With darkness descending upon The Broadmoor on Wednesday, Nicole Zhang made one of the biggest putts of her golf career.
The University of Notre Dame student sank an 8-footer for birdie on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff to earn one of two spots in the U.S. Women's Open, set for June 27-30 at Sebonack Golf Club in South Hampton, N.Y.
Zhang, a semifinalist at last year's U.S. Women's Amateur Championship who qualified for the 2010 U.S. Women's Open, defeated Katie Kempter in the playoff to join medalist Sally Watson in the field for arguably the biggest tournament in women's golf.
"I've never been that nervous," Zhang, who carded rounds of 73 and 76, said of the birdie putt. "I had a lot of adrenaline pumping, and my hands were shaking a little bit, so I'm glad I pulled it off. I knew she could make par, so I knew I needed to hit it close.
"I haven't really played since January, so I didn't think I'd make it today. I'm so excited."
Zhang and Kempter each finished 36 holes on The Broadmoor's par-71, 6,681-yard West Course with 7-over 149 totals, one behind Watson, and headed to the first tee for the playoff. Zhang found the right side of the fairway, stuck a 9-iron just 8 feet from the pin from 127 yards and made the putt for the playoff win.
Watson, who recently finished her college career at Stanford University, shot a 72 and 76 to earn top honors at the 56-player sectional qualifier. Watson, who hails from Scotland, will turn professional before the tournament and plans to play in both the LPGA and Ladies European Tour qualifying tournaments later this year.
"To be first is just a cherry on top of the sundae, and I'm just happy I made it," said Watson, who missed the cut by a stroke in the 2010 U.S. Women's Open at Oakmont Country Club. "There are always shots you wish you could take back, but overall I'm happy with the way I played today. I'm definitely very excited."
It was a tough day for locals, with former Doherty standout and reigning Big Sky Conference champion Paige Crawford struggling through rounds of 83 and 85 on the tough layout. Samantha Stancato, an all-state performer at Coronado and current University of Wyoming golfer, carded a 90 in the morning round to fall out of contention.
"It was a struggle out there today," said Crawford, a two-time Gazette Player of the Year who plays at Montana State University. "The greens were hard to read, and it was tough to get up and down if you missed the greens. It was a good experience though."