SAN FRANCISCO, June 17 - When Andy Zhang stood on the tee at the Olympic Club on Thursday and prepared to hit his first shot in the U.S. Open, he was going where no man -- or rather 14-year-old boy -- had gone before.
Beijing-born Zhang had been shooting for the stars since his ambitious parents moved him from China to Florida aged 10 to enrol him in a golf academy after a Korean teaching professional spotted his raw talent at a driving range.
But Zhang was brought down to earth with a crash when he tripled the first hole, doubled the second and bogeyed the next three to find himself eight over after just five holes.
It seemed an emphatic answer to the many who questioned whether a 14-year-old could possibly have the game, or mental attitude, to compete in what is widely regarded as golf's toughest Major.
Two weeks earlier, Zhang had been just another teenager -- albeit one extremely talented at golf -- who hung out with friends, played video games and listened to music. He was certainly a good enough golfer to make it to sectional qualifying, but thought he had lost his chance when he was beaten in a play-off.
Still, he was named a fifth alternate in the event of players withdrawing -- and then fourth and then second as injuries mounted and exemptions were made. On the advice of his father, he made the trip to San Francisco on Sunday intending to be a spectator at his first U.S. Open, but two more players pulled out and Zhang was in.
“Before I got the news, I was trying to act cool,” Zhang said. “When I found out I was in, I started screaming, and I gave my mom and caddie hugs. It was one of my best moments.”
Zhang's youth caught even USGA officials by surprise and the best they could say was that they "believed" he was the youngest player to compete in the U.S. Open, overtaking Tadd Fujikawa who played aged 15 in 2006. Before him came Tyrell Garth in 1941, a month short of his 16th birthday, while records from before the First World War are sketchy.
Zhang recovered from his disastrous start on Thursday. Eight over after five holes, he actually played the next 13 at just one over, showing a maturity -- and skill -- that belied his years, to finish with a nine-over-par 79. In the second round on Friday, Zhang went one better.
“It’s not too young if you can do it,” said another child prodigy who went on to succeed in the game, Tiger Woods. “That’s the great thing about this game. It’s not handed to you. You have to go out and put up the numbers and he did.”
Richer for the experience, Zhang now returns to David Leadbetter's golf academy in Florida where between practice sessions he attends a "virtual" school on the internet.
He says one of his main ambitions is to represent China when golf makes a return to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. He will be a ripe old 18 by then.
"I want to make my country proud and one day, hopefully, I can represent my country in the Olympics,” said Zhang, despite now admitting he is more comfortable speaking English than Mandarin.
It remains to be seen how the China Golf Association will accommodate overseas-based nationals when it is already investing so much in a home-grown team that boasts even younger talent, such as 13-year-old Guan Tian-lang, who at 13 took part in the OneAsia co-sanctioned Volvo China Open in April, becoming the youngest person ever to compete in a European Tour event in the process.
At present Zhang has no plans to return to Asia or compete in events in his home country.
"No, I haven't planned that far yet. Everything is happening like really quick. And I guess people are just starting to know me. I haven't had any plans to play any tournaments in China, not that I know of," he said.
* Zhang wasn't the only Chinese golfer making history this week. Feng Shanshan on Sunday won the LPGA Championship, the second Major on the women's circuit.