leading the charge for the next generation

 

LAWRENCE DONEGANon the remarkable 14-year-old who will compete in the US Open

THE SUREST sign that the youth movement is gathering an unstoppable momentum is to be found on the red tag that hangs on Andy Zhang’s golf bag giving the year of his expected high school graduation: 2016.

By then the China-born teenager, who moved to Orlando, Florida to attend the David Leadbetter golf academy, will hopefully have reached the required standard in the schools curriculum. In the meantime he will continue to be a golfing sensation – at 14 years old, the youngest player in the history of the US Open and the youngest player to play in a major championship since “Young” Tom Morris teed up at the 1865 Open Championship.

“I will just try to enjoy it as much as possible,” said Zhang after being told he had been drafted into the 156-man field at Olympic Club following Paul Casey’s withdrawal from the tournament on Monday with a shoulder injury. “I want to play well, but just to play on a major championship course is great.”

Zhang was out on the course early on Tuesday morning for a practice round alongside the Masters champion Bubba Watson. He was being out-driven – such is the fate of most people who play alongside Watson – but he did not look overawed.

The youngster arrived in the US four years ago after being “discovered” in China by Andrew Park, an instructor based at the Leadbetter academy in Florida who had travelled to Asia to scout another prodigy.

“Andy hits it miles and miles. He’s got a very good head on his shoulders. He couldn’t speak any English when he got here, and now we can’t keep him quiet. He is very outgoing,” said Park adding that the youngster had been competing in – and had won some – mini-tour events in Florida.

Zhang entered US Open sectional qualifying in Lecanto, Florida, last week, shooting rounds of 70 and 72. That was good enough to get into a play-off he lost, although he was then placed on a list of alternatives for this week’s event. To put Zhang’s achievement in context, Tiger Woods, perhaps golf’s greatest prodigy thus far, has pointed out that he came up short when he tried to qualify for the US Open at the age of 15.

“He went out there and went through both sections, both stages and did it. It’s not too young if you can do it. You have to go out and put up the numbers and he did. He shot the scores he needed to qualify and move on and he did and he’s here playing on the biggest stage.”

Assuming he continues to progress, Zhang is unlikely to turn professional for at least another four years when he graduates from high school. Even then, he might choose to go to a college in the United States, continuing his golfing education.

Yet in recent years most of the best players, including Woods, have left college before completing their degree, such are the financial rewards that are on offer for the very best – and such is the fear of being left behind. Standards are being raised all the time, and the competition is becoming more intense, according to Woods.

“The difference is in the technology,” the former world number one said. “These kids are now bringing out iPads to the range and watching their swing and breaking it down on the V-1 (video analysis software). Like Hogan said, if he had a video camera the changes would happen so much faster. These kids are being introduced to it when they first start.

“I saw a few of these kids over in Korea who have only been playing the game for a year. And six months of it was all indoors hitting balls. 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 swings. That’s the new generation. The swings are all going to look very similar, and all these kids are going to have power.”

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