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Chinese teen golfer set to make U.S. Open history

By Molly Gray, for CNN
June 13, 2012 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chinese golfer Andy Zhang gains spot in the U.S. Open after two players injured
  • At 14, Zhang will be the youngest player ever to play in the major tournament
  • Tiger Woods praises the young golfer and says Zhang earned the spot
  • Zhang has no expectations, wants the week to be a "learning experience"

(CNN) -- At 14 years old, most teenagers think the stress of entering high school is enough.

But Chinese golfer Andy Zhang, who enters high school next year, wasn't satisfied vying for girls and grades. He would rather take on the likes of Bubba Watson, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.

Zhang has earned a spot as the youngest golfer to ever compete in the U.S. Open, which tees off Thursday at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, California, according to the USGA.

Going into the week as an alternate, Zhang didn't think his chances were very good until England's Paul Casey withdrew with a shoulder injury and Zhang got called up.

In true teenage fashion, Zhang said his cell phone "exploded" at the news.

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"Everybody started texting me," he told CNN. "I'm just really excited."

Official site of U.S. Open

Zhang grew up in Shandong Province in China, according to Yahoo Sports. He began golfing at the age of 6 and started working with a private coach at the age of 7.

Three years later, his mother brought him to the United States for his first U.S. tournament in San Diego, California. He won the U.S. Kids Golf title for his age group that year and told his mom he wanted to stay.

"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," Zhang's mother Hui Li told Golf Week.

Zhang and his family then moved to Florida, where he began attending IMG Leadbetter Academy in Bradenton.

Other notable athletes to come out of IMG academies include American football star Eli Manning and tennis stars Andre Agassi and Maria Sharapova.

While at IMG Zhang had a notable success. In February, he set an IMG Junior Golf Tour record with a 9-under-par finish at the World Golf Village in Jacksonville, Florida, according to IMG Academy's blog.

He also has lays claim to two regional youth championships in 2009 and 2010, according to the U.S. Kids Golf Foundation.

Fifteen-year-old Lydia Ko is the youngest LPGA Tour winner in history courtesy of her win at the Canadian Women's Open. She was just 14 when she triumphed at the the New South Wales Open in January 2012, becoming the youngest player to win a professional tournament. She clinched the U.S. Amateur Championship two weeks ago. Fifteen-year-old Lydia Ko is the youngest LPGA Tour winner in history courtesy of her win at the Canadian Women's Open. She was just 14 when she triumphed at the the New South Wales Open in January 2012, becoming the youngest player to win a professional tournament. She clinched the U.S. Amateur Championship two weeks ago.
History maker
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Tiger Woods celebrates after chipping in for birdie on the 16th hole during the final round of the Memorial Tournament. Tiger Woods celebrates after chipping in for birdie on the 16th hole during the final round of the Memorial Tournament.
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But when his parents moved Zhang to the states, they never dreamed he would reach a national stage so early in his career.

The task is undoubtedly daunting.

"Usually when I go to tournaments I have friends who are my same age who I can talk to," he told CNN. "But here it's like Bubba Watson, Aaron Baddeley. I was like wow."

Watson picked up on Zhang's nerves during a shared practice round, telling media that the young player was very quiet.

"Or maybe I just talk too much," Watson said.

Zhang later tweeted that he had a "great practice round with Bubba ... thanks for all the help!"

Meanwhile, former World No.1 Woods, who failed to make the U.S. Open when he tried at age 15, told reporters recently that Zhang deserved the spot.

"That's the great thing about this game, it's not handed to you. You have to go out there and put up the numbers and he did," Woods said.

Zhang will tee off Thursday morning with Hiroyuki Fujita and Mark Wilson who are 42 and 37 in the world respectively.

"I take this as a learning experience, if I can make the cut that would be awesome," he said. "But I can't put any expectations to it, because I'm 14."

The USGA reports that Zhang will surpass Tadd Fujikawa, who played in the Open in 2006 at the age of 15, as the youngest player in the event's history.

Zhang's chance at stardom comes just days after female Chinese golfer Shanshan Feng won her first LPGA title, becoming the first Chinese national to win a major title -- a testimony to the sport's growing popularity in China.

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