SAN FRANCISCO – “I was trying to break 90,” said Matt Kuchar on Tuesday at The Olympic Club when asked what he was doing when he was 14 years old.
Just two years into a golf career that would blossom into multiple PGA Tour wins, a Players and U.S. Amateur title and undisputed status as one of America’s most consistent performers, the one thing Kuchar was not thinking of when he was 14 was the grind of golf’s toughest test.
Ditto for Mark Wilson. “I was hoping to break 80 in my club championship,” explained the five-time Tour winner.
Gary Woodland was focused on sport of many varieties but just not golf.
“Baseball, basketball, girls . . . I was definitely not thinking about this,” Woodland said with a wave of his hand as he prepared to play in his fourth U.S. Open early Tuesday.
Even Tiger Woods, the prototype of the modern prodigy, who accomplished junior golf’s version of the Triple Crown when he won three consecutive U.S. Junior titles, didn’t consider himself Open ready at the tender age of 14.
“I tried (qualifying for the U.S. Open) when I was 15, but he earned the spot,” Woods figured.
That’s high praise for Andy Zhang, who on Monday with news that Paul Casey was still nursing a broken body would, become the youngest player to compete in the national championship.
The IMG Golf Academy product by way of China has already made history, albeit not in the way he initially imagined.
Zhang finished 36 holes of qualifying last Monday at Black Diamond Ranch in Lecanto, Fla., which is precisely 30 minutes from “Podunk” and just around the corner from the middle of nowhere, with rounds of 72-70 and seemingly lost his bid for history on the first extra hole when he failed to match Brooks Koepka’s birdie.
A week later as the injuries mounted and the dominoes tumbled Zhang’s moment arrived when first Brandt Snedeker withdrew followed within minutes of news of Casey’s early exit.
“If you want to play you’re in,” the U.S. Golf Association official informed Zhang as the teen nervously hit putts on Olympic’s practice green.
“I was trying to act cool, but after I got the news I started screaming and hugging my mom,” Zhang professed.
Typical 14 year old . . . or maybe not.
Among the game’s most well-heeled Zhang has already etched his name into the record book, clipping Tadd Fujikawa, who played the 2006 U.S. Open at the age of 15 years, five months, by more than a year.
For players whose careers are the standard that all young hopefuls measure success, it is as remarkable as it is memorable.
“That’s quite amazing,” Kuchar gushed. “A 14-year-old playing a course like this. I think that a course like this takes so much mental strength . . . I’m certainly excited to see how he does.”
Amazing? Sure. Unthinkable? Not really.
At least not for those who have watched golf’s traditional bell curve trend younger, mirroring the evolution of other sports.
Michelle Wie, for all her competitive lapses, qualified for the USGA Women’s Amateur Public Links at 10, became the youngest player to make a cut in an LPGA event at 13 – a major, no less – and by 14 had finished inside the top 20 in six of seven professional starts.
In 2008 Danny Lee became the youngest player to win the U.S. Amateur at 18 years old, and he later become the youngest to ever win a European Tour event (2009 Johnnie Walker Classic). The next summer An Byeong-hun topped him when he won the U.S. Amateur at 17.
In short, 17 is the new 37, at least when it comes to golf.
For astute observers it was just a matter of time before a phenom like Zhang crashed through the notion that experience, almost as much as talent, was a prerequisite for success at the game’s highest levels.
“As soon as I heard I knew he was Asian,” said Dale Lynch, Aaron Baddeley’s swing coach who walked Tuesday’s practice round with Zhang. “We have a junior at our academy who showed up when he was 12 and he has an unbelievable work ethic and is so focused.”
And Lynch knows his phenoms. He first began coaching Baddeley at the venerable Victoria Institute of Sport in Australia and watched his meteoric rise onto the world stage. But not even Badds could say he was Open ready at 14.
“He’d just won his club championship at 15 (when Baddeley arrived at the VIS) and that was something,” said Lynch, who compared Zhang’s powerful action to that of Rory McIlroy. “Now, (Zhang is) here at 14. It’s amazing.”
Yet as Wie has proven, adolescent success and professional accomplishments are very much mutually exclusive. Today’s phenom is not always tomorrow’s star, but as Zhang made his way around Olympic Club’s Lake Course on Tuesday, the possibilities – and his future – seemed limitless.
Not that the 14-year-old has any interest in what awaits beyond this week. In fact, when asked whether he was able to comprehend what he had accomplished, Zhang simply shrugged, “Nobody’s done it before.”Not Kuchar, not Wilson, not Woodland, not even Woods. Amazing indeed.