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Nicklaus and Zhang: Two prodigies generations apart

SAN FRANCISCO -- At ages 13 and 14, some of us have mastered the complex movements necessary to tie our shoelaces. Then there are Jack Nicklaus and Andy Zhang.

Nicklaus was 13, the youngest player in the field, when he walked onto the first tee for the 1953 USGA Junior Amateur Championship. He arrived 30 seconds before his 7 a.m. starting time. He heard the voice of Joe Dey, the USGA executive director. "Young man," Dey said, "30 seconds later, you'll be starting on the second hole, 1-down." Never, not once ever, did the chastened young man show up late for a tee time.

Zhang is 14. Born in Beijing, China, now living in Florida and a student at the David Leadbetter Golf Academy, he will become the youngest player in U.S. Open history when he tees it up at 8:21 Thursday morning at Olympic Club.

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Zhang, 14, is the youngest player in U.S. Open history. (Photo: Getty Images)

As it happened, Nicklaus did a press conference today in the Open media room. The occasion was the USGA's announcement that it has renamed its Open champion's medal "The Nicklaus Medal." The organization also announced the creation of a "Nicklaus Room" at its museum in Far Hills, N.J.

A couple hours later, the USGA delivered Zhang to the media room. Nicklaus had enriched and entertained the assembled literati, a 72-year-old elder statesman filling notebooks with memories and opinions formed in another century and refined in this one. Then came the prodigy, Zhang, who charmed everyone with memories from . . . this week.

Related: Golf's all-time biggest phenoms

He'd played Open qualifier rounds in Florida and was the fifth alternate waiting for a spot in the tournament. He flew to San Francisco and was on the putting green at 5:20 p.m. Monday when an USGA official informed him a spot was open due to a withdrawal and asked if he wanted to play. "And I got really excited," Zhang said, smiling, "and I'm here."

On the plane ride here, he had asked a friend, "I was, like, so I get to practice on the driving range and putt and chip in the U.S. Open facility. So is it OK if I go up to Tiger and those great players for autographs?" The friend told him, "No, you are going to be the one who is giving out autographs." Zhang again, shyly: "And I came here and everybody knows me for some reason. Yeah, I'm signing autographs, I guess."

Asked how he dealt with nerves in such a situation, or if a 14-year-old even has nerves, Zhang said, "I do." Laughing now. "I definitely do. I am shaking a little right now sitting here. I heard Jack Nicklaus was sitting in this chair this morning. Was he?"

Murmurs of assent from the scribblers . . .

"Yeah? So I'm trying to get used to this." A nervous chuckle here. "I'm not doing quite well right now."

Give him another 58 years, maybe he'll be as much at ease as Nicklaus was in that same chair. Give Andy Zhang four Open championships, 18 major championships in all, maybe he, too, will sit back and tell us, in wonderful detail, the difference between winning his first Open and his last major championship 24 years later.

"One, I was a young kid," Nicklaus said, meaning the 1962 Open, "and the other I was an old man," meaning the 1986 Masters.

The '62 Open was played at Oakmont, just outside Pittsburgh, home country to the game's everlasting king, Arnold Palmer. "I didn't realize, and I'm a young 22-year-old kid -- I had no idea that Arnold Palmer lived anywhere near there," Nicklaus said, adding this aside: "A 22-year-old doesn't have much of a brain, anyway, sort of goes along and whatever happens, happens."

Related: 10 Ways to Win the U.S. Open at Olympic

This happened: Nicklaus beat Palmer in a playoff.

"And, all of a sudden, 20 years later, you look back on it and say, 'Wow.' . . . In '86, when I won the Masters, you know, I was basically beyond my career. And nobody thought I could win the golf tournament, including me."

As he had learned to win at Oakmont -- his first professional victory -- in 1986 Nicklaus remembered how to win.

"And that was unbelievably exciting, to be able to come down and be able to, at 46, control your emotions, control your golf club and golf ball enough to enable you to compete against the best in the world, which you hadn't competed well against for a couple of years. That was pretty thrilling.

"So there are two totally different things. One is, you've got this young kid growing up and trying to figure out how to become a player. And the other one is, you've got this older guy who has forgotten how to become a player and is trying to remember again. It's totally opposite."

One thing more, perhaps a comfort for Andy Zhang, perhaps not. Jack Nicklaus played his first Open at age 17. The greatest player in history shot 80-80.

-- Dave Kindred

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