In the summer of 2008, Hui Li booked a roundtrip ticket from Beijing to San Diego — rewarding her 10-year-old son for his hard work on the golf course by entering, among others, the US Kids World Championship.
The flight back to China never happened.
That son is the now 14-year-old Andy Zhang — about to become the youngest golfer to play in a US Open.
"He looked at me and said, ‘Mom, I don’t want to go back to China. I want to stay here. I love the golf courses," said Li, who speaks broken English, but enough to communicate with the well-wishers and media following her son during his first practice round at the Olympic Club on Tuesday morning.
"We are back in California, where it all started."
Zhang, who won that US Kids title in his age bracket, was a bit out of his comfort zone, despite wanting to stay.
"It was really awkward, especially with the language," Zhang said. "I didn’t know any Chinese families. But, after about a half a year, I got used to it."
Now that Zhang has become acclimated to the life of a golfer in the US, Li recently decided to enroll him in an online high school. That will allow him to practice all day — he starts most days at 7 a.m. — and then study well into the night. He’ll start his freshman year in the fall.
"School in China is much harder," Li said. "He studies very hard. But golf is much harder here, so he studies hard on that, too."
The buddy system
To help with the studying on the golf course, Christopher Gold took over as Zhang’s caddie in January, after the two met each other on the practice range at Reunion Resort in Davenport, Fla. Zhang’s father would offer him the job despite the fact that Gold had never caddied before.
"I needed a job," Gold said. "The right place at the right time."
The two hit it off, with Zhang referring to the three-time US Amateur participant (2004, ’05, ’08) as a "buddy" and "friend" instead of a teacher or coach.
"(Gold) is just like a brother," Li said. "He takes care of Andy. They fight like brothers."
"I love punching him and hitting him," says Zhang, who has received invitations to the US Junior and US Amateur.
Gold, 25, likes it that way. He understands the mood swings of a 14-year-old, and he has grown accustomed to how Zhang ticks.
"It’s all about how Andy starts a round," Gold said. "If he starts well, I really don’t have to do a thing. We know he is going to go low. But if he starts bogey-bogey, he starts thinking. And it is hard to get those thoughts out of the head of a 14-year-old.
"I just tell him to get up to the ball and hit the next one. His golf game is good enough to be out here, and I just need to remind him of that at times."
Proving his mettle at Olympic
Zhang had plenty of eyeballs focused on him Tuesday in San Francisco — with a steady stream of fans checking out the state of his game during practice rounds.
"He is eating this up; he is loving it," Gold said after Zhang stopped to sign the first autographs of his young career.
"This is pretty cool," Zhang said after a second batch of fans reached out just off the fifth tee box.
Zhang chose — yes, chose — to play with Bubba Watson and Aaron Baddeley in the morning’s first tee time off the ninth tee (they play a front eight and back 10 at Olympic). Watson bowed out after 10 holes, but he spent time on multiple holes giving some tips to the youngster, and yukking it up on a couple of tee boxes.
"He’s a big boy for 14, and he can hit it good," Watson said. "Obviously at 14, he’s got a lot of growing up to do with his game. Obviously he can play. He’s in the US Open. It’s not like it just luckily happened."
Watson’s caddie, Ted Scott, was equally impressed.
"I wouldn’t want to play him for money," joked Scott. "He looks 25 with those glasses on. Just because you are 14 doesn’t mean you can’t play."
Baddeley, who played all 18 holes with Zhang, can closely relate to what Zhang is experiencing, having made his pro debut at the Victorian Open in his native Australia at age 15.
"The earlier you can get out here, the better," Baddeley said. "You just have to play your own game. But that is easier said than done. You don’t want to do anything differently, especially out here (at Olympic)."
But things were a bit different for Zhang on Tuesday.
From the looks of things off the back of the eighth tee shortly after 12:15 p.m., you would have thought Tiger Woods had just finished his round. Instead, throngs of media were glued to Zhang, wanting to get every detail of his background.
But it was the effect on the likes of 15-year-old Alex Gotz, who served as the standard bearer for Zhang’s threesome on Tuesday, that truly measures the impact of the 14-year-old’s berth in the US Open.
"Even at his age, it shows you how far you can get if you put your mind to it," said Gotz, a 4.8 handicap from Tiburon, Calif. "I can’t go back in time and be 14 again, but I know I can accomplish a lot more as I move forward."
Gold points to Zhang’s maturity as a reason why the teen is playing in the US Open, as does longtime instructor David Leadbetter, who runs the academy where Zhang works with his coach, Andrew Park. Leadbetter showed up at the end of the round to give the 14-year-old a big hug.
"He has a 24-year-old head on a 14-year-old body," Leadbetter said.
So, how does that 14-year-old get away from his newfound fame? He planned to watch Game 1 of the NBA Finals from his hotel room Tuesday night.
Zhang prefers to watch basketball over golf, idolizing LeBron James.
"Whenever he has free time, he is always watching basketball," Li said.
Added Gold, "Andy really never watches golf. He says he does, but he is always wanting to watch basketball. He doesn’t know guys like Martin Laird … or if I said the name Steve Flesch."