CHEVY CHASE, Md. — A new presidential administration may have come to town in the intervening year, but the head of state in women’s amateur golf remains. Rose Zhang, who won the U.S. Women’s Amateur at Woodmont Country Club last August, returned to the Washington, D.C., area and captured the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship at Columbia Country Club on Saturday. It was a dominant week for the No. 1 player in the Women’s Amateur Golf Rankings, as she became the eighth golfer ever to win both those prestigious USGA amateur championships, but the first in this order.
In the 36-hole final, Zhang, of Irvine, Calif., defeated Bailey Davis, a Maryland resident who qualified at Columbia for the championship and had ample support on the grounds Saturday. Unlike the Women’s Amateur, which went to 38 holes up the road against Gabi Ruffels, the 18-year-old Zhang closed out Davis on the 14th green (32nd hole) to win the final, 6 and 4.
The comfortable margin was emblematic of a week in which Zhang won medalist honors by three shots in the stroke-play portion of the championship, and then had only one of her six matches go past the 16th green in the match-play bracket. The margin in the final match was built during more brilliant play in the morning round, as she went to the lunch break after 18 holes with a 4-up lead over Davis. It’s match play, and the ball does not see the bottom of the cup on every hole, but the morning round would have been a 65 on the scorecard. It was a clinical tee-to-green display that left 16-time Columbia club champion and two-time Walker Cupper Martin West, who has seen it all at this course, shaking his head in amazement at the level of play on both sides as they got set to go out for the afternoon.
The afternoon round began with a rare Zhang mistake, as she drove it in a fairway bunker at the first hole and airmailed her approach shot over the green to give a hole back to Davis. That was the last hole Davis won until the par-3 13th, where Zhang went over the green again (a spot a Columbia member and former President Barack Obama warned about in a welcome letter to players this week). We focus on the two bogeys or mistakes not to be negative, but simply illustrative of just how little margin Zhang gave her opponents both in the final and throughout the week.
“I think she made two bogeys out of 32 holes,” Davis, 18, said. “So I think that is part of her strategy, knowing she can stay that consistent the entire time.”
She’s relentless, almost never making mistakes and almost always capitalizing on her opponent’s. At the par-5 fifth in the afternoon, Davis, who had scrambled nicely to stay 3 down, hit a heavy bunker shot and that was all Zhang needed to get back to 4 up. At the next hole, Zhang stuffed it close to make a second consecutive birdie and extend the margin to 5 up. Davis missed the green at the par-3 eighth and again Zhang provided no quarter. At 6 up, it was only a matter of time, after a lengthy weather delay, before she would add the Glenna Collett Vare Trophy to pair with her Robert Cox Trophy from last year.
Davis, who would have been the first Black American woman to win a USGA title, was a worthy opponent for Zhang, winning that 13th hole to keep the match alive as the horn blew for the weather. At the start of the week, the Tennessee commit said she wanted to show younger girls who looked like her what was possible for them in the game of golf, and that mission was certainly accomplished.
“Based on the response from social media I think I have touched a few girls this week,” she said. “My social media has been insane, and I’m going to try to respond to as many people as I can later tonight.”
Her advancement to the final this week earns Davis a spot in next month’s U.S. Women’s Amateur. An impressive gallery cheered on the local even as the outcome lost doubt, and Davis smiled and interacted with the crowds to the end. She ran out of gas in a championship that included 32 holes in the final, five other matches, and two rounds of stroke play, all while temperatures settled in the 90s and heat indexes that hit triple digits for much of the week in the D.C. area.
Those temperatures and the arduous march to the end of these USGA amateur events only add to the Zhang legend. Match play can be fickle, where you may catch a less-skilled opponent on a hot streak and the greater cushion of 72 holes of stroke play doesn’t exist for talent to separate to the top. The one close call in match play came in the semifinals, where Zhang, who admitted she did not have her “A” game, was taken to 20 holes by Paula Miranda. But she escaped and is now an astounding 15-1 in matches in USGA championships since the start of 2019.
Any thought of the reigning U.S. Women’s Amateur “stepping down” in some way to play the U.S. Girls’ Junior is laughed away and easily dismissed. It’s an elite amateur championship with an elite field, and Zhang was eligible. In any normal year, she’s within her right to show up but especially given the past year, when so many women’s amateur events and playing opportunities were lost to the pandemic. Every opportunity is critical, but especially a USGA championship like this one, which was canceled due to the pandemic in 2020. She was eligible, showed up, kicked butt, won another trophy, and moves on to try and defend her Amateur next month.
Zhang’s USGA match winning streak stretches all the way back to the 2019 U.S. Girls’ Junior, when she lost to Yuka Saso in the quarterfinals. Saso, you’ll recall, won the most prestigious championship in women’s golf, the U.S. Women’s Open, just last month. So the jump from top-shelf play at this junior amateur level to the elite professional level may not be much more than a little skip for some.
The match-play record is astonishing but perhaps Zhang’s best golf came prior to her taking the top seed in the bracket. She posted a flawless Girls’ Junior record-tying 62 in the second round of stroke play. The eight-birdie, bogey-free loop had her caddie Doug Hurson, also a club champ at Columbia who has seen plenty of good shots at the venue, awestruck. “It could have been a 59, she played that well,” Hurson said. “I’ll remember every shot of that round for the rest of my life.” Those who were up the road at Woodmont last year may always remember the outrageous par-saving wedge shot to gimme range when it looked like she was on the ropes at the 36th hole of the Amateur final. She seems to now have a habit of implanting shots in the memories of golf fans in the area.
At this final, she closed it out with a similar pin-seeker, this one coming from the rough at the 14th hole. Only needing to halve the hole to win the championship, Zhang, who did not warm up after the three-hour storm delay, rewarded the crowds that stuck around with some fireworks in the form of a loud bang off the flagstick.
“I had 138 left to the pin, and I knew I was having a bit of adrenaline going and I was having a flier lie,” she said. “I clubbed down to a pitching wedge, and luck was on my side and it hit the pin.” The ball settled some five feet from the hole, which she cleaned up for birdie and another championship.
With the gold medal draped around her neck, Zhang disclosed that she had the same chef from Woodmont cook her lunch in between rounds of the 36-hole final. Given her success at D.C.-area clubs over the Maryland line, one wonders in jest if maybe the incoming freshman at Stanford should turn pro to try and play her way into the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship for 2022 and bring that chef to Congressional next summer.
The immediate focus is on more amateur championships, starting at Westchester in August. At the start of this week, she understood there would be high expectations given her already impressive record.
“Coming into the week everyone just expects you to play well,” she said. “I mean, it feels really great that they have really high standards for me, but I think you really have to know that golf is a difficult sport. Everyone is playing the same grounds, playing from the same tee, and you’re playing in the same conditions.”
This was another week where it often felt like she was playing a different game and those expectations were not just met, but perhaps exceed.. The amateur legend continues to grow with another USGA championship.