Zhou wins Golfweek Fall Preview with final-round 71
Connie Zhou had no idea she was in position to win her first career tournament until the last group of golfers on the course returned to the clubhouse.
Yet the sophomore clinched the Golfweek Division III Fall Preview title on Tuesday after birdying two of her last four holes to shoot a one-under 71 in the final round.
“It hasn’t set in yet. It’s all very surreal right now,” Zhou said Tuesday evening. “The thought of winning never crossed my mind at all, and it never became my goal.”
Zhou and the No. 5 Washington University women’s golf team rode a tournament-low 294 in the second round to a second-place finish in the tournament in Destin, Fla. The Bears’ three-day score of 910 (314, 294, 302) was six strokes behind No. 2 Methodist University’s 904 (296, 304, 304).
“We’ve been ranked [highly] before and not performed well when faced with a bigger stage like this,” head coach Sean Curtis said. “The one thing about this group is they are a pretty relaxed group, but they are competitors. If we can keep that combination, we can be really dangerous. There is no doubt we are talented.”
No. 23 Rhodes College was 24 strokes behind Wash. U. in third place, and No. 3 University of Texas-Tyler was three strokes behind Rhodes at 937. Defendingnational champion and first-ranked Mary Hardin-Baylor University rounded out the top five at 938.
The second-round 294 was a tournament low and the second-lowest score in team history, three strokes shy of the 291 fired at the Millikin University Fall Classic on Sept. 24, 2011. The top four Bears had 12 birdies combined in the second round.
“I thought it was really a combination of confidence in knowing you could get the ball close and then stepping up and putting a good putt on it, making sure you get it there and give it a chance,” Curtis said.
Zhou’s 219 (76, 72, 71) was eight strokes better than junior Olivia Lugar’s school record three-day total of 227, achieved at last year’s Golfweek Fall Preview. Zhou rode four birdies on the final day to the second-best outing of her career, after a two-under 70 at the same course last year that was a tournament low.
“My putting really came through and was consistent over three days,” Zhou said. “[Tuesday], I hit some good approach shots, but it was my putting that got me to red digits.”
“That’s a pretty prestigious tournament to win as far as Division III women’s golf goes,” Curtis said. “It doesn’t get much better than that until you get to the national championships.”
Curtis credited Zhou’s performance to her mental toughness and competitiveness.
“I thought that she was ready to go,” he said. “She may not feel like she’s hitting the ball the best, but she was ready to compete. That’s really what we needed from her. Boy, she played well.”
Following Zhou’s lead, two other Bears finished in the top five. Lugar was four strokes behind Zhou with a score of 223 (75, 73, 75), and freshman Xin Faang finished tied for fifth at 227 (80, 71, 76). The 71s fired by Fang and Zhou tied for the tournament low for a single round.
Senior Andi Hibbert finished tied for 55th place with a score of 249 (83, 78, 88), and freshman Samantha Han tied for 57th place at 250 (88, 82, 80). The five Bears combined for 27 birdies in the three-day tournament.
“I am very proud of everyone this weekend,” Lugar said. “Several of us were able to break through and score well, and even though there were a few scores we would like to improve on, we have a better idea of how to move forward. Personally, I found confidence in my swing that I had been lacking all season. Because I could trust each shot, I could focus on my short game more as well.”
The Golfweek Fall Preview featured nine ranked teams, including four of the top five and No. 8 Centre College, and five other teams who are receiving votes in the GolfWorld/WGCA Top 25 poll. The competitive field, according to Zhou, makes the tournament as close as the team can get to duplicating the environment at the NCAA Division III National Championships, which will be held in Howey-in-the-Hills, Fla., in May.
“Some of the best competition was at this tournament, and it was incredibly important for us to make a statement,” Zhou said. “The preview is similar to nationals, [both] competition-wise [and] conditions-wise, so it was also really good for us to compete under that same pressure.”
“This is one of the only tournaments where the top teams play the same course under the same conditions, so it’s the best opportunity to check how our team is doing versus the others,” Lugar added. “Playing well is great for confidence.”
Wash. U. will take an extended break during the winter, returning to action at the George Fox Invitational in March.
“I like the direction this group is heading,” Curtis said. “We really won’t get back together as a group until February, but once we do, we’ll be at it full speed ahead.”