CLEVELAND -- Nicole Zhang of Canada squeezed out a 1-up victory over Hyo-Joo Kim, the medalist and 3rd-ranked female amateur in the world, during the round of 16 at the U.S. Women's Amateur. The 20-year-old made two birdies and took the lead on the 13th hole, then cruised to the finish with five straight pars to close out the win.
"I learned today that I can play under pressure," said the soon-to-be Northwestern student, who is transferring from Notre Dame. "I received some great advice from Ellen Port in a practice round. She told me to simply play my own game, stay focused." Port, a four-time US Women's Mid-Amateur champion, failed to qualify for match play.
Zhang stuck to her game plan in this afternoon's match. She was unfazed by the hype surrounding Kim after her eight-under qualifying score and 7-and-6 victory in the first round. Zhang hit fairways and greens down the stretch, forcing Kim to make a move that never materialized after missed birdie putts on the 15th, 16th, and 17th holes ended her chances of survival. With a 1-up lead on the par-4 18th, Zhang stuck her approach to 5 feet, virtually sealing the match with Kim about 30 feet from the cup. After Kim missed, Zhang lagged her birdie putt to within inches of the cup and tapped in for par to complete the upset.
"This was the first time in awhile I wasn't nervous. I felt great," said Zhang, who recently started doing yoga, which she praised for its ability to calm her nerves. "I'm used to being nervous in situations like that, but I wasn't today."
Zhang's aggressive game plan paid off immensely, even though she was only able to convert two birdies during the match. "I went out there and tried to birdie every hole. I wanted to put the pressure on her [Kim]." Though she was never more than 1 down, Kim's body language on the back nine, particularly after a few missed putts, revealed that Zhang's game plan had worked.
Zhang will have tough company in tomorrow afternoon's quarterfinal match. Her opponent is Australia's Su-Hyun Oh, who beat 2012 GB&I Curtis Cup team member Holly Clyburn, UNC's Maia Schechter, and 2011 Hong Kong Ladies Open Amateur champion Jayvie Marie Agojo, each in decisive victories that did not reach the 17th hole. But after beating the medalist, Zhang, who will try to use the momentum from a big upset to her advantage, isn't worried about her opponents.
"I know I'm just as good as the rest of these girls," she said.