KUNMING, YUNNAN, CHINA—Chinese youngster Jin Zhang starts this week’s RMB 1.5 million Kunming Championship at Yulongwan Golf Club with big expectations after finishing runner-up to American Charlie Saxon in Guilin last week and soaring to ninth on the PGA TOUR Series-China Order of Merit.
However, Zhang is quietly confident about his return to Yulongwan as two months ago he was China’s top finisher in a European Challenge Tour event at the mountainous venue with a tie for seventh, one shot behind Saxon.
Zhang, 22, spent two years of high school in Florida and said the greens at Yulongwan – situated 1,900 meters above sea level in the southwestern province of Yunnan – remind him of The Concession Golf Club where he used to practice as a teenager.
“I love the fast greens at this course. They’re like the greens I played on when I studied in America,” said Zhang, who lives with his parents and sister in China’s eastern province of Anhui, where he was born.
“The greens at The Concession were so good and the greens here are unbelievable – so fast and true. My feel on the greens was good in April, so I hope it’s the same this week.”
Zhang, a former national team player, has been coached by American Brad Stormon since last August and credits his recent improvement to a mental shift, saying he has reduced the amount of pressure he puts on himself.
“Before, I was always wanting to play well. Right now, I’m a little bit more low key, just trying to enjoy the tournament and play one shot at a time. That has been the big change,” said Zhang, who turned pro in October 2014 and recorded top-10 finishes on the PGA TOUR Series-China in both 2015, in Beijing, and 2016, in Wuhan.
“When we play better, we get more confident and relaxed, so I think we can just concentrate on playing. When we play bad, then you’re so focused on trying to play well that there’s too much going on in your head.
“I hope I can continue to do what I’m doing right now and keep the same way of thinking. I just want to calm down and play against the course, not other players or the crowd.”
Zhang is developing into Chinese golf’s latest “next big thing” after increasingly consistent results over the past nine months, including victory at a lucrative pro-am in Fujian province last November and top-10 finishes at three other pro events that month.
After a slow start to this year’s PGA TOUR Series-China with two missed cuts in March, in May he tied for 11th at the Changsha Championship – won by Saxon – and for 37th at the rain-shortened Haikou Championship.
At last week’s Guilin Championship, he shared the 36-hole lead and led outright after 54 holes before finishing one shot behind Saxon, the Order of Merit leader who was full of praise for Zhang after playing two rounds together at the weekend.
“I played a couple times with him in 2016 and you could tell he had a lot of talent, but he was very raw,” Saxon said. “It’s amazing to see the strides he’s made in two years. He’s a pure ball striker, an excellent putter and he’s a great competitor. He’s got a bright future.”
Yi Cao, Zhang’s former China teammate, is another local favorite this week and another fan of Yulongwan, where he tied for sixth and finished fourth in the Tour’s previous two visits in 2015 and 2016.
“I have a little bit of an advantage because I’ve done well here for a couple of years. The course conditions suited me because everything was pretty soft, like it will be this week,” said Cao, who won the Chongqing Championship in March and is currently fourth on the Order of Merit.
“The greens are undulating and you don’t want to miss in the wrong spot, so when my wedge game’s pretty sharp, I can do well here. The conditions will be soft this week, so hopefully I can play well again.”
Cao, 27, estimated that the course’s lofty elevation “adds 10 or 15-percent to your distance” and in 2016 even drove the green on the 422-yard, par-4 18th to secure a closing birdie.
“I have a lot of favorite holes on this course because the views are so beautiful, but if I have to choose one, it’s 18. It’s rare you play a hole with that much of a drop in elevation from tee to the green. It’s a fun hole.”
Saxon, who in 2016 was runner-up to current PGA TOUR player Zecheng “Marty” Dou at Yulongwan, is the man to beat following two wins and a tie for second in his last three PGA TOUR Series-China events.
Second on the Order of Merit in 2016, the American leads this year’s money list with RMB 692,335 from five events this year and is ranked World No. 215.
Every tournament on this year’s PGA TOUR Series-China offers RMB 1.5 million, a 25-percent increase over purse levels from 2016.
The PGA TOUR established PGA TOUR Series-China in 2014 as its third international developmental tour, following in the footsteps of PGA TOUR Latinoamerica and the Mackenzie Tour – PGA TOUR Canada. Since its inception, PGA TOUR Series-China players have received Official World Golf Ranking points for top finishes at official tournaments.