China’s Xinjun Zhang 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 on The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass starting on Thursday.
The 33-year-old is only the second mainland Chinese golfer after Haotong Li to qualify for the US$15 million showpiece, which has over the years earned the golden distinction of representing the strongest field of any golf tournament in the world.
“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,” Zhang said.
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 mainland Chinese golfer on the PGA Tour over the past two seasons, hopes to go one-better on his countryman.
“I’m excited,” Zhang said. “It is the fifth major with a strong field. 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.”
“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." – Xinjun Zhang
Zhang’s rise to prominence is inspiring. He grew up in a farming family in Shanxi and was introduced to the game in his late teens after working as a security guard at the local golf course. His natural talents quickly landed him in the Chinese national amateur team, and after turning professional in 2010, he earned his stripes by winning twice on PGA Tour Series China. He eventually realized his American dream by earning his PGA Tour card in 2018 through the Korn Ferry Tour, where he is also a two-time winner. Last year, he became the first mainland Chinese to qualify for the FedExCup Playoffs.
As he was based near TPC Sawgrass in Jacksonville 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 hesitance, Zhang picked the signature par-3 17th hole with the 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 the Chinese standout.
He knows the odds are stacked against him in winning The Players Championship in his first appearance. Only two players have won in their first attempt on the Stadium Course – Hal Sutton in 1983 and Craig Perks in 2002.