Andy Zhang, 14, enjoying the spotlight

Andy Zhang of China hits a shot during

Andy Zhang of China hits a shot during a practice round prior to the start of the 112th U.S. Open at The Olympic Club. (June 12, 2012) (Credit: Getty Images)

Mark Herrmann

Mark Herrmann

Herrmann has covered the Mets and Yankees since 1988,

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SAN FRANCISCO

If nothing else, this will make one heck of a composition if the assignment is, "What I Did on My Eighth-Grade Summer Vacation." Andy Zhang, 14, will play in a U.S. Open before he ever takes one of his online classes as a freshman.

It is lucky for him that, when the U.S. Golf Association called him Monday evening and told him he had been promoted from alternate because Paul Casey withdrew, he was free this week. "I'm in summer break right now," Zhang (Class of 2016) said Tuesday after his first practice round at the Olympic Club. "No school for me."

He played with Masters champion Bubba Watson. He signed autographs for people more than four times his age. He was surrounded by reporters as soon as he finished his round. It was the kind of thing he probably envisioned when he moved from China to Florida at the age of 10 to pursue golf. He just didn't see it coming while he still was in braces (both top and bottom teeth).

Along with studying history, he is making it. Zhang will be the youngest golfer ever in the U.S. Open. "Well, I'm really honored," he said. "I qualified for the U.S. Open, I got a lot of lucky breaks."

He did play well enough at the sectional qualifier in Lecanto, Fla., to be an alternate. "He's a big boy for 14, and he can hit it good," Watson said of the youngster, who is 6-foot, 174 pounds. "Obviously he can play. It's not like it just luckily happened. He can play, to get here."

So this is why they call it the "open." Anybody with a handicap index good enough can give it a try. That's all well and good.

The question is, when is it too early? Ty Tryon was a phenom who earned his PGA Tour card at 17, then bombed out. He now grinds it out in minitour events in Florida, and has frequently played with Zhang. Are Zhang, his parents, his manager (yes, minitour pro Chris Gold is his manager) and his golf teacher (Andrew Park, in the David Leadbetter stable) pushing it?

No, says one reasonably well informed source. "He qualified. He earned a spot," Tiger Woods said. "I tried it when I was 15.

"He went out there and went through both stages and did it. It's not 'too young' if you can do it," Woods said. "Just think about the experience he's going to gain, playing in this event, how well that's going to serve him, playing junior events and high school events."

To be sure, Zhang's journey from Shandong, China, is unique. "When I like was 6 1/2, my dad took me to this driving range and I was hitting balls," he said, illustrating that he is a quick study in English as well as golf. "This Korean coach found me. He said, 'You've got a lot of talent.' " Next thing you know, he's visiting America in international tournaments and liking it here.

In another sense, though, he represents a young wave that crested after Woods became such a phenomenon. At this year's Long Island local qualifier, six of the nine golfers who advanced were amateurs, two were teenagers.

"I am a Tiger fan. I grew up watching him on TV," Zhang said. "When the accident happened, I was really depressed. I believe he's going to come back."

Woods said the youth movement is fueled by technology. "These kids are now bringing their iPads to the range and watching their swing and breaking it down on the V-1," Woods said, adding that the globalization of golf is "making this game so great and so difficult at the same time."

Who knows if Zhang will ever be the star that Gold on Tuesday predicted he will be? Tuesday, he was one excited kid. "This morning," the 14-year-old said, "I said, 'Wow. I just shook Tiger's hand.' "