China's Zhang Xinjun launches his 2021 PGA Tour campaign at the Sony Open in Hawaii on Thursday determined to straighten his driving and sharpen his short game.
The 33-year-old enjoyed a small slice of history by becoming the first Chinese mainland golfer to qualify for the FedExCup Playoffs last season where he eventually finished 78th in the final points list, but the start to his 2020-21 campaign in the fall was shaky.
Following consecutive top-15 performances at the Safeway Open and Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship, Zhang's game hit a road bump with four straight missed cuts before finishing tied-63rd at the Mayakoba Golf Classic in Mexico last month.
"Last year, I had ups and downs. I played well in a few events but there were also some bad ones. I think this is golf and it is impossible to maintain a good competitive state all the time," said Zhang.
"I tried my best to work on my game during the offseason, and I hope it will show when I resume playing this week."
A return to Waialae Country Club in Honolulu will not be treated as a holiday as the strong-willed Chinese golfer is keen to improve on his tied-25th finish at the 2018 Sony Open. He missed the cut last year.
"I know I need to upgrade many areas of my game, including my tee shot as the fairway hit rate is not very high," said Zhang, who ranks 122nd in the tour's Strokes Gained: Driving list, and 166th in Strokes Gained: Around the Greens.
"There are no shortcuts on the PGA Tour and there is still some gap between me and the overall field. The PGA Tour is difficult and you need to tee off accurately. You also need a good short game, so I'm working on improving all these aspects."
He feels his third season on the world's leading golf circuit will continue to be a learning curve as he seeks to become the first Chinese mainland player to win on the tour.
From 63 career starts to date, he has posted four top-10s, with a tie for fourth place at the 2019 Houston Open being his best result.
"I think I still need to have a stronger mentality. It was not particularly good at the beginning … I would get anxious while competing. I still have to adjust my mentality this year to become better," said Zhang, who has won twice on the Korn Ferry Tour.
He has set himself some straightforward New Year goals－to qualify for the FedExCup Playoffs again, which in turn would see him retain full playing rights for next season.
"Of course, I hope I can guarantee my card first and then aim for a few more top-10s," he said.
Zhang, who is now based in Houston, Texas grew up in a farming village in Shaanxi province and worked as a security guard at a golf club during his teens which eventually led to his introduction to the game. With perseverance and dedication, he rose through the ranks via the PGA Tour Series-China and Korn Ferry Tour and is currently the lone Chinese mainland player on the PGA Tour.
Zhang firmly believes only hard work will get him to the top, so maintaining a strict regime during the winter break was important as he relaunches his bid for a maiden tour win.
"I kept to my training plan. I would get up at 7 am to stretch, and then I would go for a run and do aerobic exercises before going to the golf course," he said. "I'd be back to the course at 3 pm and will spend time for my physical fitness as well. This was my plan for nearly five weeks and it was good."