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Williamsville golfer, 9, uses zen approach to advance to Augusta

While the attention of most Western New Yorkers turns to skating, skiing and sledding, Lily Zhang is thinking of driving, chipping and putting.

The fourth-grader at Forest Elementary in Williamsville is looking forward to April 1, when she'll compete at Augusta National Golf Club, the home of the Masters Tournament, in the national Drive, Chip & Putt contest. She'll be in the age 7-9 girls division.

Lily, 9, took up golfing at age 3, with her dad, Lixin Zhang, a neurologist at the Dent Neurologic Institute in Amherst.

"I like the solid shot, the ping noise," she said this week at Park Country Club where she plays almost daily when weather permits.

To qualify as one of 80 finalists from all four age groups, she had to advance through three rounds. She placed first in the local round at Fox Valley Club in July, first in the sub-regional round at Turning Stone in Verona and first in the northeast regional at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck in October.

After a slow start, Zhang finished strong with 90 points in the regional qualifier. She scored 29 in driving, 36 in chipping and 25 in putting.

"Winged Foot is a major tournament for the PGA, the professionals," she said. "So the greens are very fast."

It was her third attempt at qualifying.

"Before the tournament I literally dreamed of winning," said Lily, whose older brother is also a golfer and attends Yale.

Lily Zhang, 9, of Williamsville is a finalist in the ages 7-9 group for the national Drive, Chip & Putt competition. She was practicing her golfing at Park Country Club in Amherst on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Her parents share a photo of Lily looking ecstatic when she learned she had earned a trip to Augusta.

"She cried," said her mother, Xiuli Li, also a neurologist at Dent.

Since age 4, Lilly has taken weekly private lessons with local golf pro Cindy Miller, and lately has also been training with Joseph Lusardi in Rochester. Lily lists Jordan Spieth and Lexi Thompson as her favorite professional golfers.

Off the course, she said she enjoys piano, ballroom dancing and, recently, basketball. "It's really fun to have teammates by your side," she said.

The national finals will be aired April 1 on the Golf Channel.

Lily has already racked up an impressive list of other golfing accomplishments.

  • In 2015, she won sank a 15-foot putt to win a playoff in the U.S. Kids Golf Seaview Open in Atlantic City, N.J. She won again in 2016 and placed second this year.
  • She ranked 14th among 95 9-year-olds in August at the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship at Pinehurst, N.C.
  • And she has won outings of the Niagara local U.S. Kids Golf Tour seven times over the last four years. Her lowest score of 30 for nine holes is the record for all players on the local tour.

How does such a young golfer approach a shot?

"You have to be calm and you cannot over-analyze, right?" said Lily's mother.

"Just hit it," Lily replied.

The precocious girl takes a zen approach to the game, one she had not yet shared with her parents and had them laughing.

"I also have a superstition where I believe in the universe," she said. "I asked the universe if I was going to Augusta and it said yes. It actually works. It usually works."

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