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Too young to drive, but ... DRIVEN

Andy Zhang is golf's next big thing, but all the 14-year-old longs for is to get behind the wheel, writes Glenn Jackson.

TIGER Woods, as we know, is the most outstanding golfer of this generation. We knew this was likely when, in 1997, he won his first major tournament. A star was born that year.

What we didn't know was that another star was born in 1997. As in, literally, a star was born.

His name is Andy Zhang, and on December 14, he will turn 15. By then, he will have played in a US Open, and - just days earlier - an Australian Open. He is not your average 14-year-old.

So if an average 14-year-old asks for the latest iPhone or video game console for his birthday, what does a not-so-average 14-year-old ask for?

''To get my permit, my driver's licence,'' he told Fairfax Media. ''That's pretty exciting.''

In some states of the United States, where the Chinese-born golfer is based, Zhang is still not old enough to drive a golf cart. Amazingly, though, he will not be the only player at the Australian Open, which starts at The Lakes on Thursday, in such a predicament.


Andy Zhang, in fact, will not be the youngest 14-year-old playing. That honour will be held by Guan Tianlang, a fellow Chinese star who will become the youngest player to ever compete in a US Masters next year. Zhang, too, is convinced he is not the best 14-year-old out there.

''There's tons of kids out there, my age, who are definitely better than me,'' Zhang said. ''Definitely. Just because I made the US Open, I'm the best 14-year-old in the world? I don't think so. There are great golfers, and if they have a chance, they can do something big.''

While Guan is still to compete in a major tournament, Zhang, of course, already has, having stood alongside his childhood idol Tiger Woods at the US Open this year.

His has clearly been a remarkable, albeit rather short, journey.

Born and raised at least for the best part of a decade in China, he first picked up a golf club when he was almost seven. His father had wanted him to play tennis to lose weight. ''I was supposed to play tennis, but I found golf … I wasn't as tired as I was at tennis,'' he said.

''I was 6½, I didn't know anything. I was just playing around. Maybe a year goes by and I started taking it more seriously. I played a little more often, started leaving school early to play.''

Before the age of eight, he had a coach. Before the age of 10, he had shifted to the US. ''I was supposed to just play a tournament and go back, but I played good, and I stayed,'' Zhang said.

''The day he showed up,'' said his coach, South African Andrew Park, ''when he was nine years old, it was unbelievable. He couldn't speak a word of English. He just stood up to the ball like he was already 23 years old. You could tell, the talent was unbelievable.''

His brain was like a sponge, Park said. Just as his vocabulary improved, so did his golf swing.

To think, too, that he has already spent 10 months out of the sport, having suffered back pain at age 12 which left him wondering whether he would be able to swing a club in the future, with doctors concerned that he was growing too quickly.

Once he was cleared to return to the course, his career accelerated - as it clearly needs to do for someone to be playing a US Open by 14 years and six months. He had been fifth reserve for the tournament, but became its youngest ever competitor when England's Paul Casey withdrew.

''I can't describe it,'' Zhang said. ''It was incredible. I'd done nothing like it before - junior tournaments, no spectators, no grandstands, and in the locker room, nothing's free.

''It was just one helluva experience. The course was the toughest course I've played. You hit a great shot and it's in the rough, you hit a bad shot, it's a lot worse.''

It is clear that, at 14, the mental battle is more significant than the physical one. It's difficult to tell whether a 14-year-old, approaching a major tournament, gets more nervous than players twice his age and more. He is still a long way off being a 28-year-old tournament professional.

He does get nervous, though. ''You know, with the spectators around you, and everybody watching the news, of course you get nervous,'' Zhang said. ''The mental game is one of the most important things in golf. You just have to fight it.''

But Zhang, who is 183cm but still growing, feels that, by the time he cannot be referred to as ''teen golfer'', the experience he is getting now will be invaluable.

''I believe if I start now, it's a great advantage,'' he said. ''There's not many 14-year-olds at the big tournaments. It's a great learning experience. Especially after playing in the US Open, going back to the junior tournaments. It takes a lot of pressure off you.''

Those around him - his parents, his coach and his manager - are always trying to make sure that pressure is minimal. Which means short steps; short-term goals are the important ones.

In the immediate future, Zhang wants to strike the ball well at The Lakes. He believes he is in good form. ''I think I'm pretty ready for this tournament,'' he said.

Even now, his story is a remarkable one. How many people do you know who have driven off in US and Australian Opens before they have driven themselves to the course?