Except this time, Ruffels’s bid at the No. 9 green lipped out, allowing Zhang, seeded 16th, to claim the world’s oldest women’s golf championship despite an ailing wrist that required treatment after each round and had the high school senior, at the advice of her coach, seriously considering withdrawing several weeks ago.
Zhang instead hit the center of the fairway on the decisive hole, landed her approach to 20 feet left of the pin and had her birdie putt miss by mere inches.
“It’s crazy because I was actually watching her on TV last year, and I’ve seen her final-round highlights and everything, and it just made me think, ‘Wow, she’s such a great player,’” Zhang said of Ruffels. “It just [made me want to] work on my game more, and she inspired me to keep playing the game that I love.”
Zhang, 17, was able to continue on in the championship match with an improbable recovery at the 36th and final hole of regulation match play. She had pulled her drive to the left of the cart path, with branches from several trees preventing a clean shot to the green.
So the Stanford commit pulled a 5-hybrid from her bag and tried to punch out onto the fairway. The ball instead traveled only a few yards, leaving a tricky pitch from the rough that she deftly landed inside of a foot.
Ruffels, 20, gave Zhang a thumbs-up as the ball came to rest, conceding the par putt. Then the senior at Southern California, the daughter of former professional tennis players Anna-Maria Fernandez and Ray Ruffels, left her 15-footer for birdie just short, with Zhang conceding the par putt.
Zhang and Ruffels, who had reached the championship match following two rounds of stroke play and five subsequent match-play rounds, then halved the 37th hole, played at the par-4 8th on the North Course.
“Rose is definitely one of the toughest opponents,” said Ruffels, who received an embrace and words of encouragement from her mother after the match. “She never left the door open, I feel like. She drives straight down the middle, hits greens. I mean, what a good player. Her wedge game is amazing, putting is amazing.
“Can’t believe she’s only 17.”
Zhang’s resolve under the duress of the most prestigious women’s amateur tournament this year surfaced throughout her week in Rockville. For instance, she rallied on the back nine from 2 down to eliminate No. 1 seed Rachel Heck during Friday’s round of 16.
She also rallied to defeat Kaleigh Telfer, 2 up, in Saturday morning’s quarterfinals before advancing to the championship match with a 2-up victory over Alyaa Abdulghany in Saturday afternoon’s semifinals.
“This week I really persevered through, and it really shows my mentality can overcome my physicality with my wrist,” said Zhang, who wore black pain-relieving tape on her forearm. “I’m just super-grateful. Every single event is different, but it just makes me realize that I can play out here with the top amateurs in the world.”
The drama down the stretch Sunday began at the 30th hole, where Ruffels’s approach with a 6-iron from 150 yards landed beyond the green in the rough at the par 4. Zhang lofted her approach within 12 feet of the flag and left her putt for birdie inches short of the cup.
Ruffels’s chip went only a few feet, with the gnarly rough grabbing her club face during the follow-through. Her next chip settled within four feet, and Ruffels walked to the next hole, the par-3 13th, 1 down.
A brilliant tee shot from Ruffels came to rest six feet from the pin. Zhang landed her tee shot short of the green and lagged to a foot. Ruffels then made her putt for birdie to square the match.
Zhang had an opening at the 33rd hole when Ruffels sent her second shot at the 534-yard par-5 into the left rough, where it settled on a severe side-hill lie. Zhang’s second shot landed in the center of the fairway, and she had some 90 yards to the flag for an attempt at birdie.
But Zhang’s approach missed the green, and Ruffels, despite an awkward stance that allowed virtually no lower-body movement, hit to the right of the green for, remarkably, a reasonable chance to get up and down.
Ruffels’s putt came up two feet short and was conceded.
Zhang’s birdie putt rolled four feet past, and after getting into her putting stance for her next attempt, she stepped away at the advice of her father. Zhang addressed her ball again moments later and curled the putt into the left side of the cup.
“This is actually the first time I’ve defended a tournament that I’ve won, so I wanted to see how I deal with the pressure and expectations and stuff,” Ruffels said. “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 get at my defense.”