Youths reach new highs staying low

Summer golf circuit enables local teen standouts to showcase their stellar strokes

With 1,827.5 points amassed in 12 events, Olivia Zhang is the current leader in the girls age 14-15 division of the Illinois Junior Golf Association.

Two years ago the Hinsdale teen was still learning how to swing.

"I had played many other sports but hadn't really clicked with them," Zhang related. "In 2021 when I started playing golf, I was like, 'Oh, I'm actually good at this!' "

On June 30 Zhang notched her third victory of her 2023 campaign, carding a season-best 79 to capture top honors at Boone Creek Golf Club in Bull Valley. The success, she said, is a product of a constant drive to improve.

"I don't really focus on the outcome," remarked Zhang, who said her overall low round for 18 is 77. "I'm more competing against myself than I am against other players. I just want to push my limits."

She was still recovering from an offseason injury in her first tournament in May. But a few weeks later her restored health and confidence powered her to an eight-stroke triumph at Glen Flora Country Club in Waukegan - her first career IJGA title.

"I was really not expecting it, so it was a surprise. I just felt like all my hard work paid off," Zhang said of the June 19 win.

Two runner-up finishes quickly followed before she reached the winner's circle again June 26 at Sunset Valley Country Club in Highland Park.

Then another second place before her Boone Creek trophy. Three wins and three near wins in the span of six events. Zhang said playing percentage golf is her approach.

"I just try getting to the middle of the green every single shot," she commented. "Instead of going so aggressive I try playing more safe. I ask myself, 'What's the best way I can save strokes?' "

And being skilled with the flat stick helps, too.

"I can't really hit it as far as other girls, so I need to depend on my short game to save a lot of strokes," Zhang said. "When my putting is really working, I know I'm going to shoot a good score."

Zhang, a rising sophomore at Hinsdale Central, was especially pleased with her performance at the Players Challenge event at Sycamore Golf Club July 5-6. She placed seventh in a field of 26 competitors, most of whom were at least two years older.

"Top 10 feels really good." Zhang remarked. "I'm just proud of myself for shooting one of my best scores."

And when a result is not the best, her mantra is keep calm and carry on.

"I try and forget about it and learn from my mistakes," she said. "I really try not to force things. I try to let things happen because I know in the end it will work out eventually."

Bagging a championship

Last fall Hinsdale's Owen Simmons made $5 off his buddies in friendly round at Heritage Bluffs Golf Club in Channahon.

Two weeks ago he returned for an Illinois Junior Golf Association tournament and again found a winning formula, earning a tie for first with an impressive round of 75.

"Maybe I just had a little confidence going into it," Simmons said. "It felt nice, I hadn't won an IJGA event before, so it was nice to finally see my hard work pay off."

The Hinsdale Central sophomore had been knocking on the door of victory, finishing seventh on June 13 at Countryside Golf Club in Mundelein, then in fourth at the two-day Summer Jr. Elite Event June 14-15 at Glenview Park Golf Club.

"A lot of the confidence comes on the course: Hit the first tee shot well, keep building on good holes, just take it one shot at a time," Simmons commented of his mentality.

He also tries to gauge his performance relative to his playing partners, many of whom he's gotten to know over several seasons of the IJGA circuit.

"If I'm paired with a good player, I try to just keep pace with them because I know they're going to do well," he said. "If I can tie or beat them, I know I'm doing pretty well."

Simmons has been playing competitively since he was 10. He works with his coach in Oak Brook weekly as well as making regular visits to a golf training and research laboratory located in Downers Grove.

"Our outdoor season in Chicago is seven months max, so it helps if you can find a good (indoor) facility," Simmons explained.

He regards putting as one of the strengths of his game and said working as a caddy at Ruth Lake Country Club has helped him develop a better grasp of course management. He loves the variety the sports presents, with every tract unique and requiring thought and creativity.

"With golf, no two courses are the same. There are a lot of different styles of courses. It never gets boring," Simmons' commented.

The relationships forged through a shared passion also help drive Simmons' pursuit.

"Something that's been really nice is how many people I've met through (golf)," he said.

With a win finally under his belt, Simmons suggested he can play with a bit less pressure.

"I sort of felt the weight lifted off my shoulders because I've seen a lot of my friends win," he said. "I have now, and it feels good."

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean