Rose Zhang, making her professional debut after a dominant amateur career, fired a six-under par 66 on Saturday to take a two-shot lead heading into the final round of the LPGA Mizuho Americas Open.
The 20-year-old Californian, whose amateur victories included back-to-back NCAA collegiate titles, the US Women’s Amateur and this year’s Augusta National Women’s Amateur, had six birdies without a bogey to build a 54-hole total of 11-under couple at Liberty National in Jersey City, New Jersey
That put her two clear of overnight co-leader Cheyenne Knight of the United States, Thailand’s Atthaya Thitikul and India’s Aditi Ashok.
“It’s been great,” Zhang said of her week so far on the course that overlooks the Manhattan skyline and Statue of Liberty.
“Today was pretty much what I expected. The golf course was playing a little more difficult, especially with the winds gusting up a little bit more and it’s in a different direction.
“I was just committed to every single golf shot that I hit today, so I think all that allowed me to shoot the best score that I could.”
Zhang started the day two shots off the lead and opened with a birdie at the first. She added birdies at the fourth, sixth and eighth and seized a share of the lead with a birdie at 14.
As cooling temperatures and rising winds made scoring difficult for the late finishers on the back nine, she drove the green at the par-four 16th.
While her eagle attempt from inside six feet didn’t drop, she tapped in for a birdie and the solo lead.
“I had 253 from the tee and the wind was right to leave a little bit,” she said. “I have a natural draw to my driver … I was in the mindset of I can go for it.”
Zhang posted 12 collegiate wins, including eight this season, to draw comparisons to another Stanford alum — Tiger Woods.
– Expecting to scramble –
She has played in eight major tournaments as an amateur, but admitted that leading by two wasn’t where she expected to be heading into Sunday’s final round.
“I was expecting myself to scramble into the cut,” she said. “That was the first priority for me.
“But I’ve been enjoying every moment. I feel like the weekend is something that I’ve experienced before but as an amateur, so obviously it is a little different.
“I’ve just been trying to take it all in, figure out what to do inside the ropes, rather than just, you know, be blindsided.”
Knight, chasing a second LPGA title, was 10-under after three front-nine birdies, but an errant tee shot led to a bogey at the 17th — where she did well to limit the damage.
She parred the 18th to cap a two-under 70 for a nine-under total of 207.
Ashok said solid putting helped her birdie five of the first 10 holes. She also holed out of a bunker at the fourth “which always helps.”
With the wind and chill rising, Ashok said, “I was just trying to make pars after that.”
She gave back a shot at the 15th on the way to a four-under 68 and her share of second.
Atthaya, a two-time LPGA winner and a four-time winner on the Ladies European Tour, also carded a 68.