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ST. ALBANS, Mo. – Rose Zhang had seized control of the Girls Junior PGA Championship during a third-round 66, but it appeared her grip on the lead might be slipping in Friday’s final round.
Once four shots ahead, Zhang saw her lead cut to two when Yealimi Noh birdied the Country Club of St. Albans’ par-5 14th.
It would be understandable for Zhang, a 14-year-old competing in her first Girls Junior PGA, to fade late and drop out of the lead.
But as the pressure intensified in hot conditions – once again with temperatures feeling over 100 degrees Fahrenheit – that’s exactly when Zhang stepped up.
“I think I played really well under pressure,” Zhang said.
Zhang fired her tee shot at the par-3 15th inside 10 feet. Birdie. Three-shot-lead. At the following par 4, she knocked her approach to about 6 feet and made that putt, too.
When Noh, playing in Zhang’s group, four-putted for double bogey on the same green, the lead had suddenly swelled to six.
From a potentially sticky situation to a runaway in a matter of two holes. All because Zhang had held her nerve.
The 14-year-old closed with a pair of pars for a closing 4-under 68 to post a 20-under 268 for the week for a six-shot win over Noh.
Zhang’s final score tied the tournament record for a 72-hole total, a mark set by Kristen Gillman in 2014.
Zhang, of Irvine, Calif., also tied the tournament record for low second round (65), low third round (66) and broke the 54-hole mark by two with a 16-under 200 total.
Records seemed to be on edge or buckling whenever Zhang reached the clubhouse each of the last three days. But for a wunderkind this week, Zhang’s pre-tournament goals were extremely mild.
“When I first came, I didn’t really have any expectations,” Zhang said. “I was just trying to play my own game and just complete the four-day (tournament).”
Well, she completed the tournament with a win. By six shots.
After Hailee Cooper opened the week Tuesday with a tournament-record-tying 8-under 64 – she would finish in a tie for 11th at 6 under – Zhang found herself five shots back.
But the final 54 holes would be a masterpiece. Zhang made five birdies and an eagle in producing her second-round 65 and posted seven birdies (with five coming in her last eight holes) in Round 3.
She built from a share of the lead after Round 2 to a four-shot 54-hole cushion. She then birdied three of her first six holes in the final round and made just one bogey on the day.
Not much her competition could do with that.
Zhang really only put herself in potential danger once.
Zhang’s ball was in playing opponent Virginia Green’s line on the 16th, compelling Zhang to move her mark a putterhead length left.
Her opponents putted out and Zhang stepped up to finish out, putting the ball back down in front of her marker – but she had forgotten to move it back that putterhead length.
Fortunately a diligent rules official noticed Zhang’s mistake and was able to inform her before she putted from the wrong position. If Zhang had struck the ball without that intervention, she would’ve been playing the ball from the wrong position, violating Rule 20-7c and incurring a two-shot penalty.
She would’ve likely won anyway, but Zhang didn’t forget what avoiding that infraction meant.
“I guess my mind just went blank there. I was just trying to think about the line of the putt,” Zhang said. “I’m so grateful the official came and just stopped me there.”
The final leaderboard saw seven players finish double digits under par. Defending champion Lucy Li tied for third at 12 under alongside Michaela Morard and Angelina Ye.
Gurleen Kaur and Lauren Beaudreau tied for sixth at 10 under. Green struggled to a closing 5-over 77 to drop from third to a tie for 11th at 6 under.
Zhang hasn’t even begun high school (she will do so this fall at Pacific Academy Irvine) and she’s only been playing golf for four years.
And yet, she entered this event as Golfweek‘s top-ranked player in the Class of 2021. She also is looking at potential visits to UCLA, USC and Stanford – all perennial powerhouses – this fall.
Zhang was on the West team for the AJGA’s prestigious Wyndham Cup earlier this summer and has followed up with this record win.
How is she taking her quick rise all in?
“It’s pretty surreal to me,” Zhang said.
But it is all real, and in future tournaments she competes, records better beware.