ROCKVILLE, Md. – It was a match so good that even 36 holes weren’t enough.
The 120th U.S. Women’s Amateur final between defending champion Gabriela Ruffels and junior star Rose Zhang lived up to the hype.
And then some. And then some more. The match was tied for 18 holes, nobody led by more than two and a playoff was needed.
After a pair of pars on the opening playoff hole, next up was the par-4 9th, a hole that Ruffels had dominated entering the final round. In her previous five matches, the Australia native had made par and won the 9th hole in every previous match. Sunday morning was her first bogey and loss on No. 9 this week. Just hours later a second loss was coming in the most-brutal fashion. Ruffels had a three-footer for par to push the match to a 39th hole and lipped out, making Zhang the champion.
“I just expected her to make it,” Zhang said of the missed putt. “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 was — it seemed easy, but to be honest, it actually wasn’t, especially under the pressure.”
“You can’t take any putt for granted out here. These greens are crazy fast, and that did have a little break to it,” said Ruffels of her final putt. “I was playing it outside of the hole. I actually hit it on my line, it’s just kind of a heartbreak seeing it horseshoe out.”
“Rose was one of the toughest opponents. She never let the door open,” she continued. “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. All credit to her.”
Last year Zhang was watching Ruffels win the U.S. Women’s Amateur. Just a year later she defeated her to claim the title for herself. Funny enough, Zhang almost didn’t play this week due to a wrist injury.
“I was going to withdraw because my coach — my coach was actually really mad at me for coming here,” said Zhang with a smile. “And I was like, ‘No, it’s okay, I’ll just rest it,’ not play for 10 days before the tournament. And then, you know, here I am.”
Ruffels made her move early, jumping out to a 2-up lead after consecutive birdies on Nos. 2 and 3. Rose responded – foreshadowing for the later holes – winning Nos. 5 and 6 to get back to even.
The rest of the opening 18 were all-Zhang, with the Irvine, California native holding a 2-up lead of her own on holes 12-17. After Zhang, a 2021 Stanford commit, flagged her approach to a conceded birdie on No. 15, Ruffels made a huge putt from distance for birdie to avoid falling three down. Then for the first time since No. 3, Ruffels won a hole on the 18th to cut the match to 1 down at the lunch break.
An hour later the players were back on No. 1 tee for the 19th hole, and just minutes after that Ruffels pushed the match back to even after a clutch birdie on the par-3 20th hole. Ruffels made birdie again on the 21st hole to briefly hold a 1-up lead before giving it up immediately on the next. For the rest of the match the finalists went shot-for-shot, neither relenting an inch.
On the 36th hole, Ruffels’ tee shot found the right rough with a good angle at the pin. Zhang was in trouble, behind two trees with only one play: through the narrow window. She tried to punch a 5-hybrid to the green but her ball got held up in the rough. From just inside 100 yards she stuck her approach to a few feet to get up-and-down. Ruffels’ putt for the win came up a few feet short, right on the line of gimme-status. Zhang surprisingly gave her the putt. She knew how far it was, it wasn’t a mistake. She didn’t want Ruffels to have any momentum in the playoff if she were to make it.
Talk about a bold strategy paying off.
“This is actually the first time I’ve ever defended a tournament that I’ve won,” said Ruffels. “So I wanted to see how I would deal with the pressure and expectations, and I feel like I really stayed mentally strong this week, and I feel like I can hold my head high with how I tried to go about my defense.”
The rising senior at USC leaves Sunday for the British Open, which will be her first time playing in Europe. The majors don’t stop there. After that it’s the ANA Inspiration, then the U.S. Women’s Open at the end of the year. Maybe a college golf season mixed in, pandemic depending.
For Zhang, things are a little different. She’ll be entering her senior year of high school, counting down the days until she can defend her title.