Stratham, N.H. – Zecheng Dou’s goals changed dramatically in June. Yes, the 15-year-old from the People’s Republic of China still wants to compete and thrive in junior golf, and he has high hopes at this week’s U.S. Junior Amateur Championship at The Golf Club of New England. But he now has bigger things in mind for the not-too-distant future.
“I want to be in next year’s U.S. Open,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I know now it is possible.”
His fellow countryman, Andy Zhang, only 14, provided the motivation when he became the youngest player in history to qualify for last month’s National Open Championship. Zhang is also in New Hampshire this week, and China would have had a third entrant if 13-year-old Tian Lang Guan had not failed to show for his scheduled starting time. For a country where the sport was once banned by the communists for being too bourgeois, the emergence of this teen trio – along with recent LPGA Championship winner Shanshan Feng – represents an historical cultural shift.
The Chinese wave appears to be coming, even though, statistically, zero percent of the population plays golf. Those who have faced Zhang and Dou might beg to differ about that percentage. Zhang won last week’s Florida State Golf Association Junior Boys 13-15 division, while Dou qualified for this year’s U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship and last summer rolled to victory in the Callaway Junior World Golf Championships. (Guan earlier this year became the youngest player to compete on the European Tour at the China Open).
“Before we were just thinking of making the cut in junior tournaments; now we’re going for the win,” Dou said. “Golf is getting good in China.”
How good? Zhang does not see himself as the player carrying the torch into the future to inspire an invasion of Chinese stars. “There’s a lot of good players in China that I know are better than me,” he says. “It was such a surprising thing to qualify for the Open, but it doesn’t mean I’m the best junior player.”
Both players shot 2-over par 74 on Monday in the first round of stroke-play qualifying, although they got there in slightly different ways. Dou struck the ball solidly and hit his approaches close to the hole, but he failed to convert. Zhang missed a handful of fairways, left himself long birdie attempts, three-putted twice on the outward nine and yanked a 4-foot par putt on the inward nine. It got worse after the round when he was assessed a one-stroke penalty for slow play.
“It’s definitely a really hard golf course,” Zhang said. “The rough is long and if you get in there, most times you have to lay up. I got pretty lucky with a few shots not going into bunkers. I don’t usually have three putts. Those uphill putts look fast but really are not, and the same thing for the downhill putts.”
Zhang was philosophical about the slow play ruling. “If it’s going to happen, it’s better in a tournament like this when it doesn’t matter once you get to match play,” he said. “My goal is to finish in the top eight. This is probably the biggest junior tournament in the world. Reaching the quarterfinals or top 10 is a pretty reasonable goal.”
Playing practice rounds with Bubba Watson, hitting range balls next to Tiger Woods and draining a birdie putt on the 18th hole of the first round at the U.S. Open tends to build confidence. Zhang concedes he was initially in awe of his surroundings at The Olympic Club, fearful he would disappoint his many followers. “So many people were watching, but then I got used to it,” said Zhang, who became a media sensation when he got into the field as an alternate replacing the injured Paul Casey. “After playing in the Open, I definitely feel less pressure here. The course is set up pretty similar, except for less fairway to hit and that it’s way longer. But I got used to hitting chip shots from thick rough, and today I hit three great chip shots.”
Zhang has come a long way in a short time. Born only seven months before Tiger Woods won his first major (1997 Masters), he was sought out by Woods at this year’s Open. He was brought up in Beijing, began playing at 6 and moved to the United States four years ago to train at the Leadbetter Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Dou has followed a similar path. Although he still makes his home in Zhengzhou, he spends the majority of his time in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. to take advantage of the weather and the greater variety of courses and practice facilities. Golf is growing in China, especially now that it will be part of the Olympic program in 2016, but there’s a long way to go.
“You still have to practice off mats instead of real grass, and it’s really hard to get onto a golf course,” Dou says. “I started playing at 5, and I think others were probably laughing at me.”
Zhang’s Americanization extends to his caddie, Chris Gold, a New Jersey native who has toiled on various mini-tours and reached the final stage of PGA Tour Qualifying School. It was on the range in Reunion, Fla. where Zhang’s father approached Gold about managing his son.
“I was looking for a part-time job. It started out as two or three days a week and turned into seven,” says Gold, 25. “My job is to make sure he keeps his head on straight and doesn’t get too cocky. I try to keep him calm and in the present. Like today, when he made bogeys on consecutive holes, he got a little fast and frustrated. He expects to hit everything perfect.”
At a sturdy 6-foot, Zhang hits it long and looks older than his age. But then there are times when being 14 is evident, like last week at the Florida State Junior when he rammed a 10-foot uphill putt 12 feet past the hole. Asked by Gold what he was thinking about before the putt, Zhang shrugged, “Yoda.”
“He doesn’t feel any pressure,” Gold says. “I wouldn’t want to face him in match play. He’ll probably play a lot better than he did today.”
Zhang’s best moment on Monday came at the seventh hole, his 16th of the day. He had sarcastically raised his arms into the air after striking his blind approach shot, thinking he finally hit a green in regulation. Upon climbing the hill, he saw his ball nestled in the fringe. But he stepped up and knocked in a 35-foot birdie, and once again gave himself a mock celebration.
“He didn’t really do much of anything today and still shot one-over (not counting the penalty stroke),” Gold said. “That tells you how good this kid can be. He makes a few putts and he’s two or three under.”
Dou, who failed to make the cut for match play at last week’s U.S. Amateur Public Links at Soldier Hollow Golf Course in Midway, Utah, after four-putting the final green, believes his game suits the 7,175-yard Golf Club of New England layout, which demands precision off the tee. “I’m the kind of player who isn’t long but hits a lot of fairways. I think I can play this course. I just want to get into match play and be aggressive,” he said.
Once there, he just might a familiar face waiting.
Rob Duca is a New England-based freelance writer who is assisting USGA.org this week at the U.S. Junior Amateur.