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Golf-Teenager Zhang relishes Tiger time at US Open

Updated: 2012-06-14 19:19
( Agencies)

SAN FRANCISCO - It has been a dizzying, exciting and nervous start to the US Open week for Chinese teenager Andy Zhang who has shaken hands with Tiger Woods and sat in the same interview chair as Jack Nicklaus.

Just two days ago, the 14-year-old Zhang was told he had gained a spot in the 156-player field for the year's second major, making him the youngest player to compete in the event since World War Two.

Golf-Teenager Zhang relishes Tiger time at US Open
China's Andy Zhang tees off on the second hole during a practice round for the 2012 US Open golf tournament on the Lake Course at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, California June 13, 2012. [Photo/Agencies]

He is possibly the youngest US Open competitor ever, but the tournament's records are not fully comprehensive before 1945.

Whichever way you look at it, Zhang's achievement is remarkable and he has earned the respect of golfing heavyweights such as 14-times major winner Woods and defending US Open champion Rory McIlroy.

Woods made a point of walking up to Zhang on the practice range at the Olympic Club and shaking his hand, leaving the young Chinese spell-bound.

"I was on the range, hitting balls," Zhang told reporters on Wednesday about his surprise encounter with the former world number one. "My buddy, Chris, he was like, 'Hey, Andy look behind you, it's Tiger'.

"I looked back, it was Tiger walking up. 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'. Obviously I'm really excited."

Zhang, who is based in Florida and does his school work on-line, earned his place in the US Open on Monday when Britain's Paul Casey withdrew from the event because of a shoulder injury.

"I don't have that high (level) of expectation for this time," Zhang said of his goals for this week. "I just want to come out here, enjoy myself and learn as much as possible, just have fun, I guess."

Northern Irishman McIlroy, himself aged just 23, believes that is the best strategy for Zhang as he competes this week on golf's biggest stage.

Words of wisdom

"When I was 14 I was getting prepared to play in my club championship, not the US Open," world number two McIlroy grinned, "so I'm not sure I could give him any words of wisdom.

"I think he should just enjoy it, take it all in and just realise that he's got so much more time to develop and mature. By the time he's 18 he'll feel like a veteran."

For the moment, Zhang is simply trying to calm his nerves and handle the bright glare of the media spotlight as best he can.

"I am really excited to be the first person that's a 14-year-old to play in this event and I'm trying to get used to all these media and fans coming up to me and sign autographs," he said.

"I am shaking a little right now sitting here," Zhang added while facing a packed interview room. "I heard Jack Nicklaus was sitting in this chair this morning. Was he?"

Golfing great Nicklaus certainly was, being honoured by the United States Golf Association in the same room earlier in the day on the 50th anniversary of his first US Open victory.

"So I'm trying to get used to all this," Zhang said. "I'm not doing quite well right now."

Zhang has already done well enough this week, and benefited from having a practice round on Tuesday with Masters champion Bubba Watson and Australian Aaron Baddeley.

"And Bubba, I thought I was going to be looking up to him but actually he's just a normal person," Zhang said. "He was really nice to me and he gave me a lot of good tips."

Zhang will make his US Open debut when he tees off in Thursday's opening round with Japan's Hiroyuki Fujita and American Mark Wilson.

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