Two weeks ago, Andy Zhang was in Napa, California. The 22-year-old Beijing-born putter had qualified his way into the Safeway Open, the PGA Tour’s 2020-21 season-opening event and was tied for 43rd with 18 holes to play.
When the pairings came out, he noticed a familiar name staring back at him: Phil Mickelson. Zhang, the youngest player in history, at age 14, to compete in a US Open would be playing the final round of the Safeway Open with a World Golf Hall of Famer.
Zhang didn’t play well over those remaining 18 holes at Silverado Country Club. After opening 66-72-70, he began his round with a pair of double bogeys and was 5-over through eight holes.
He made just one birdie to close with a 78 to finish in 71st place. Mickelson shot a 70. Even with a disappointing final day, Zhang looks back on that Sunday with fondness.
“That was a fantastic experience. I played pretty badly actually, but that didn’t really overtake my day because I had the opportunity to play with one of the best players in the history of the game.
“The experience alone overweighed any score I could have shot that day,” Zhang said on Tuesday at Hidden Hills in Jacksonville, Florida, home of this week’s Jacksonville Championship as part of the LOCALiQ Series.
Zhang admitted to some mixed emotions when he saw who his final-round playing partner was.
“I definitely got very excited and a little nervous. It is Phil Mickelson, but he made sure that I didn’t feel intimidated,” Zhang added.
“We were talking throughout the round, and I’ve known his brother, Tim (Phil Mickelson’s caddie), through junior recruiting when he was the coach at (Arizona State). It was definitely a very exciting opportunity for me.”
It was only Zhang’s third PGA Tour start and second made cut. He tied for 23rd at the 2019 Houston Open, with his first appearance as a teenager coming at the 2012 US Open at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.
After taking last week off from competition and returning to Florida, Zhang made the two-hour drive from his home in Orlando on Tuesday to prepare for the fifth LOCALiQ Series tournament of the season and the first of three consecutive events in the Sunshine State.
“The next three are in Florida, so everything is pretty close to my house. It’s definitely easier travel for me,” he said.
Zhang is currently 63rd on the LOCALiQ Series Race to The Bahamas points standings.
Following the Classic at The Club at Weston Hills, the final 54-hole tournament of the campaign, the top 78 players on the points list will play the series’ final tournament, the 72-hole LOCALiQ Series Championship Atlantis Bahamas.
Zhang knows a strong finish this week will help solidify his points-list position and ensure a spot in the season-ending event.
“I just definitely want to keep working on my game,” added Zhang, whose best finish in his three LOCALiQ Series starts are a pair of ties for 27th-at The Championship at Echelon outside Atlanta and The Classic at Callaway Gardens in Georgia.
His finish at Echelon was particularly frustrating after he opened the tournament 68-64, was 12-under and alone in second place, a stroke off the lead with 18 holes to play.
Those setbacks have just made Zhang even more determined.
“I’m just going to keep playing the best I can,” he said. “This has been a fantastic playing opportunity. The competition has been at a really high level. The players out here are really, really good.
“I think because I had a chance to play a few tournaments before I played in Safeway, it set me up very well and put me in a good spot to Monday-qualify into Napa.
“I think that was definitely an advantage of playing in this series versus not playing anything at all.”