Zhang Xinjun of China tracks a shot during the Puerto Rico Open at Grand Reserve Country Club on Feb 26. [Photo/AFP]
TV memories make Players debut all the more exciting for Chinese putter
China’s Zhang Xinjun is so used to watching the Players Championship on television that he cannot wait to make his debut at the PGA Tour’s flagship tournament at TPC Sawgrass this week.
The 33-year-old is only the second Chinese mainland golfer after Li Haotong to qualify for the $15 million showpiece.
Li featured in the Players in 2018 and 2019 when he qualified as one of the top-50 players in the world, but missed the halfway cut on both occasions. Zhang, the lone Chinese mainland golfer on the PGA Tour over the past two seasons, hopes to go one better than his countryman.
The tournament boasts 48 of the top 50 players from both the FedEx-Cup standings and world rankings, spearheaded by 2019 champion Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Collin Morikawa and Xander Schauffele.
”I’m excited,” said Zhang. “I used to watch the Players live on TV and I also practiced at TPC Sawgrass regularly. I liked the golf course very much and I’ve been longing to have the opportunity to compete in this tournament. I look forward to having a good performance.”
Zhang’s journey to the PGA Tour is inspiring. He grew up in a farming family in Shaanxi province and was introduced to the game in his late teens after working as a security guard at his local golf course. His talents quickly earned him a spot in the Chinese national amateur team, and after turning pro in 2010, he won twice on the PGA Tour Series China. He claimed a PGA Tour card in 2018 through the developmental Web.com Tour (now known as the Korn Ferry Tour), where he is also a two-time winner. Last year, he became the first Chinese mainland golfer to qualify for the FedExCup Playoffs.
As he was based near TPC Sawgrass in Jacksonville, Florida in 2020, Zhang enjoyed the opportunity to practice and play at the Pete Dye-designed Stadium Course and is now hoping to put to good use his familiarity with the famed venue, which many regard as the purest test in golf.
”The course requires a lot of shot-making. For example, you need to hit a draw on the second hole and 10th hole, and play a fade cut on the fourth. The layout requires driving accuracy and moving the ball both ways. It is no doubt very challenging and requires a player to be on top of his game in every aspect. I like to hit fades and draws, so I’m really looking forward to playing on this course,” said the father of two.
Without any hesitation, Zhang picked the signature par-3 17th hole－which features a famous island green－as the standout design in Dye’s masterpiece.
”I’ve played the 17th hole many times. The feeling of actually playing the hole was different than what I have seen on TV. The green is much smaller than I thought. When there is no wind, it is not hard, but when there is wind, it is challenging to control the accuracy and finding the right spot to land your ball,” said Zhang.
He knows the odds are stacked against him to win the Players at the first attempt. Only two men have managed that－Hal Sutton in 1983 and Craig Perks in 2002.
”I haven’t thought about winning this event. I’m just hoping for a good result. I think if I can pull off a win, it will be a huge push for China’s golf development,” said Zhang.
Meanwhile, Chinese Taipei’s CT Pan has labeled the Players the “strongest” tournament on the PGA Tour.
The 29-year-old is looking to become only the third Asian player, after South Korea’s KJ Choi (2011) and Kim Si-woo (2017), to triumph at the event.
”For golfers, the Players Championship is definitely the strongest tournament we have on the tour, even when you compare it to the majors. If you look at the world ranking, we have all the top-ranked guys coming to the Players,” said Pan.
”If I were able to win it, it would personally mean everything. That’s why we work so hard in this game. We want to win on the PGA Tour, we want to win the majors and the Players Championship which feels like a major to us.
”Coming from Asia, winning this will mean more as we want to grow the game and make this game popular. In order to do this, we need superstars winning the Players and major championships.”
Pan missed the halfway cut at last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, where DeChambeau triumphed. It was Pan’s fourth missed cut in six starts this year, but he is not easing up on his practice routine as he seeks a quick return to his best form.
He has featured in the Players twice, finishing tied-72nd in 2019 and tied-48th in his debut in 2018.Last year, he withdrew before the start of the first round, citing concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, which subsequently forced the cancellation of the event and shut down the tour for three months.
Since then, Pan and his wife Michelle have traveled from tournament to tournament in a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van, which is fitted with a bed, bathroom, kitchen and air-conditioning.
With capacity at 20 percent this week as the tour navigates the safe return of spectators, Pan is looking forward to hearing the sound of cheers around the course.
”The fans there are amazing, super supportive. As a player, we are treated really nicely there as well. It’s our flagship event, and everything is done right and you can sense that.”