Walking into the locker room at San Francisco’s Olympic Club, Andy Zhang was unfazed.
The 14-year-old had a chance to meet his heroes: Tiger Woods. Rory McIlroy. Phil Mickelson. Bubba Watson.
However, he wasn’t interested in getting any autographs.
It was July 2012. Zhang was at the U.S. Open, but not as a spectator. He was there on merit.
Following a blistering qualifying performance for the event, Zhang was selected as one of its first alternates. And after Englishman Paul Casey withdrew because of an injury, Zhang was thrust into the spotlight. He became the youngest person to ever compete at the U.S. Open.
His story became national news. He was the talking point of one of golf’s most prestigious events. But not all of the talk was positive. Fans wondered if Zhang was worthy of such an event. They wondered if there was an ethical dilemma with having a young teenager compete in an adult’s game.
Woods — who won his first major before Zhang was even born — came to his defense.
“It’s not too young if you can do it. That’s the great thing about this game. It’s not handed to you,” he said at the time. “You have to go out and put up the numbers, and he did.”
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Speaking to him today, you wouldn’t be able to tell that Zhang once had to leave his whole life behind and venture to an unknown country without speaking its language. Despite his lack of citizenship, Zhang has grown accustomed to living in the United States.
He was born in Beijing, China, on Dec. 14, 1997. Most of the members of his extended family were farmers while he was growing up. His dad had his own trade business and his mom was a doctor. And living in a country where golf was banned until the mid-1980s for being considered too high-class, the sport didn’t seem like a logical career path — and it especially wasn’t seen as a reason for uplifting a family.
But that thought started to become a possibility when Zhang began playing golf at 7 years old. He quickly realized he had talent, and after traveling to Florida for a golf tournament that he ended up winning, a friend raised the idea of Zhang relocating to Florida full time.
After giving it some thought — seeing the superior facilities in the United States and realizing his potential in golf — Zhang and his mother moved to Bradenton, Florida, when he was 10 years old, while his father and sister stayed behind.
Neither Zhang nor his mother spoke any English, but they needed to get him enrolled in school.
Zhang remembers sitting in the office at Windermere Preparatory School as his mother attempted to sign him up for classes. He was denied admission because of his lack of English proficiency. He felt ashamed.
One decade later, Zhang shrugs off the Windermere incident. It’s not in his nature to focus too much on himself. But since that day, Zhang has continued to grow both as a person and as an athlete.
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Despite Zhang not playing particularly well at the U.S. Open in 2012, the accomplishment of him even participating can’t be understated.
Through the first nine holes, Zhang was 8 over at 42. He recovered on the back nine, finishing at 9 over at 79.
Alongside the likes of defending champion Rory McIlroy, then-No. 1 Luke Donald and former Masters winner Bubba Watson, Zhang failed to make the cut.
But the opportunity still gave him a taste of his ultimate goal: playing on the professional circuit with household names like Woods and Mickelson.
It also helped put him on the map as a golfer.
“Publicity wise, it definitely gave a huge boost,” Zhang said.
But he still had four years before college. As he got older, he received interest from schools across the country. By the time he committed to Florida in 2015, he was Golfweek’s No. 1 recruit in the class of 2016.
From the beginning, the University of Florida was a natural fit for Zhang. There was the obvious geographic proximity as he could drive home on weekends. Three of his best friends from junior golf already went to the school. But perhaps the deciding factor was UF’s new coach, J.C. Deacon.
After legendary coach Buddy Alexander retired in 2014, Deacon was one of several candidates interviewed to replace him. Considered a long shot to get the job, one of Deacon’s bargaining chips was that he promised to then-athletic director Jeremy Foley that he would bring Zhang to the Gators.
And after Deacon was hired, he did just that. In fact, Zhang was the first player to commit to Florida during Deacon’s tenure.
“I’ve always admired Andy from afar,” Deacon said. “He was on my mind from day one when I got here.”
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Despite never winning a collegiate tournament, Zhang is currently ranked as the No. 30 amateur golfer in the world. After just two years at UF, he is planning on leaving school to turn professional at 20 years of age when the season ends next month.
What Zhang has lacked in hardware he has made up for in consistency. A mainstay in Florida’s lineup, he competed for the Gators in all but two of their events this season. He has also gained trust from his coach, who has slotted him into the No. 2 spot in the lineup in three straight events leading up to the SEC Championship, which begins today in St. Simons Island, Georgia.
To his coach and his teammates, there is no limit to what Zhang can do in the world of golf.
“I’m guessing we’ll be watching him at The Masters in a couple years,” his teammate and close friend Gordon Neale said. “I’m sure he’ll have a good career on the PGA Tour.”
Sam Campisano is a sports writer at The Alligator. Follow him on Twitter @samcampisano and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sophomore Andy Zhang finally broke through and won his first individual championship in 2018.