Rose Zhang, the reigning US Women's Amateur champion, had just made relatively quick work of Rianne Mikhaela Malixi, the No. 32 seed in qualifying for match play at the US Girls' Junior at Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, Md.
Zhang, who is headed to Stanford in the fall for an almost certainly short stint, had come into the stately, cavernous clubhouse at the D.C.-area club to have lunch. She was sitting with other fellow competitors -- friends and occasional rivals, as the sport is prone to creating. They were sitting in a room meant for performances, with a curtained-off stage overlooking a makeshift dining area for players, their families and media alike. Nothing was overheard, but the meal seemed casual and a good break from the scorching heat and enveloping humidity outside.
After the lunch, the group dispersed, and Zhang was remaining in the air conditioning slightly longer before getting ready for her Round of 16 match. As one of the other attendees left the lobby of the clubhouse to head outside, she shouted back at Zhang, "I believe in you!"
Who's to say that Zhang needed to hear that, but those kinds of affirmations don't get aired if the person saying them thinks they're unnecessary.
Rose Zhang was under enormous pressure last week at the US Girls' Junior. She was looking to become the first player in USGA history to win the US Women's Amateur and then the US Girls' Junior. Seven others had won both, but they'd done so in the more traditional, seemingly chronological order.
The California native coasted to the top slot in match play, setting a competitive course record at Columbia with an 8-under 62 on Tuesday's second day of qualifying. It could have easily been a 59. She was one of two players to break par in the bracket-setting 36-hole sprint. A course record would seemingly give her a world of confidence, on top of having already been crowned the best women's amateur player last summer at Woodmont Country Club, a club eight miles north of Columbia Country Club.
However, Zhang had played surprisingly poor at the US Women's Open, shooting 76-80 to miss the cut two-and-a-half months after nearly winning in her debut on the Symetra Tour, the LPGA's developmental circuit, and two months after finishing as low-am in the ANA Inspiration, the first major of the calendar year. Competitively speaking, Zhang has been jumping from the big leagues to Triple A to Double A to Single A. She's expected at this point to thrive on pretty much every level.
Imagine Zhang's potential horror, then, of not winning the US Girls' Junior. After all, the No. 2 seed from qualifying, USC-bound Cindy Kou, was six ahead of the next-best player in stroke-play qualifying -- and that earned her a 4-and-2 drubbing from 14-year-old Avery Zweig, who had just played on the LPGA Tour a few weeks prior. No match-play medalist had gone on to win the US Girls' Junior in a decade, since Ariya Jutanugarn in 2011.
Still, Zhang's path to the semifinals was easy: 6 and 4, 4 and 3, 4 and 2, and 5 and 4.
Then she ran into her toughest match of the week, taking on Paula Miranda of Mexico in the semis. Zhang was 2 down through 10 holes before winning three in a row to take a fraught 1-up edge. Zhang hadn't seen the short par-4 17th hole in match play, and she couldn't sort out the uphill wedge shot to a table-top green. Miranda could, made birdie and ultimately forced extra holes. The second time around on No. 17, in the 20th hole of the match, Zhang, whose caddie was a two-time Columbia club champion, made par from about the same spot as in regulation, but Miranda couldn't push further.
Zhang landed in the final with Bailey Davis, the No. 3 seed from qualifying who qualified initially at Columbia, whose teacher is at nearby Congressional, who plays out of National Golf Club in neighboring Prince George's County, and who would be vying to become the first female African-American champion of a USGA event.
The gallery on Saturday would be politely favoring Davis, whose speed and power made her a formidable challenge. She's heading to Tennessee in the fall, proud to show African-American girls that someone who looks like them can accomplish big things in a sport that has a history of shutting them out. Davis embraced the galleries at Columbia.
“The girls at the course have been so nervous to talk to me, but I don't want anyone to feel that way," Davis said. "I would love to talk to anybody. I love taking pictures with them. Signing autographs for them. I love it all.”
After being nodded all square through 11 holes, Zhang pulled away from Davis in the morning 18 of the weather-delayed 36-hole finale. She won four holes from Davis without response, carrying a commanding lead into the second round of the day. Davis would win two holes in the afternoon round -- the first and the penultimate -- before Zhang finished off a relieving 6-and-4 win.
The trophy was hers, a year after the US Girls' Junior was canceled amid the pandemic, which afforded her the unique opportunity to win a USGA women's amateur double in reverse order.
“I'm really proud of the commitment and work that I put in over the past year,” said Zhang. “I’ve gotten more experienced, both in how I play and how I handle myself."
Zhang acknowledged the pressure of expectations that came with being the reigning US Women's Amateur champion.
“Coming into the week everyone just expects you to play well," she said. "It feels great that they have really high standards for me, but golf is a difficult sport. Everyone is playing the same grounds, playing from the same tee, and you're playing in the same conditions.”
Zhang, however, is playing in rare air. Next month at Westchester Country Club, Zhang has an opportunity to become the first player to win back-to-back US Women's Ams since Danielle Kang in 2010 and 2011, following on from Kelli Kuehne in 1995 and 1996, as well at Kay Cockerill in 1986 and 1987.