SAN FRANCISCO — All of 14 years old and preparing to start the ninth grade, Andy Zhang is thought to be the youngest player in U.S. Open history.
He was born in China and has lived in Florida since 2008, and about the only place he doesn't show his age is on the course.
Heading to the driving range before his practice round Tuesday morning with Masters champion Bubba Watson and Aaron Baddeley was another story. Zhang was so giddy that his caddie, Chris Gold, had to calm him down.
"I was like, 'Chris, can I go out on the range and ask for autographs?'" Zhang asked. "He said, 'No. Today, you're giving out the autographs.'"
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After shedding some early nerves on the unleveled Lake Course, the 6-foot, 174-pound Zhang settled into a groove and even outdrove his more accomplished counterparts on occasion. By the end of the round, his smile — behind big braces, of course — lit up the gallery.
Zhang lost in a playoff at a sectional qualifier in Florida and was the second alternate when the week began at Olympic Club. His father traveled back to China on business this week, but Zhang, his mother and his caddie still showed.
Zhang wandered the grounds mostly as just a young fan and casual observer until Brandt Snedeker and Paul Casey withdrew with injuries late Monday evening while Zhang was on the putting green.
"I was right next to my mom and Chris. I was just giving them hugs and real excited," he said.
Starting Tuesday's practice round just after 7 a.m., Zhang's wayward drive landed deep into the trees and in the thick rough along the right side. He turned to Watson and asked politely, "Can I hit another one?"
"I'm like, 'Dude, you're in the U.S. Open, you can hit as many as you want in practice," said Watson's caddie, Ted Scott. "I just told him, 'Look, just because you're 14 doesn't mean you can't win.' I say this: I don't want to play him for money."
Zhang picked up tips from Watson and Baddeley on the course, and Woods even sought him out in the locker room.
Woods, who won the Masters in 1997 before Zhang was born, defended any notion that Zhang might be too young to compete in "golf's toughest test."
"He qualified. He earned a spot. I tried it when I was 15, but he earned a spot," Woods said. "That's the great thing about this game, it's not handed to you. You have to go out and put up the numbers and he did."
Mickelson happy to be paired with Tiger
Phil Mickelson is paired with Woods and Watson in the first two rounds beginning Thursday. It will be the first time Woods and Mickelson have been paired in the U.S. Open since the USGA grouped players off the world ranking in 2008.
"It's fabulous," Mickelson said. "First of all, I get excited to play with Tiger, I love it. I think we all do. He gets the best out of me. I think when it's time to tee off on Thursday I'll be ready to play.
"One of the issues I've had this year (is) I've been a little mentally lethargic on Thursday and Friday. I won't be this week. Second is the one player I'm most concerned about if I play my best golf that may have a chance to beat me is Tiger. ... Sometimes we'll get a huge advantage in tee times, based on weather conditions or whatnot. If we're in the same wavelength, neither of us will have a distinct advantage."
The two last played together in the final round this year at Pebble Beach, which just so happened to be Mickelson's last victory.