Golf is a pressure sport. Sudden-death playoff golf, well, that pushes the nerves, the sweaty palms and the rapid heartbeat to a whole new level.
This is where Florida sophomore Andy Zhang found himself last Friday, facing a sudden-death playoff against Mississippi’s Cecil Wegener for the SEC’s individual championship at the league’s tournament at St. Simons Island, Ga.
The nerves were humming, the pressure looming heavily.
“Anyone in that situation would be nervous,” Zhang said. “I was nervous. But that’s part of the game. When that happens, you’ve just got to embrace the feeling, embrace everything and play good golf.”
That’s exactly what Zhang did. He handled the pressure. He played good golf. He won the SEC title with a par on the third playoff hole.
Taking on, and handling, the pressure is something Zhang was built to do. It’s in his DNA.
“The more you play, the better you handle it, the more comfortable you are in the situation,” he said. “I like telling myself just to embrace the pressure. If you’re under pressure, it means you’re very close to something good. You want to play good. You’ve got to embrace it and do the best you can.”
For someone so young, Zhang already knows all about pressure.
Pressure is being a 10-year-old and moving to the United States with your mother, leaving your father and sister behind in Beijing, China, to pursue a dream of one day becoming a professional golfer.
Pressure is coming to a new country, starting at a new school, and not knowing a single word of the language.
Pressure is being the youngest player ever to play in the U.S. Open. Zhang did it as a 14-year-old in 2012.
Pressure is having Tiger Woods catch you staring him down on the practice tee at the U.S. Open.
Yes, Zhang knows a great deal about pressure, and it all starts at the beginning of what has become a remarkable journey for Zhang and his family.
With few opportunities in China to make a career out of golf, the decision was made for Zhang to move to the United States when he was 10. He couldn’t come alone, so his mother came with him, separating the family.
Zhang said the pressure wasn’t so much on him as it was on his mother.
“She didn’t speak much English. I spoke no English,” he said. “We were at a different country. It was really, really difficult for her. Thinking back, I didn’t realize it at the time.
“I didn’t know what was going on besides we came here to play golf. I didn’t know what each step of our journey meant at the time. It was an incredible thing.
“There was incredible pressure on my mom. I can’t imagine being my mom at the time and having to go to a brand new country not knowing the language very well, to send me to schools, golf courses, grocery shopping. She’s an incredible woman. She’s truly amazing.”
Zhang said he adapted quickly to his new environment. In sixth months, he understood a great deal of the language. A year later, he was fluent in English.
And then there was golf to keep him occupied. He played in, and succeeded in, junior tournaments throughout Florida and across the country.
In 2012, at age 14, he qualified for the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco.
“That was quite an interesting experience for me,” he said. “I was very nervous. I’d say that was one of the most nervous I’ve ever been on the first tee.
“But the whole week, it was incredible to be able to share a locker room, share the range, play in the same tournament with the people you watched growing up on TV. I was starstruck. It was an incredible experience. I’ll never forget it.”
He’ll certainly never forget his Tiger encounter. It came on Tuesday or Wednesday on the practice range.
“I see Tiger walking to the range. I just stopped and stared at him,” Zhang said. “I just kind of froze. Finally when he came walking past me and I think he felt a little uncomfortable with my stare. He stopped and shook my hand. That was super cool.”
Given his unique background, it’s easy to understand why Zhang was able to handle the pressure so well in last Friday’s playoff.
If you’ve played in the U.S. Open, if you’ve gotten up close and personal with Tiger Woods, if you’ve come all this way from halfway around the world, you’re certainly equipped to handle the pressure of a playoff in a college conference tournament.
And he did.
“He’s been on the biggest stage in golf,” UF coach J.C. Deacon said. “He’s won a lot of tournaments and come down the stretch with the lead and been in playoffs. That’s the right guy to have in that situation. Even though he’s nervous, he feels really comfortable.”
The victory was Zhang’s first in a college tournament. He has, at the most, just two tournaments left in his college career — the NCAA regional and the NCAA Tournament. He plans to leave school after that and turn professional sometime later this year.
It’s just another leg in what has been an incredible journey.
“I’m super glad that I came (to Florida). It’s been more than I expected,” Zhang said. “I’ve been wanting to play professional golf for a long time. I’m excited. I’m closer each day.
“Looking back, we have so many memories, good and bad. I think my family, myself, my mom and dad and my sister, we’ve all been through a lot to be where we are today.
“Golf led us to America. Golf has taken us to so many places we never thought we’d go. It’s a really cool journey we’ve been through.”
And yet it’s only just beginning.