South Salem junior golfer Ashley Zhu has been passionate about sports her entire life.
Gymnastics was her first love, but after back problems surfaced Zhu gravitated to swimming. Turns out that wasn’t the right fit either.
“Surprisingly enough being cold and wet all the time wasn’t my favorite activity,” Zhu said with a laugh about her aquatics experience. “But looking at this year golf is a similar situation.”
Zhu has become a standout junior player in the Oregon Golf Association in a short period of time.
Despite playing the game for just four years, Zhu was third in the Greater Valley Conference district tournament the last two years, and tied for seventh in the 6A state tournament last year.
“She’s coming along. She’s happy with her progress,” said Ashley’s dad, Rui, who often caddies for his daughter in practice rounds. “Her biggest regret is not picking it up sooner.”
In terms of elite junior golfers, Zhu is a late bloomer. She joked that during tournaments on the OGA circuit prior to last summer, fellow competitors gave her the nickname “ankle biter” because “I was always in the mix and never quite there.”
“I took is as a compliment,” Zhu said. “Having them even notice that you were constantly there was a big deal to me.”
South Salem teammate Ellie Slama, the defending state champion, has certainly noticed the improvement in Zhu’s game, calling her “a very hard worker” who has “gotten significantly better.”
They became friends through their dads, who were regular running partners.
“One time Ellie came over and we jumped on our trampoline,” Zhu said. “We didn’t even know each other yet and she had invited me to go to one of her practices. At that point, going into golf your very first time I was really bad.
“I think the competitive side came out and I saw how good (Ellie) was and how much fun she had with it, so I decided to pick it up. I haven’t really stopped since or slowed down.”
Zhu has grown into the sport, literally and figuratively.
Since starting high school, Zhu has grown 10 inches and is now 5-foot-3. She’s still on the petite side, but that does not prevent her from hitting drives in the 215-yard range or carding low scores. Distance off the tee is not as important as managing the game, and Zhu’s short game is a major strength.
Last week she earned medalist honors with a 1-under 36 over nine holes at Santiam Golf Course, and in the first GVC tournament of the season Monday she shot a 74 at Michelbook Country Club in McMinnville to place third behind Slama (69) and McMinnville senior Emma Beyer.
“She’s a good player and our games have gotten a lot closer in the past couple years,” said Slama, a senior who will continue her golf career next season at Oregon State. “Playing against her is a lot of competition for me which is good. That helps me get better and helps her get better.”
With Slama and Zhu at the top of the lineup, the Saxons are favored to win a third consecutive GVC district title. They placed eighth at state last season.
While Slama has been playing golf for as long as she can remember, Zhu is still relatively new to the game. She’s clearly making up for lost time with a year-round golf schedule.
“I really don’t have any time off, but at the same time that’s how I want it,” Ashley said. “I really enjoy it.
That enjoyment includes every aspect of the game, whether it’s having the steely nerves required to consistently make par-saving putts or having the confidence to compete against the best players in the state.
“She doesn’t back down from anybody,” South Salem coach Brian Eriksen said. “She steps up and plays her game and it’s a great game. She does a great job and has fun doing it.”
An honors student in South Salem’s International Baccalaureate program, Zhu embraces academics with the same zeal she has for golf.
So what is it about golf that has elevated it to Zhu’s favorite sport? Well, part of it is competition and camaraderie.
“I’ve made a lot of my best friends through golf, Ellie being one of them,” she said.
Zhu offered this universal truth that all serious golfers recognize: “You can never master the game of golf.”
But she will keep trying.
ghorowitz@StatesmanJournal.com, or Twitter.com/ghorowitz
Boys golf preview
Greater Valley Conference: The league will have a new individual district champion, and West Salem senior Andrew Eyre is the heavy favorite. He placed second in the district last season and was 12th in the state, but the district champion, West Albany’s Jaxson Daskalos graduated and West Albany’s Richie Mikesell, who placed third in the league, transferred to Summit. West Salem, behind a strong group of seniors in Eyre, Will Papendieck, Tyler Ballenger and Max Kent, are the favorite to win the team championship and improve on their 10th place finish in the state last season. McNary has some strong golfers in Teegan Papke, Casey Potmesil and Matt Langenwalter from their state qualifying team of last year and could challenge for the top spot in the district.
5A Special District 1: Corvallis is the league favorite with three players back from its state placing team of last season.
4A Special District 2: There is no clear favorite in the district this season, but Stayton could make some noise. Sophomore Evan Messena placed fifth in the district meet as a freshman, junior Aiden Hill returns after a year away from the game and standout freshman James Bridge give the Eagles the potential to compete for the top spot in the district.
3A/2A/1A Special District 2: Regis won the district the past two years, returns its top four players in Kyle Humphreys, Casey Humphreys, Dawson Dickey and Seth Kelley, who led the team to a second-place finish in the state last year, and the Rams could contend for the state championship. Blanchet returns senior Nick Conway, who placed ninth in the state last year, and will challenge for the district championship.
Girls golf preview
Greater Valley Conference: South Salem senior Ellie Slama is the defending Class 6A state champion and has won the past two district championships. With a strong group including Slama, Ashley Zhu, Mak Gentry, Chantel Gallick and Rylie Tiffin the Saxons are favored to repeat their district team championship from last year. Sprague sophomore Quincy Beyrouty surprised by placing fourth in the district last year, and an improving Sprague team could challenge for a state tournament berth. West Salem junior Mary Short placed in the state tournament last year and will compete for top 10 spot in the district.
5A Special District 1: Crescent Valley has a strong team, but Wilsonville has the depth to win the league again. Dallas returns senior Kailee Curtis, a state meet qualifier a year ago.
4A/3A/2A/1A Special District 2: Blanchet is a strong favorite to win the district championship for the second straight year with all of its players returning. Sophomore Katie Goodwin was second in the district last year and Caroline Ditzler, Haley Stuart and Mary Bisceglie give the Cavaliers the potential to improve on a fifth place state finish of last season. Stayton has an experienced senior class that competed at the state meet last year and should be in contention for the top spot in the district.