Xinjun Zhang’s rise to the PGA Tour is the stuff of fairy tales.
He first set foot on a golf course in Xian, China when he went to work as a range-ball picker at the age of 17. Forbidden from practicing or playing during regular hours, he had to be content with hitting balls before or after the course closed, which usually meant doing it in the dark.
It was more than a year before he was able to play an 18-hole round of golf. Zhang still remembers the score: 116.
But Zhang was hooked, and persistent. It took him 18 months to break par, and he did it on his own, developing a short, compact homemade swing.
Zhang didn’t get any formal coaching until he landed a spot on the Chinese National team. They came to the TPC Sawgrass two years ago to practice and play, and he’s in the team picture hanging in the clubhouse.
“Every golf fan in China knows about the TPC Sawgrass and The Players Championship,” Zhang said through Yuan Liu, his caddie and interpreter. “People in China think The Players is just as prestigious as the four majors.”
One of his goals is to tee it up in The Players and Zhang, who has moved to Jacksonville, has taken a huge step in that regard: he and Zecheng Dou are the first two players from China to reach the Web.com Tour through PGA Tour China, qualifying for their 2017-2018 Tour cards by finishing among the top-25 on the regular-season Web.com Tour money list.
Both are in this week’s field for the Web.com Tour Championship, at the Atlantic Beach Country Club, that started Friday. They are among a group of five players who will get their PGA Tour cards after qualifying for the Web.com Tour through the three international PGA Tours, with Nate Lashley (PGA Tour Latinoamerica) and Ben Silverman and Aaron Wise (Mackenzie Tour-Canada).
That was one-fifth of the entire group top-25. With previous examples such as Roberto Diaz of Jacksonville (Latinoamerica) and Sam Ryder (Canada), the Web.com Tour sees it as validation that the system of offering Web.com Tour spots to players on the three international tours is working.
“Playing on those tours and then graduating to the Web.com Tour, then making it to the PGA Tour, shows how these guys are adapting to the travel, the time management and the different courses,” said Stewart Moore, senior director of communications for the Web.com Tour.
There are 90 international players representing 24 countries on this year’s Web.com Tour membership. Five finished among the top-25 on the money list.
Dou is 20th on the combined regular-season and Finals money list with $208,030 and Zhang is 21st with $188,896. Dou won the Digital Ally Open in July, and while Zhang is still seeking his first victory in America, he had four top-10s, with runner-up finishes in the Chitimacha Louisiana Open and the BMW Charity Classic, and a tie for fourth at the Price-Cutter Charity Classic.
They both have some work to do to reach The Players (they would need to win a tournament before next May or reach the top-5o on the world rankings) but they’ve already made history as the first natives of China to get their PGA Tour cards through the Web.com Tour.
“The Web.com Tour has not only improved my golf skills but my mental side,” Zhang said. “The competition is better, the courses are tougher and there is more of a variety of courses than I saw on PGA Tour China. I’m a lot more advanced.”
Liu said Zhang is a steady ball striker and a streaky putter.
“He’s really striping the ball this year and the putting comes and goes, like for anyone,” he said. “He’s not super-long but he hits it straight. When his putter heats up, he really gets his confidence going.”
Zhang has been on the road for five months in a row and is looking forward to spending more time in Jacksonville. Much of that will be at the TPC Sawgrass.
“I love the golf course [Players Stadium Course] and there is not a practice facility in China that is comparable to the one there,” he said. “I feel very fortunate to be able to practice there and work on my game.”