The second longest final in U.S. Women’s Amateur history came down to just 3 feet.
Rose Zhang, a 17-year-old from Irvine, Calif., fully expected to be heading to a 38th hole in Sunday’s championship bout with USC senior and reigning champion Gabriela Ruffels at Woodmont Country Club in Rockville, Maryland. Instead, Ruffels’ bid to become the championship’s first repeat winner since Danielle Kang in 2011 came to a shocking and sudden end.
Her 3-foot par save to extend the match was halfway in the hole before it lipped out harshly, leaving a dejected Ruffels to scoop up her ball in defeat.
“Crazy,” Zhang said afterward, still in disbelief, her 37-hole triumph just four holes shy of the tournament record set all the way back in 1966.
“You know, actually the pin, where they placed it today, there's a lot of break that I didn't even read from this morning, so that putt, it seemed easy, but to be honest, it actually wasn't, especially under the pressure.”
Said Ruffels: “I actually hit it on my line, it's just kind of heartbreak seeing it horseshoe out.”
It was anything but a fitting close to a spectacular, back-and-forth match. Neither player led by more than 2 up the whole day. Ruffels was the one who got off to the hot start, leading 2 up through three holes, but it was Zhang who had the one-hole advantage at the 18-hole break.
When the pair returned from lunch, four of the first five holes were won with birdie. Punches were traded throughout the afternoon when Ruffels appeared to be on the cusp of delivering the deciding blow on the 36th hole. Zhang had just chunked a 5 hybrid that stayed in the rough and left a third shot of some 40 yards into the green at the par-4 18th hole.
“The rough was so bad, I was like, just chunk it out and then see where it goes, and then I'll go from there,” Zhang said.
She hit her next shot, a beautiful pitch-and-run, to tap-in range to force extra holes.
“Rose was one of the toughest opponents,” said the 20-year-old Ruffels, who now sets her sights on the Women’s Open Championship later this month. It will be her first of three major starts this year. “She never let the door open. Like she was dead straight down the middle, hits greens. What a good player. Her wedge game is amazing, putting is amazing. She's so solid. I can't believe she's only 17.”
Zhang, a Stanford commit who is entering her senior year of high school, certainly is mature beyond her years. Not only is she the AJGA's reigning player of the year and No. 1-ranked junior, but she was also the second highest ranked player in this week’s field at No. 9 in the WAGR. She has professional major experience, too, having made the cut at last year’s U.S. Women’s Open.
So, in many ways, Sunday’s victory was somewhat expected. But in other ways, it wasn’t.
Battling a left wrist injury, Zhang almost didn’t tee it up this week. Her coach, George Pinnell, wanted her to withdraw. She didn't listen, choosing instead to fight through the discomfort and routinely stretch it out between shots.
“My coach was actually really mad at me for coming here,” Zhang said. “And I was like, ‘No, it's OK, I'll just rest it,’ not play for 10 days before the tournament. And then, you know, here I am.”
Holding up the hardware.