Rose Zhang was 138 yards from finishing her week in style. She was on the cusp of winning the 72nd US Girls’ Junior Championship at Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, Md., but had lost the previous hole and thus had to wait out a three-hour delay as inclement weather passed through the area. She didn’t warm up before heading back out and hit her tee shot in the right rough. Still, all she needed was one good hole to slam the door.
Zhang clubbed down to a pitching wedge and flushed it. Her ball landed on the front of the green, took three hops and hit the flagstick. It settled some 3 feet from the hole, and she made the birdie putt to defeat Bailey Davis, 6 and 4 (six up with four holes to go), in 32 holes to cap off a brilliant week.
It’s nothing unexpected for Zhang, who’s not only the No. 1-ranked junior but the No. 1 amateur in the world. The Stanford signee and Irvine, Calif., native won the 2020 US Women’s Amateur just 7 miles away at Woodmont Country Club in Rockville, Md., and her victory on Saturday, July 17, made her the eighth player to capture both championships but the first to win them in that order.
“USGA events in general, you really need your A-game in terms of your patience, your grit and your golf game,” Zhang said. “Just being able to pull through on such a long week is something really special, and I think I feel very accomplished in what I did this week.”
The Girls’ Junior, which ran from July 12-17, featured two rounds of stroke play followed by a 64-player match play bracket, including two rounds Thursday and Friday and a 36-hole final Saturday. It’s a grueling week, but Zhang navigated the same format in the Women’s Amateur. This time, she blew away the field in both stroke and match play.
The USGA puts on 13 championships annually; Zhang might have been the heaviest favorite in any of those events in 2021. The US Girls’ Junior is a notable step up from American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) events, but it pales in comparison to the professional majors and premier amateur tournaments Zhang has filled her schedule with. Golf is not a game of guarantees, but for nearly the whole week, a Zhang victory felt close to inevitable.
It certainly looked inevitable in stroke play, when Zhang fired a bogey-free, eight-under 62 on Tuesday, July 13, to capture medalist honors in commanding fashion. She finished the two rounds 9-under. Only China’s Xin Kou, at 6-under, also broke par. Zhang’s 62 tied a championship record. It was four shots better than any other in this tournament and broke the competitive course record by three.
Doug Hurson, a two-time (and the current) Columbia club champion, was quick to say yes when he got the call before the week asking if he wanted to caddie for Zhang in the championship. He knew it was a stalwart bag, but even he was floored by what he witnessed.
“It could have been a 59, she played that well,” Hurson told the USGA after the performance. “I’ll remember every shot of that round for the rest of my life.”
Zhang marched through three rounds of match play unchallenged. She beat No. 64-seed Lauryn Nguyen 6 and 4. She beat No. 32-seed Rianne Mikhaela Malixi 4 and 3, then the dangerous No. 16-seed Amari Avery 3 and 2. Her first deficit came against No. 24-seed Yana Wilson in the quarterfinals, but she quickly righted the ship and won that match 5 and 4.
The toughest test came against Mexico’s Paula Miranda in the semifinals. Miranda entered the week 102nd in the AJGA rankings and 1,405th in the World Amateur Golf Rankings — Zhang is first on both lists — but was 2-under through 10 holes and 2 up on the top seed. After Zhang won holes 11-13 to flip the match and go 1 up, Miranda hung tough and tied the match with a birdie on No. 17.
The duo went to extra holes, where Zhang, whose US Women’s Amateur win came in sudden death as well, escaped with a par on the 20th hole.
“Sudden death is definitely very different. It’s an all-or-nothing kind of match — it’s a match on its own,” Zhang said. “After 18, we just have to be aggressive and think the other player is going to hit it next to the hole and you just have to execute even better. It’s very different in that [way], but overall I think there’s always some pressure in sudden death, and you just have to cope with it.”
Bailey Davis, a White Plains, Md., native who became a hometown favorite throughout the week, kept pace with Zhang early Sunday morning. Through 11 holes, both players were 3-under and the match was tied. But Davis fell back with a double bogey at No. 12 and a bogey at No. 15, then Zhang drained birdie putts at Nos. 16 and 18, and suddenly she was 4 up after the morning round.
The rest was academic. Zhang bogeyed the first in the afternoon but birdied the fifth and sixth to go 5 up, then went 6 up with a Davis bogey at the eighth. That margin remained until the match ended with six holes remaining. On the par-3 13th, Zhang missed long and right of the green and made bogey. Davis two-putted for par to extend the match … but as the players reached the 14th tee, the horn sounded and the match was stopped with inclement weather in the area. Three hours and one hole later, Zhang was a USGA champion once again.
Davis, a Tennessee commit who was vying to become the first Black American female to win a USGA event, showed a flair for the dramatic all week. She finished solo third at even par in stroke play, holed out from 75 yards to advance in extra holes in the Round of 64 and sank a 20-foot birdie putt on No. 18 in the semifinals to advance to Saturday. She knew the deal, though — she joked to the Washington Post before the week that since Zhang was in the field, everyone else was playing for second. And after earning a spot in the championship match, Davis’ magic ran out.
“I knew coming into this I would have to make some birdies, and at the beginning of the match I was matching [Zhang] with the birdies and I felt really good,” Davis said. “And then doing that the entire match gets pretty tiring. I knew I could not make many mistakes, and I think I did a pretty good job of that. I was able to limit my mistakes, but obviously not enough.”
It’s a triumphant start to a busy, busy summer for Zhang. She’ll be in France this coming week at the Evian Championship, which is designated as a professional major. Then she’ll come back and defend her US Women’s Amateur title in Westchester, N.Y., from Aug. 2-8. Then it’s back overseas for the Women’s Open (Aug. 19-22) and, most likely, the Curtis Cup in Wales (Aug. 26-28). All of that comes before starting classes at Stanford in September.
It’s hard to say what Zhang can do next. Maybe she can defend her Women’s Amateur title and become just the second two-time winner of that event this century (joining current World No. 6 Danielle Kang). Maybe she can capture an individual and/or team national championship at Stanford. Maybe she can contend in, or even win, an LPGA major while still an amateur — hey, she already has a T-11 at last year’s ANA Inspiration and has two cracks in the next five weeks.
The possibilities are endless. There’s no ceiling on what Zhang can accomplish in this game. For one week in Maryland, though, Zhang reminded everyone what a champion she already was.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the USGA