Winning a U.S. Women’s Amateur affects a player in one of two ways. The victory either fast-tracks their career to the professional ranks, providing much-needed name recognition and invitations to the game’s biggest events, as was the case with champions such as Danielle Kang and Morgan Pressel. Or, if that player is already a stellar collegiate golfer, reaching the pinnacle of the amateur game becomes another accomplishment to tick off the board ahead of the LPGA Tour, like it was for three-time consecutive champion Juli Inkster.
The 121st edition of the USGA’s third-oldest championship is being contested this week at Westchester Country Club in Rye, New York, one of the classics in an area overloaded with them. But how a win on Sunday will affect the new champion cannot be determined. All we know is that whoever comes out on top will have beaten a laundry list of impeccable talent from both the junior and college ranks. There are only four participants older than 25 committed to play, a trend that continues to skew this championship younger by the year. And much attention will be focused on a kid – defending champion, 18-year-old Rose Zhang.
The incoming Stanford freshman won in dramatic fashion last year when Gabriela Ruffels, who was looking to repeat at Woodmont Country Club, missed a 3-foot par putt on the second extra hole. Zhang wasn’t unknown, having won many of the most prominent junior events in the country at that point. But the victory helped propel her to top of the World Amateur Golf Rankings and to young stardom in the game.
Zhang further proved her talents at last month’s U.S. Girls’ Junior, carding an 8-under 62 in the final round of stroke play, tying the lowest round ever shot in the championship. She’d go on to claim the title in Maryland after swiftly moving through the match-play bracket, defeating Bailey Davis, 6 and 4, in the final, only the eighth player to claim both titles and the first to win the Women’s Amateur prior to the Girls’ Junior.
Coming off that victory, along with making the cut at the Amundi Evian Championship and clinching a spot on the U.S. Curtis Cup team, Zhang will be riding all sorts of positive momentum into New York. She’s clearly a betting favorite to again hoist the Robert Cox Cup this week, even though it’s been a decade since anyone has successfully defended in the Amateur. Her performances captured the attention of many former USGA champions playing just down the road last week at the U.S. Senior Women’s Open who know the teenager possesses something special.
U.S. Curtis Cup captain Sarah Ingram calls Zhang “unflappable” and knows that she’s a player who will fight hard in every match.
“She’s got a lot between the ears and seems very settled in herself which is important,” said Amy Alcott, the 1980 U.S. Women’s Open winner. “I’ve always said in golf you can’t let your highs be too high and your lows be too low. And she seems to have a grasp on that. She knows she’s somebody that’s going somewhere.”
U.S. Curtis Cup captain Sarah Ingram calls Zhang “unflappable” and knows that she’s a player who will fight hard in every match. Having spent her career watching and competing with the game’s best amateurs, Ingram knows that Zhang is a unique example of what it means to be a well-rounded player.
“She has the whole package just with her personality, her maturity, and her game,” said Ingram. “I think she has a good outlook on life in general, that there’s more to life than golf which probably helps her be the great player that she is. She is a solid player with a mature personality and is a very nice girl. To me, that’s one of the most important things.”
Inkster, a three-time winner of the Women’s Amateur, is impressed with Zhang. The former Solheim Cup captain is looking forward to catching up with her when she gets started at college in the fall.
“She’s a really impressive player,” Inkster said. “She’s going to Stanford and that’s where I practice. I’m looking to spend some time with her and see what she’s about.”
While she’s got many of the game’s best players rooting for her, Zhang isn’t going to have an easy test at Westchester considering the strength of the field. Anything can happen in match play and there are plenty of other participants with résumés just as loaded as Zhang’s looking to take home the coveted title.
NCAA champion and ANNIKA Award winner Rachel Heck is another early favorite to contend. Heck carded six wins as an individual during her first year at Stanford University, including a postseason sweep with wins at conference, regionals, and nationals, only the third time it’s ever been done in NCAA history. She’s been teeing it up on the LPGA Tour lately and it stands to reason that the experience she’s gleaned from those starts could come in handy as she looks to add a Women’s Amateur to her already stout career.
Megha Ganne, 17, who captured the hearts of golf fans with her electric T-14 performance at the U.S. Women’s Open in June, is also worth watching. She fell to Albane Valenzuela in the semifinals of the 2019 U.S. Women’s Amateur and is heading into this week fresh off a solo third at the Girls’ Junior PGA Championship. Ganne may still be a little green in terms of appearances in the game’s biggest championships, but if her play at Olympic is any indication, look for her to rise to the top as the tournament progresses.
With these young talents and more competing, the stage is set for a sensational showdown. Against a backdrop like Westchester Country Club, which counts Carol Burnett, Shirley Temple, and Ed Sullivan among its current or former members, you can be sure that the next generation of stars will be enjoying the spotlight, eager to become golf’s latest household name.
All Rose Zhang photos Kathryn Riley, USGA
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