Cleveland – When Nicole Zhang saw her Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking Thursday night, she laughed to herself.
The 20-year-old Zhang, of Canada, hadn’t known she was ranked 787th or, for that matter, that her U.S. Women’s Amateur quarterfinal opponent, 16-year-old Su-Hyun Oh, of Australia, was ranked 21st in the world.
“It’s nice to be the big underdog,” said Zhang with a laugh after eliminating Oh, 2 and 1, at The Country Club on Friday afternoon.
For Zhang, who took a year off from college golf after her freshman year at the University of Notre Dame and is transferring to Northwestern University for the 2012-13 academic year, the victory was surreal. Her new Northwestern teammates and coaches had been cheering her on via text messages. And she said she has never heard her 22-year-old brother, Dustin, more excited than he was on the phone Thursday, telling her he convinced his New York City company to put on Golf Channel so he could watch her.
“I never thought I’d be here in the semifinals,” said Zhang, who received Academic All-America honors from the National Golf Coaches Association in 2011. “I’m more amazed than anything. Before I used to work a lot harder. Golf was all I had.”
But since making her decision to transfer to Northwestern, she has branched out in life. For starters, she’s a budding entrepreneur, with an upcoming product that she didn’t want to discuss, which is scheduled to launch in November. She has also been volunteering her time to help fix up old houses. And then there is her new dog, who has brought her nothing but joy.
Oh, who lost in the second round of the U.S. Girls’ Junior to eventual runner-up Alison Lee, took Friday’s defeat in stride.
“I think next year I can do better,” said Oh, the winner of the 2012 Australian Girls Amateur, who became the youngest player to qualify for the Australian Women’s Open in 2009 at age 12.
Competing in her third U.S. Women’s Amateur, Zhang began the match by losing the first two holes to birdies by Oh. On the first hole, a 347-yard par 4, Oh sent her approach shot to within 2 feet of the hole before knocking in the putt. On the second hole, Oh, who registered 13 greens in regulation, struck another majestic approach shot that stopped 6 feet short of the flagstick before sinking the birdie putt.
Zhang came back to win the third hole with a 7-foot birdie putt.
Just 1 up entering No. 6, Oh increased her lead by winning the hole with a 4-foot birdie putt. She maintained a 2-up advantage through eight holes.
“I was thinking, ‘OK, just keep going,’” said Oh.
“I didn’t look at the score,” said Zhang. “I was just trying to hit one good shot at a time.”
It was her putter that put the pressure on Oh, as Zhang made seven putts of 7 feet or longer over the final 11 holes. Overall, Zhang took just 22 putts and had 12 one-putts.
“That’s pretty rare for me,” said Zhang. “I was rolling the putts smoothly.”
“She just doesn’t miss a putt,” said Oh.
On the 179-yard, par-3 ninth hole, Zhang cut into Oh’s 2-up lead. Oh, hitting first, came up some 50 yards short of the green.
Zhang, who registered 13 greens in regulation, found the green and won the hole easily with a par when Oh couldn’t get up and down.
Clinging to a 1-up lead, Oh sank a 27-foot birdie putt on No. 12 that elicited a fist pump. It was a critical conversion because Zhang had stuck her approach shot to within 5 feet of the flagstick. She had gone from potentially winning the hole to a position of a must-make, and she sank her putt for a birdie to halve the hole.
The match turned on the 384-yard, par-4 13th hole. After driving into the right rough, Oh’s approach shot stopped about 60 feet short of the hole. She wound up three-putting for a bogey while Zhang two-putted from 20 feet for par. The match was all square.
“When I three-putted on 13, that was a big turning point,” said Oh. “My distance control was bad.”
Zhang seized the momentum. She won the 166-yard, par-3 14th hole with the help of a fortuitous bounce. Zhang’s tee shot kicked left off a mound and her ball stopped 6 feet short of the hole. She drained the birdie putt after Oh two-putted from 27 feet.
Zhang tightened the vise, winning the par-5 16th hole with her fourth birdie of the match. Oh had gone for the green in two but ended up in the left greenside bunker. She blasted out 33 feet past the hole and two-putted for par, but Zhang nailed a 5-foot putt that gave her a 2-up lead.
On No. 17, Zhang closed out the match when she sank an 8-foot birdie putt on top of Oh’s 10-footer for birdie.
“I’m so excited,” said Zhang, who will face Jaye Marie Green of Boca Raton, Fla., in Saturday’s semifinal round. “I never thought I’d make it to the semifinals.”
If she keeps winning, her World Golf Ranking will surely rise.
“For all the amateurs around the world, this is huge,” said Zhang. “Again, it’s nice to be the underdog.”
Ken Klavon is the USGA’s online editor. Email him at email@example.com.