Sept. 22, 2010
By Kelly Taylor, Media Relations Student Assistant
Most collegiate golfers arrive at each hole with the upcoming stroke in mind. Without the stress of past mistakes or the burden of future successes, they tee up in hopes of surveying the fairway properly and making it on the green. For freshman golfer Nicole Zhang, this thought process has already taken her a long way in her golf career.
Zhang, a freshman on the Irish women’s golf team, took a brief side trip last July before heading to school at Notre Dame in August. The 18-year old native of Calgary, Alberta traveled to Pittsburgh, Pa., to compete in the 2010 U.S. Women’s Golf Open at the famous Oakmont Country Club.
Not only was she the first member of the Fighting Irish women’s golf program to qualify for the event, but she did so before ever competing on the collegiate level.
According to Golfweek, Zhang is ranked as the No. 10 recruit in the nation. In her first-ever U.S. Open, she was one of four Canadians competing, and shot a 78 in both the first and second rounds for a total of 14-over, 156, missing the cut by four strokes.
Golf has been a consistent factor in Zhang’s life. “We live on a golf course in Calgary, and my brother started playing golf when he was young so I just followed in his footsteps,” she says. “I started playing when I was six years old.”
Coincidently enough, Zhang’s older brother, Dustin, is a senior competing on the Irish men’s golf team. “It’s great to have someone I know really well on the golf team,” she says. “I can always go to him for advice on golf and even school.”
Her brother also played a large role in her decision to attend Notre Dame. “Since he goes here, I got to see the school and visit it,” Zhang says. “I loved the campus, but what really made me want to come here were the coaches.”
Head Coach Susan Holt and Assistant Coach Kyle Veltri most certainly benefited from such a talented recruit such as Zhang. “They’re just two really great people and I’ve heard lots of great things about them,” Zhang says.
To reach the U.S. Open, Zhang had to qualify and did so by finishing fourth in a sectional qualifying event at the Pinnacle Peak Country Club in Scottsdale, Ariz. Competing against a group of 55 golfers, including 23 professionals, she shot a 71 during her first round and a 74 during her second in order to gain access to the most elite competition in women’s golf. Upon conquering her qualifying round, Zhang recounts the feelings of euphoria. “I was really excited,” she exclaims. “Throughout the round, I kept thinking to myself, `What if I made the U.S. Open?’ I just tried to stay calm, and afterwards, I’ve never felt so happy before.”
While the excitement was overwhelming, Zhang also notes the immense pressure surrounding such a prestigious tournament. “I did feel a bit of pressure but I was also really excited just to be at the U.S. Open,” she says. “I was trying to soak in everything and enjoy the whole experience.”
However, Zhang admits the pressure may have affected her play. “I wasn’t too happy with how I played because I know I could have done a lot better,” she admits. “It was more of a mental thing than anything because I felt very inexperienced since it was my first U.S. Open. Hopefully I’ll get more chances in the future.”
After a busy summer that also saw her qualify for and play in the U.S. Publinks and U.S. Women’s Amateur, Zhang is looking forward to actually playing collegiate golf for the first time.
“A lot of the girls that are playing in college right now are the same girls I’ve competed against in junior golf,” she says. According to Zhang, collegiate play introduces an additional factor, school pride. “Now that we’re all playing for teams there is a rivalry,” she says. Lucky for the Irish, Zhang is on their side.
She will make her first collegiate appearance this weekend, Sept. 25-26, at Michigan State’s Mary Fossum Invitational in East Lansing, Mich. Her first appearance at home will come the following week when the Irish host the William K. Warren Invitational at the Warren Golf Course, Oct. 2-3.
Not only is Zhang transitioning within the golfing world, she has also recently made the move from Canada to the United States. “I definitely have been hit by homesickness,” she admits. “I just miss all my friends, my family and especially Tim Horton’s.” Canada is known for housing the popular coffee shop every few blocks.
She has also experienced a difference in regards to academics. “It’s definitely been a lot more work with school and everything. But the difference between universities in the states is that there’s a lot more school spirit compared to Canada,” she says. “College sports are a lot bigger deal here.” Overall, Zhang seems to be enjoying the refreshing change of pace.
In terms of her goals for this season, the freshman is focused on learning to find a balance between school and golf. “I just want to constantly try to improve my game, even though I’m swamped with homework and tests,” she says. “I hope to do well in academics and in golf.”
Zhang explains how a typical day at practice involves a particular focus. “I try to focus on one part of the game each practice, and I usually like to play a few holes everyday,” she says. She hopes to continue improving throughout her inaugural season with the Irish. “I need to try to stay focused on every shot in order to push myself to do better.”
An intended business major, Zhang most definitely possesses a few quirks. “I don’t really like watching golf on television, it’s kind of boring,” she admits. Zhang says she is more likely to turn on football or skiing.
When asked about her initial thoughts surrounding college, she can’t help but point to the perks of North Dining Hall. “I love the unlimited frozen yogurt,” she states.
Nicole Zhang certainly possesses the passion to succeed amidst the Fighting Irish golf team this season. As she continues to pursue her professional career, she will undoubtedly contribute towards the rise of Notre Dame’s golf program as well.