Zhang in for the Ride of His Young Life

By: Marino Parascenzo

You wouldn't know the kid was scared unless you noticed his hands. He was clutching the microphone in both hands, as if to keep his world from getting away.

This was Andy Zhang, native son of China, on the eve of his debut in the U.S. Open, the most important golf championship in the world, turning the Olympic Club into the battleground of the world's finest golfers. Andy Zhang was seated before an international media corps, a small sea of faces.

The questions came in a variety of accents, coming from this direction, then that, all in English. Some simple, some not so simple. The still photographers fired away, the TV cameras rolled along. He answered patiently, fully and sometimes even gave a flick of a grin, and his voice and his picture soon would be in every corner of the world, especially back in his hometown of Beijing.

Mostly, it was clear, he was scared.

For these long, taxing minutes, Andy Zhang was the center of the world of golf. At age 14.

Which was the point. At age 14, Zhang is the youngest player ever to play in the U.S. Open in its 112 years. Kids don't crash the U.S. Open.

He was all kid getting here. On the plane from Florida, where he's lived for the past four years, he got all jumpy at the prospect, and he recalls how turned to his caddie and part-time coach, Chris Gold.

"So I get to practice on the driving range, and putt and chip in the U.S. Open facility," he said. "So is that OK if I go up to Tiger and those great players for autographs?

"And he goes, '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, yes."

It took, in a way, a set of golf miracles for Zhang to get into the field. He tied for third in a sectional qualifier in Florida, and lost in a playoff for the third spot in the Open, becoming the fifth alternate. The U.S. Golf Association, which stages the Open, gave out four exemptions, which lifted him to second - still short. Even so, he flew to the Olympic Club in San Francisco on the chance another miracle might occur.

He was on Olympic's putting green Monday when it did. England's Paul Casey withdrew, and a USGA officials came over and asked the equivalent of, "We need a fourth - wanna play?"

"And I got really excited, and I'm here," Zhang said.

But first questions first. How did a 14-year-old kid from China get good enough in the first place?

Golf has been growing in China since Arnold Palmer built the first course in 1984, a strange thing for a Communist nation, but good for capitalistic business. Golf took off from there, and a number of Chinese pros have competed internationally.

Although Shanshan Feng became the first major winner from China in last week's LPGA Championship, no other player from the Middle Kingdom has gotten the kind of attention young Andy Zhang is getting here. He started learning golf at 6, when his dad took him to a Beijing driving range. A Korean spotted something he liked about the kid's swing and asked if he wanted a coach.

"He took me on," Zhang said. And if the Korean happened not to happen by that day? "I wouldn't be here," Zhang said. "I might not even be a golfer. I'd be in school somewhere."

Anyway, the kid's game developed fast, and his mother, recognizing the talent and the opportunities that waited, moved him to Florida when he was 10 and enrolled him in the Leadbetter Academy. It should be noted that in the U.S. Open sectional qualifier, playing against grownups on a grownups' course, he tied for third, shooting 70-72.

In the scary mass interview, an American, unable to translate grownup slang into kids' stuff, asked whether he had any expectations, and "Do you have a posse? Do you have an entourage?"

"I don't have a group of people," the kid said, understanding perfectly. "Just my mom and my buddy Chris. And I don't have that high of expectation for this time. I just want to come out here, enjoy myself and learn as much as possible. And yeah, that's it - just have fun, I guess."

Another asked him to answer a question in English and in his native Mandarin. Lesson in assimilation: Zhang answered easily in English, then stumbled. "I have to think how to answer this in Mandarin," he said. "Can you ask your question again, please?"

It was, after all, the day before the youngest kid would be making his debut in the U.S. Open, and how would he deal with nerves. "Or," the guy said, "Do you have nerves?"

"I do - I definitely do," said the kid, still clutching the microphone. "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."

Not that you could notice, anyway.

Marino Parascenzo can assure you that hanging around with great and famous pro golfers does nothing to help your game. They just won't give you the secret. But it makes for a dandy career. As a sportswriter with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (now retired), Parascenzo covered the whole gamut of sports - Steelers, Pirates, Penguins, Pitt, Penn State and others - but golf was his favorite. As the beat writer for the paper, he covered all the stateside majors and numerous other pro events, and as a freelancer handled reporting duties for the British Open and other tournaments overseas - in Britain, Spain, Italy, the Caribbean, South Africa, China and Malayasia. Marino has won more than 20 national golf-writing awards, along with state and regional awards. He has received the Memorial Tournament's Golf Journalism Award and the PGA of America's Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism. His writing has appeared in numerous magazines, among them Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest and Golf Magazine, and in anthologies and foreign publications. He also wrote the history of Oakmont Country Club. Parascenzo is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America and is on its board of directors. He is the founder and chairman of the GWAA's Journalism Scholarship Program. He is a graduate of Penn State and was an adjunct instructor in journalism at Pitt.