Zhang ready to make Open history

SAN FRANCISCO -- When Aaron Baddeley was 14, he was a 3-handicapper and the club champion at Royal Melbourne in Australia. It would be another four years before he would win the 1999 Australian Open as an 18-year-old amateur.

At 14, Bubba Watson was just a year or two removed from hitting plastic golf balls around his house in Bagdad, Fla. Pink shafts and green jackets were a long way off.

Early Tuesday morning, Baddeley and Watson, good friends who share an agent, played with a 14-year-old kid named Andy Zhang in a practice round at Olympic Club. Zhang, who will be a high school freshman in the fall at a San Diego online school, got into the U.S. Open field when Paul Casey withdrew from the tournament, citing a shoulder injury. Zhang had been the first alternate out of the sectional qualifier at Black Diamond Ranch in Lecanto, Fla.

A native of China who came to the U.S. from Beijing when he was 10 to play golf, Zhang will become the youngest-ever participant in the U.S. Open when he tees off in Thursday's first round.

To be fair to most 14-year-olds, Zhang is not your typical kid barely into his teens. Unlike most junior golfers, he is a full-time player who manages to fit some school into an 8-10 hour day of golf.

"He's got a 24-year-old head on a 14-year-old body," said David Leadbetter, who runs his eponymous academy, where Zhang is a student under Andrew Park.

On Tuesday morning, in his first look at Olympic, Zhang was nervous from the outset. "I was shaking on the first tee," he said.

Who could blame him for having some stage fright? He was playing with the reigning Masters champion. On their first practice hole, Zhang hit a poor tee shot and turned to Watson and asked if he could hit another ball. "Sure," Watson said. "Go ahead. I'm going to hit another one."

Zhang couldn't have friendlier companions in his first go around Olympic than Watson and Baddeley.

"It was fun getting to meet him and watching a talent like that," Watson said. "He's a big boy for 14, and he can hit it good. Obviously at 14 he's got a lot of growing up to do with his game. Obviously he can play. He's in the U.S. Open. It's not like it just luckily happened."

Watson was done after nine holes, but Baddeley and Zhang played all 18. As a former teenage prodigy, Baddeley knows what Zhang is facing this week and what playing at Olympic could mean for his future.

"It's never too early to play in a U.S. Open," Baddeley said. "The earlier the better. I played in my first pro event when I was 15 in Australia. The more you play in these things the more normal it becomes.

"To qualify for the U.S. Open you have to be a little more mature than the average 14-year-old. Andy's got to enjoy being a kid, but at the same time he's got to focus on getting better and doing the things he needs to make it out on tour."

Like Watson, Baddeley likes the kid's game. "It's hard to tell from a practice round, but he swings it well and hits it solid," Baddeley said. "His putting looks solid."

Zhang will receive a lot of help this week from his caddie, Chris Gold, a 25-year-old mini-tour player hired by Zhang's parents to manage their son's career. Gold spends 8-9 hours a day with Zhang, six days a week.

"Hanging around with me has probably gotten Andy more mature," Gold said. "I help him manage his game really well. I honestly think he's going to be a star. I've played with Kyle Stanley. I've played with a lot of unbelievable players who have won on tour, and Andy has what it takes to play out here.

"He was a little nervous today. It's tough when someone is telling you where to hit it and you start trying to steer it. But I have high expectations for him this week."

At his local qualifier in Lake Wells, Fla., Zhang played with Ty Tryon, a former prodigy who got his PGA Tour card in 2001 at 17 but has struggled mightily over the years to regain any semblance of that early promise. Zhang was 2 under with three holes to play in the locals when Tryon told him not to try to force it. Tryon and Zhang often play golf together at Reunion Resort in Kissimmee, Fla.

Perhaps Tryon wasn't ready to play on the PGA Tour, but it wasn't too early for him to test his game against the best players in the world. Olympic is mostly an opportunity for Zhang to measure his game and his maturation as a player. No one expects him to win. If he makes the cut on this course, it would be a near miracle. But as Baddeley said, the more Zhang plays, the more accustomed he will become to the trappings of big-time golf.

Zhang has another day to learn Olympic before the first round. On Tuesday night, he will watch his beloved Miami Heat try to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Then he'll tackle Olympic again Wednesday.

"I'm taking a step forward," Zhang said. "But this is one of only 100 steps that I'm going to take."

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.