By Abby Liebenthal (@AJGALiebs), AJGA Communications
Stepping up to the tee at his first AJGA Open event, Andy Zhang of China, looked ahead to the clear fairway on the Copperhead Course. After the first 18 holes, he would open with a 7-over-par 78 in the first round and tally only one birdie.
Andy’s story begins here, with a T11 showing at the 2012 TaylorMade-adidas Golf Junior at Innisbrook hosted by Sean O’Hair.
“It was pretty good progress during the three days and I thought, ‘I can work harder and finish top 10 and top 5,’” Andy said.
The 14-year-old playing out of Reunion, Fla., returned to the AJGA stage one week later at the Junior All-Star at Fieldstone. Carding rounds of 71 and 78 put him tied for seventh, his best AJGA finish in 2012.
Stepping up to the par-5 18th tee at the 2012 U.S. Open sectional qualifier at Black Diamond Ranch in Laconta, Fla., Andy shook hands with AJGA alum Brooks Koepka. The two would duel for the final spot into the 2012 U.S. Open.
Once the duo arrived at the green, Brooks rolled his eagle attempt to two feet and forced Andy to make his long birdie putt. The putt was missed, as was Andy’s shot at becoming the youngest competitor in the U.S. Open.
Or was it?
Andy was the second alternate after AJGA alum Jordan Spieth, who replaced Brandt Snedeker’s after he withdrew with a rib injury. Next in line, Andy heard that Paul Casey needed to withdraw due to a bad shoulder, propelling him into the spotlight as the youngest player to compete in the U.S. Open at the age of 14 years and 6 months.
“It was a fantastic experience and it taught me mostly through my mental game,” Andy said. “The course was obviously tough, it tells you that you have to hit your drives straight, put them in the fairway and you get penalized for your bad shots.”
With the whole world watching Andy’s every move leading up to the event, he quickly learned how to deal with being in the spotlight.
“You have so many people watching and it teaches you how to not get nervous over time and how to deal with the media, spectators and everything,” Andy said.
Andy recorded 78-79 in the first 36 holes at the U.S. Open and missed the cut by nine strokes. Since his major appearance, it is apparent that Andy has gained confidence as he walks from the driving range and interacts with other juniors.
“I have more confidence coming into any tournament and if I hit a bad shot I know I can come back,” Andy said. “But for a long time it messed with my mental game too because I felt like I was at the top.”
Stepping up to the professional stage, Andy’s schedule included invites to the Korea Open, Switzerland Omega and Australian Open this past December.
“I didn’t realize it until after playing the Australian Open, but I was thinking to myself that I have such a great opportunity. I’ve played so many professional events where I end up missing cuts and shooting high scores. I knew there was a problem and that I was better than that. I realized I have to go back to the ground and be a normal person.”
Andy said he is going to compete in more junior and amateur events this year and seize the opportunity to improve his game. Memories from the U.S. Open remain with him as he hopes to return someday soon.
“I had never been to that many professional events before the U.S. Open to watch, but I went to Bay Hill once to watch (the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard) and I remember Tiger teeing off in the last group Sunday. As I watching, they were announcing his name and everyone was clapping.”
Stepping up to the tee during the first round at The Olympic Club, Andy waited for the starter to announce his name.
“When I stood on the tee box at the U.S. Open, I had no idea that was going to happen to me. People started clapping as they were announcing my name and I was like ‘Wow, this is a step forward to my goal.’”