Andy Zhang fired up an ecstatic fist Thursday as his birdie putt dropped in on the 18th green, the Olympic Club crowd roaring in the background.
Usually, excitement wouldn't be in order after finishing a round 9 strokes over par. But when you're 14 years old and break 80 in your U.S. Open debut, it's worth celebrating. And Zhang's first-round score of 79 looks pretty good considering he was 8 over par through the first five holes.
"The course is really tough, so I'm actually OK with what I shot," said Zhang, the youngest player to compete in a U.S. Open since World War II. "At least I broke 80."
Zhang emerged as one of the more attractive storylines of the weekend when Paul Casey withdrew because of a shoulder injury, creating a spot for the phenom who shot a 70 and 72 in his sectional qualifier. So while most 14-year-olds are enjoying the summer by splashing away at a local pool, or eating junk food at the mall, Zhang is competing with the world's greatest golfers on arguably the sport's biggest stage.
He's still an amateur, but his gallery was abuzz with scores of fans curious to see how the teenager would handle the daunting conditions and accompanying pressure. Early on, Zhang provoked mostly empathy.
Zhang got off to a torturous start, partly because of nerves. He said he was shaking and begging himself to avoid "a hundred-yard slice" on his first shot. Hitting driver on the 520-yard, par-4 first hole, Zhang's tee shot
"The lie wasn't so good," he said. "I should've used a pitching wedge."
Zhang took a drop, then parked his approach shot well short of the green in the shade of a tree. His next shot skipped well past the hole and off the back of the green. He eventually tapped in for a triple bogey.
The next hole, his tee shot sailed right and deep into the rough. His second shot traveled about 100 yards before landing in the right rough again, and his third shot sailed over the green into a bunker. His shoulders slumped as he let out a sigh of frustration.
Through his first two holes, Zhang was plus-5.
"He hit the ball terrible," said Chris Gold, Zhang's caddie and manager. "But you're going to make bogeys here. He knows that. I think he handled himself great, like a professional. He didn't throw a club. Didn't get mad. He doesn't usually do that, but he could've easily given up and shot a 90."
Zhang certainly didn't give up. And, suddenly, things began to click. He hit his first fairway of the day on No. 6 and two-putted for par. On No. 7, he dropped in a birdie, punctuating his first thrilling moment with a fist pump and turning the gallery's pity into praise.
He bogeyed the par-3 eighth hole after his tee shot found the sand, falling back to plus-8. But the 14-year-old mustered some resiliency beyond his years. He rattled off six straight pars, pulling off a couple par-saving putts that revealed flashes of clutchness.
"The kid has game," said clubhouse leader Michael Thompson, who played eight holes with Zhang during Wednesday's practice rounds. "When I was 14, I couldn't play like that. I told him just to go out and enjoy it. I think he has a good head on his shoulders. He's surrounded by good people. It's just a matter of him kind of having the right mindset and just enjoying it."
In the end, Zhang hit only five fairways and reached the green in regulation six times. He will need a heroic performance Friday to make the cut.
But when you're 14 years old, and you finish a stroke behind Masters champion Bubba Watson, and you play holes nine through 18 three strokes better than Phil Mickelson, you reserve the right to be excited. And at the end of his round, he showed his excitement via a choreographed handshake routine with Gold.
"I kind of didn't care that much about how many (strokes) over I am -- even though it was pretty high after the first five holes," said Zhang, who just finished the eighth grade. "But I'm trying to forget that because I've never had that big a crowd following me ever. And I never played a course like this before."