AIKEN — From having to earn a spot in the field to hoisting a trophy five days later, it was a memorable journey for Zhengkai Bai this week.
Bai, who will turn 20 years old in 13 days, shot four rounds in the 60s and ran away with the Palmetto Amateur, finishing at 12-under Saturday to beat Henry Shimp by five strokes.
The rising sophomore at Central Florida shot a final-round, 1-under-par 69 and smiled as he walked off the 18th green, capping a whirlwind week that took him from Monday qualifying to a trophy presentation behind the Palmetto Golf Club clubhouse.
“It’s a wonderful tournament and I’m very happy to win my first amateur tournament in America,” Bai said. “I’m happy. It’ll help me a lot. I’ll keep working harder and try to help my school and improve myself.”
Bai, ranked fourth in Florida’s 2016 high school class and 30th in the nation, was one of a handful to qualify for a final spot with an extra round Monday. He promptly shot 66 in the first round Wednesday, then followed with 64 in the second round and held a six-shot lead entering Saturday’s final round.
He bogeyed three holes on the front nine Saturday and was 9-under at the turn, but he birdied three of the next five to go to 12-under entering Palmetto’s final loop. He parred the last four holes to cruise to victory.
“I was thinking 1- or 2-under par, playing safe a little bit,” Bai said. “Putting wasn’t too hot, but driver was a lot better than yesterday. It was a great round. Putting was working really well the first three days. Driver was a little bit off yesterday, and I got it fixed and played better today.”
Shimp posted the low round of the day with 65 and reached 7-under through 15, but the Stanford sophomore ran out of holes for a magical comeback.
Jonathan Keppler finished third at 3-under, while Archer Price and Caleb Proveaux tied for fourth at 2-under.
USC Aiken redshirt senior Johnson Holliday shot 76 to tie for 13th at 1-over. Holliday, who carded 63 to lead after the first day, entered the final round still in contention behind Bai, but an 8 on No. 4 and double bogey on No. 5 took him out of the race.
“There were a few times where I was like, ‘Why is this going on?’” Holliday said. “But at the end of the day, me and my caddie were making the best decisions we could at the moment. We had a good time doing it. Winning is fun, but just enjoying the moment and being here is even better.”
Reach David Lee at (706) 823-3216 or email@example.com.