TRINITY, Texas – Life is better than good if you’re one of the 80 competitors at the Spirit International Amateur Championship.
It’s a week-long summer camp, down to living in a bunk with your fellow competitors. Or as Charlie Epps, president of the Spirit Golf Association, put it: “It’s Shangri-La.” There’s golf to be played, of course, but also game night activities and even entertainment. On Wednesday night, magician Ben Jackson put on a masterful act. Shortly before he set a $100 bill pulled from Epps’s bill-fold on fire — it miraculously re-appeared intact in Epps’s bill fold at the end of the night — Jackson asked Epps to write the name he wished his could be on the back of the bill in a black marker. Epps scribbled the name Rose. Jackson didn’t anticipate a female name and with a look of confusion on his face asked, “Why Rose?”
“Because I wish I could be as good as Rose Zhang,” Epps, 76, and the former coach of two-time major champion Angel Cabrera, said.
Later, he noted that he wasn’t alone. When his seven-year-old granddaughter met Zhang, she told her she wants to be like Zhang too.
Everyone, young and old, wants to be like the sweet-swinging 18-year-old Zhang, who has already won a U.S. Girls Junior and U.S. Women’s Amateur and launched her college career this fall by winning her first three tournaments as a freshman at Stanford University. Golf Channel commentator Steve Burkowski said it was the best start to a season since Lorena Ochoa won her first seven events and eight of 10 starts some 20 years ago at Arizona.
Rose Zhang holds a three-stroke lead in the women’s competition after shooting 68 on Friday at the 2021 Spirit International Amateur Championship. (Courtesy SGA/Hugh Hargrave)
Zhang’s picking right up where she left off, shooting a 4-under 68 in the second round at Whispering Pines Golf Club to build a three-stroke lead over Mexico’s Isabella Fierro, who shot the low round of the day, 5-under 67, and Canada’s Savannah Grewel (71-69) and Switzerland’s Caroline Sturdza (70-70) in the women’s individual tournament heading into the final round of the 54-hole competition.
Color Stacy Lewis, USA Team captain, impressed.
“It’s like she’s able to flip a switch,” Lewis said. “Rose has been so good for so long it’s hard to believe she’s just a freshman in college. She’s almost like a Lydia Ko when she came out. She’s just really solid. There’s not one thing you say she does this great. She just does everything well. And she’s still learning, that’s the crazy part. It’s scary to think of what is coming.”
On Friday, Zhang pointed to the seventh hole as the turning point in her round. From 143 yards away at the par 4, she had a helping wind to a flag tucked on the right portion of the green and stuck an 8-iron to 2 feet, made birdie and never looked back. On three occasions, she and her Stanford teammate made birdie at the same hole – Nos. 2, 14 and 17 – and each time they reprised their celebratory handshake they created at the Curtis Cup earlier this year, which concluded with a bump and slap of the rear.
“They’re way cooler than us,” said U.S. Amateur champ James Piot, who said he and Sam Bennett, the male half of Team USA, settled for a standard, run-of-the-mill fist bump.
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Thanks to the combination of rest and some medication, Heck, the reigning NCAA women’s individual champ, felt better and improved her score by nine strokes from a day earlier, shooting 3-under 69 and lifting Team USA’s women into a three-way tie with France and Switzerland at 4-under.
“I think that’s what’s really fun about team events,” she said. “Yesterday, I didn’t play great, the team played amazing. My score didn’t count, but that’s motivation to come back today and contribute to the team. That’s what I did and I’m really happy about it. It was so fun playing alongside Rose as always and feeding off of her awesome energy and great play. It was a much better day out there today.”
The biennial competition is being staged for the 10th time and brings together the best amateur golfers from 20 countries and four continents for three days of competition. Two female and two male amateurs from each country will play for a chance at gold in five concurrent competitions.
On the men’s side, Team Canada (8 under) opened up a six-stroke lead over Team Sweden and Team USA. Bennett’s putter warmed up for the Americans on the second nine as he carded four birdies in a row beginning at No. 12 and shot 68, while Piot struggled to 5-over 77. (His score didn’t hurt Team USA in the overall team competition as only the best three scores count each day.)
As a group, Team USA posted an 11-under 205 on Friday, seven shots better than the next best score for the day. It pushed the Americans to 17-under 415 overall, good for a five-shot lead over second place Canada headed into Saturday’s final round. France, the defending champions from 2019, holds third place at 6-under 426. Team USA is looking for its sixth win in the overall competition and first since 2015.
In the men’s individual, Canada’s Johnny Travale and England’s Joseph Pagdin share the 36-hole lead at 6-under 138. Pagdin, who plays at the University of Florida, shot a second straight 69 while Travale of University of Central Florida, posted a 71 that included an eagle at 12. Bennett is alone in third, three strokes back, but he’s been in this position before and won multiple tournament coming from behind.
“I just need to stay patient and hopefully I can get to two down or one down on the back nine and see where it goes from there,” he said.
Lewis, for one, likes where her team is standing heading into the final round and has high hopes for gold medals to be secured.
“We played more like we all expected at the beginning of the week,” she said. “As a team they still probably haven’t played their best golf.”
That, too, is a scary thought. On Saturday, gold, silver and bronze commemorative medals are awarded to the top finishers in each competition and Zhang knows that no lead is safe.
“I honestly don’t think any lead would be comfortable heading into the final round,” she said. “Anything can happen. On this course especially, you really have to keep on your toes and keep playing well. Nothing unusual, nothing out of the ordinary (for tomorrow). I’m just going to go out there and try to play the best I can.”
**Image: From left to right: Corby Robertson, Rose Zhang, Stacy Lewis, Lewis’s daughter Chesney, and Rachel Heck. Courtesy SGA/Hugh Hargrave