It’s the middle of the afternoon and I’m dripping sweat on the cart path. The Maryland summer sun feels stronger than ever. The humidity feels like it’s been cranked up a level. I’ve walked just two holes, but on this course, that means going downhill, uphill, through a tunnel, uphill and downhill again. And yet, I’m exactly where I want to be.
It’s Monday, July 12, at the US Girls’ Junior Championship at Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, Md. Top juniors are eligible for the tournament provided they don’t turn 19 before the end of the week. Like any USGA event, a win here would be a pinnacle achievement for anyone in the field. For one player, though, it would only add to a growing legend.
I came to this part of the course to follow Rose Zhang, not only the No. 1 junior but the No. 1 amateur golfer in the world and the heavy favorite in this championship. She won the US Women’s Amateur seven miles away at Woodmont Country Club last summer, then tied for 11th at an LPGA major in the fall. After I catch up to her group, Zhang makes a sliding birdie putt from some 25 feet on the second hole to jump into red figures, then drains another putt on the third to quickly reach second place. I see what the hype is about already.
But there’s a story to tell about the other players in this group — Jacqueline Putrino, a 17-year-old from Lakewood Ranch, Fla., and 14-year-old Kennedy Swedick from Albany, N.Y. I strike up a conversation with Putrino’s mother, Regina, who tells fun stories of traveling around to different golf tournaments, highlighted by her daughter’s win at Dustin Johnson’s event in Myrtle Beach. Putrino and Swedick both hit the ball well and show plenty of potential, even if they haven’t learned to score like Zhang.
Play is stopped for about an hour with dangerous weather in the area, but the field still finishes the first round. Zhang slips back to 1-under but is one of just four players under par; China’s Xin “Cindy” Kou shot a 4-under 66 in the morning.
It’s the start of a memorable week for everyone. For a club with a proud 110-year history and a course that might be too short for some events but provides a stern test in this one. For the players getting their chance on a national stage. For the writers whose stories are about to tell themselves.
It’s Tuesday. Tee times are flipped, so the Zhang group, which went off No. 1 at 2:21 p.m. in the first round, starts day two at 9:21 a.m. on the 11th tee. Because of how Columbia is routed, the 10th tee is right in the middle of the course, making No. 11 a much easier, albeit still awkward, starting point. This order, though, actually seems to suit Zhang quite well — she starts with four pars, then birdies 15, 18, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 and 10 for a bogey-free 62.
Yep. A 62. It’s the competitive course record by three shots. Eight birdies, no bogeys. For pretty much anyone else in the field, such a round is unfathomable. Zhang said she thought it was “just a normal round” and was stunned to find out it was a record in the clubhouse afterward.
The highlight of the day is watching people find out about Zhang’s round. I have the privilege of telling a few people myself; every reaction seems to be a gasp followed by the acceptance that, well, it’s Rose. The leaderboard is on display in the dining room, so there are some scattered exclamations of disbelief there, too. “I’m just trying to make my 10-foot bogey putts,” one girl says.
In the afternoon, I focus on two Maryland natives — Bailey Davis of White Plains and Faith Choi of Frederick. They’ve known each other through golf for nearly a decade, and both are now signed to play in college, Davis to Tennessee and Choi to Ohio State. With only three local names in the field, these two hold a special place in the spotlight this week.
I run into Diana Cantu, who will be Davis’ coach at Tennessee. Cantu spent seven years at Maryland and led the Terps’ women’s golf program to new heights, capped by an NCAA nationals appearance in 2021, but couldn’t turn down the chance to lead her alma mater. She says that in her first conversation with Davis — whom she had previously tried to recruit to Maryland — after taking the job, Davis said, “I guess it was meant to be.”
Walking the last few holes with Cantu, I end up meeting Davis’ parents. Her father, Morris Davis, is from St. Thomas, and her mother, Marlene Annoni, is of Italian descent. Morris Davis was never a golfer; he was actually Davis’ volleyball coach for several years. He’s a stoic spectator, but you can see him experiencing the unique tension of being a golf parent. “It’s the most stressful thing,” I’ll hear him say to someone later in the week.
Davis plays the last eight holes of the round 3-under to finish stroke play even par, which ends up being good for solo third. Choi follows a first-round 71 with a 77, but she’s safely inside the cut for match play. Ultimately, nine players at 11-over enter a playoff for four spots in the bracket. Two get through with birdies on the first playoff hole, then two advance with birdies on the second. And with that, the top 64 is set.
It’s Wednesday, and it’s a long day of match play. Zhang is in the first group off at 8 a.m., while the final match is slated for 12:39 p.m. (although early-morning playoffs will tee off on No. 1 ahead of new matches). Davis and Choi are in back-to-back groups; if they both win, they’ll face each other Thursday morning.
Zhang takes care of No. 64-seed Lauren Nguyen 6 and 4 (up six with four holes to play). Putrino goes 7 up in her match through 10 holes before eventually winning 4 and 3. There’s a slew of upsets. Kou, the No. 2 seed, falls 4 and 2 to 14-year-old, No. 63-seed Avery Zweig, and by the end of the afternoon, the Nos. 2, 4, 7, 9, 10, 11 and 12 seeds are all gone.
Choi is 1 up after 12 holes but falls behind after a string of back-nine bogeys and loses 2 down. Davis, meanwhile, goes 1 down to No. 62-seed Chloe Johnson on five different occasions, but responds to tie the match each time. That sets up easily the most exciting finish of the day.
On the 17th, Johnson airmails the green but saves par with a 25-foot putt, and Davis can’t convert her birdie try. It’s Davis’ turn to scramble for par on the home hole, but she drains a downhill 8-footer to extend the match. Then, on the first extra hole, Johnson misses long of the green again, giving Davis a golden opportunity from 75 yards.
It’s a three-quarter shot with a 60-degree lob wedge. It looks perfect in the air, lands just short of the pin and leaks forward. From the fairway, it’s hard to tell, but it looks really close — and then it drops, and the swelling crowd erupts, and Davis is through to the next round.
“That was probably my best shot of my golf career,” she says. Hard to argue with that one. But let’s also talk about her caddie jokingly telling her he’d give her $500 if she holed the shot. I saw him walk up to Morris Davis in the aftermath and say, “I’m in trouble.” I wish I had a resolution to this saga, but instead, I’ll leave the last word to Davis.
“I was more concerned about winning than the $500.”
Thursday comes and goes. Putrino falls to Zweig, 1 down, in the morning as the teenagers match 18th-hole birdies. Zhang and Davis cruise through the Round of 32. The afternoon Round of 16 pits Zhang against Amari Avery, a highly-touted USC signee, but the Stanford pledge secures a 4 and 2 win. Davis handles Camille Boyd, who’s already played a season for Washington, 4 and 3.
Now it’s Friday. In the morning quarterfinals, Zhang falls 1 down after four holes, her first deficit of the bracket. It doesn’t last; she wins 5 and 4. It’s a full morning of blowouts — No. 44-seed Paula Miranda of Mexico wins 5 and 4, No. 58-seed Katie Li of New Jersey wins 4 and 3 and Davis takes down No. 6-seed Karen Tsuru 3 and 2.
After lunch, the semifinals are off at 1 and 1:15 p.m., respectively. The AJGA rankings of your four semifinalists: Zhang 1, Li 33, Davis 63, Miranda 102. But if you use the World Amateur Golf Ranking, which offers way more points for college and top amateur events than AJGA tournaments, the rankings become: Zhang 1, Li 865, Davis 952 and Miranda 1,405.
So you can imagine the surprise when Miranda was 2 up on Zhang through 10 holes.
It wasn’t some miracle; it was just solid, consistent golf. While Zhang strung together 10 pars, Miranda notched birdies at Nos. 3 and 8. Her first bogey comes at the 11th, then Zhang birdies the 12th, then a Miranda bogey at 13 gives Zhang the lead. Miranda sticks around, though, saving par at 15 and knocking home a birdie at 17. With the cameras rolling, they’ll head to extra holes.
Davis, meanwhile, was paired with Li, an underdog by seeding but perhaps a slight favorite by ranking. The two have become close friends throughout the past year and talked throughout the round. I even heard them talking about “The Bachelorette” on the 13th; Davis said they’re both huge fans and watched it Monday night.
After losing the first hole, Davis takes control of the match late on the front nine and leads 2 up after 15 holes. But Li hits one stiff on the 16th and makes birdie to get within one. Then she stripes an iron to roughly five feet for birdie on the 18th, almost certainly forcing extra holes. But Davis, from roughly 20 feet, jars her own birdie putt to clinch the match and a spot in the finals.
With Zhang advancing with par on the second extra hole, it’s a dream final between the top player in the field and the hometown favorite. Davis’ smile stays on her face as members congratulate her and little girls come up asking for a picture. The smile stays on during her interview with Golf Channel’s Emilia Miggliacio. She knows her performance has inspired all week, and she knows that if she can win one more match and become the first Black American female to win a USGA event, she’ll be an inspiration far beyond the confines of this course.
It’s Saturday morning. The championship match tees off at 6:30 a.m. so that the conclusion can be aired from 1-3 p.m. on Golf Channel. It’s still hot. Davis, who lives over an hour away and has woken up at 4:30 a.m. for morning rounds three times this week, stayed the night in a nearby hotel with her father, saving a crucial hour of sleep before one more grueling day at the course.
The fellow gallery members are becoming familiar faces. Cantu is back in her Tennessee orange polo. Davis’ parents and friends are still out in full force. A handful of participants this week have kept coming back. Nicole Kolbas, a Class of 2023 player from Lincoln, Neb., played with Davis in stroke play and has followed her groups throughout the bracket. Today, she has plenty of company.
The first three holes are tied with pars, then Zhang birdies Nos. 4 and 5 to jump 2 up, but Davis gets one back at the sixth and another at the ninth. Through 11 holes, the match is tied and both players are 3-under. Davis blinks first, making double-bogey at the par-5 12th and giving Zhang a 1-up lead. Another Davis bogey at 15 puts Zhang 2 up. Then Zhang drains birdie putts at 16 and 18 and is suddenly 4 up. She’s in the house with no bogeys, five birdies and one conceded birdie on the card.
Davis gets one back as Zhang bogeys the first hole of the afternoon, but she won’t get closer than that. After three straight pars, Zhang birdies Nos. 5 and 6. Then Davis bogeys the eighth and Zhang is six up with 10 to play. Friends and fans are still saying, “You can do it, Bailey,” but the result is academic at this point.
This last round of the week is a chance to walk some parts of the course I hadn’t seen. The par-5 fifth sits at the edge of the property, and pretty much the whole gallery will stay on the right side of the hole. But along the woods on the left, you’ll see people watching from their houses, with a surprisingly good view of the hole from under the trees.
One couple with a view of the green stands pressed against the fence. They’ve been watching sporadically throughout the week and are bummed to find out this is the last match. As Zhang rolls in her birdie putt, there are plenty of cheers from right of the green. I’m not sure if she hears the applause from the left woods, but I know I do.
Zhang and Davis match pars on Nos. 9, 10 and 11 and birdies on 12, which means Zhang reaches the tee at the par-3 13th leading by six with six to play. But she misses long and right, barely keeps her chip on the green and makes bogey. Davis hits the green and two-putts for par to extend the match. There’s thunder in the air and dark clouds creeping in, but I figured they’d try to get one more hole in with any storm seemingly still a ways away.
Welp. Before anyone hits a shot on 14, the horn sounds. The gallery makes the long walk to the clubhouse. Players initially stay on the course in a shuttle van but are eventually brought back. There are a couple storm cells, but no rain, only sporadic updates about when we might maybe possibly be all clear. Three hours pass. It rains for a few minutes. Eventually, at 5:15 p.m., it’s time to go back out.
It takes one hole. Zhang, who declined the opportunity for a 10-minute warm-up (Davis only requested five), hits her drive in the rough but has a downhill pitching wedge from 138 yards. She hits the flagstick. The diminished crowd that made the walk to the 14th hole cheers. I turn and see Morris Davis smiling and shaking his head. Sometimes, there’s nothing you can do.
Zhang taps in for birdie and wins 6 and 4. It’s time for hugs — with Davis, with caddie (and club champion) Doug Hurson, with the friends who stormed the green to douse Zhang with water. USGA officials come out to set up for the trophy ceremony on the green.
As the reporters meet up with Davis just off the green, a few onlookers cheer and chant her name. She’s gracious in defeat and thankful for everything that’s happened this week. She admits it’s been overwhelming, but she knows it’s the kind of breakout week that can vault her career to another level. “I’ve always known what I’m capable of doing,” she says, “but this week I really proved it to myself and I proved it to everyone else that’s been watching.”
By reaching the final, Davis earned a spot in the US Women’s Amateur in Westchester, N.Y., from Aug. 2-8. Zhang will be there as the defending champion of that event. She’ll also be teeing it up in two LPGA majors across the pond this summer. “This is the first event of my long stretch,” she says, “and to be able to win on such a grueling week, it’s truly amazing.” There’s no telling what Zhang can accomplish in the near future, but she left no doubt this week.
Golf is a weird game. It’s so hard to play, no matter how simple it can seem. It’s hard to watch, with the ball sometimes too small to locate in the grass or too bright to distinguish from the sky. It can even be too slow for television sometimes. But when the golf bug bites, it never really goes away. It’s a bug that bites at so many different stages of life, some of us as young kids and some as retirees. I’ve had the bug since I was 10. If you’ve read all of this, I’m sure you have it too.
A thing I’ve always enjoyed about golf is the way it brings me together with so many good people. That was the highlight of the week, even if I didn’t touch a club. There’s plenty of reason to go to a PGA Tour event — like, say, this year’s BMW Championship just outside Baltimore — and see the best in the world put on a show. But there’s something different about a much more intimate event like this.
There’s a purity to seeing high-level golf so up close, without ropes to separate players and fans, without corporate grandstands occupying the premier viewing space. Everyone who saw the action at Columbia last week is a long-term fan of Zhang and Davis now. I’ll be rooting for them, Putrino, Choi, Kolbas and plenty more.
Golf can be a hard game to love. It’s easy to struggle with it and wonder why you pour so much time into it. I came to Columbia on Monday morning wondering just that. I left Saturday evening remembering why I fell in love with the game in the first place.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the USGA