SAN FRANCISCO -- Without any expectations, 14-year-old Andy Zhang made his way through the U.S. Open qualifying process only to just fall short, losing in a playoff that would have automatically put him in the field. Instead, he found himself on the reallocation list -- essentially a waiting list of alternates. At fifth on the list, Zhang's chances were still slim, but it did earn him a trip to The Olympic Club. There he was free to practice among the players he looks up to.
That fifth spot became the second as the U.S. Open handed out exemptions, and suddenly his chances looked better...still slim, but better. And on Monday, he got the call: Paul Casey withdrew from the tournament and Zhang was in if he wanted the spot. Little did Zhang know, his popularity was about to go through the roof.
Zhang doesn't look 14. He may have a boyish face and shy demeanor, but he is tall and rangy. If not for the constant reminders -- I'm convinced his name may actually be "14-year-old Andy Zhang" -- one wouldn't be able to tell he's still two years from being able to obtain a driver's license.
Thanks to those two withdrawals and a phone call from the USGA, Zhang will become the youngest competitor to tee-off in a U.S. Open on Thursday. And with that, Zhang became the fun early storyline of the week.
For his part, he's handling it exactly like one would expect a 14-year-old playing in a major. He's wide-eyed, soaking up the scene and still adjusting to being around Tiger Woods.
"It was funny, like I was on the airplane, and then I was asking [caddy] Chris, I was like, so I get to practice on the driving range and putt and chip in the U.S. Open facility. So is that okay if I go up to Tiger and those great players for autographs. And he goes, like, no, you are going to be the one who is giving out autographs.
And I came here and everybody knows me for some reason ... Yeah. I'm signing autographs, I guess "
Zhang did get to meet Tiger and it was clear how much a simple gesture meant to the young man.
"It was yesterday morning about 6:05, I was on the range, hitting balls. My buddy, Chris, he was like, 'Hey, Andy look behind you, it's Tiger.' I looked back, it was Tiger walking up. And 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.'"
There was a moment during the press conference when the reality of the situation set in for Zhang. About an hour before, Jack Nicklaus was in the interview room for a USGA press conference. When asked if how nervous he was about being 14 and playing in a U.S. Open, he quickly showed both his youth and his appreciation for the game.
"I am shaking a little right now sitting here. I heard Jack Nicklaus was sitting in this chair this morning. Was he? Yeah? So I'm trying to get used to this. I'm not doing quite well right now."
From just missing the sectional cut to moving up the alternate list and, finally, being named to the field for the 2012 U.S. Open, Zhang has had quite the week. If you're looking for a fun rooting interest, you can't go wrong with Zhang.
-- The last time the U.S. Open was at The Olympic Club was 1998. Andy Zhang was born in 1998.
-- Zhang will be grouped with Mark Wilson and Hiroyuki Fujita for the first two rounds. Fujita is three times Zhang's age and turned pro six years before Zhang was born. Wilson turned pro in 1997, a year before Zhang was born. Zhang, by the way, is the tallest player in the group by a good four inches.