Santa Margarita High School could be the next golf dynasty in Southern California. One year removed from sweeping the top individual and team honors in both the 2022 CIF Regional and State Championships, the Eagles have once again swept the regional tournament.
Donina Zhou, a freshman, secured the individual title in a one-hole playoff. She combined with her teammates to shoot six-under and clinch the team title by 12 strokes, as Santa Margarita ran the table in dominant fashion at Los Serranos CC ahead of next week’s state championship at Poppy Hills.
“[Donina] is so confident, it’s really exciting,” said Jill Hegna, a newly minted two-time regional defending champion head coach. “We were confident last year but I think the freshmen that came in, they were so tournament ready and that really helps. Having the tournament experience is important, then it kind of rubs off on everybody.”
Zhou’s day did not start as intended when she carded a bogey on her opening hole (No. 6). She got herself back to even-par four holes later with a birdie on No. 10. Still, she was chasing a four-stroke deficit to make it to the top with 13 holes remaining.
Facing consecutive par 5’s on Nos. 13 and 14, Zhou took advantage of the scoring opportunities and converted eagles on both holes. On No. 13, measuring 451 yards, she got to the green in two shots and rolled in a 30-foot putt. She didn’t quite reach the green in two on the next hole, which measured roughly 75 yards longer, but chipped in from just outside the green to cap off a two-hole span that immediately put her in contention.
“That was huge because that’s the easiest stretch of the course, so you want to play good there,” Zhou said. “So, I was really grateful that I was able to execute.”
Adding another birdie on No. 16 to bring herself to five-under, Zhou was mistake-free the rest of the way, parring out the rest of her holes to finish with a 69 and a shot at the individual title.
“I think my mental game was really good today,” Zhou said. “There weren’t really any technical or mechanical things that were really good. I think I just stayed mentally strong even when my putts weren’t dropping, and I put myself in a good position all day.”
Marlborough’s Kaila Elsayegh, who started on Hole 14, also put together an incredibly clean round with zero bogeys and five birdies, including a crucial one on the 130-yard par-3 tenth that got her to five-under to eventually force a playoff against Zhou.
Playing off No. 18, Zhou and Elsayegh’s tee shots landed right next to each other in the middle of the fairway, leaving them a little under 150 yards to reach the green, which was guarded in front with an array of bunkers.
Zhou’s approach shot stuck on the green, about 25 feet to the left of the flag, while Elsayegh went into a bunker to the right side. Elsayegh was unable to convert the up-and-down from the bunker, while Zhou two-putted for par to win.
“It means a lot,” said Zhou, who shot a 69 in regulation to force a playoff against Marlborough’s Kaila Elsayegh. “Not just individually, but also as a team. I really love this team and all the girls here so I’m so grateful that I’m going to be able to spend next week with them at Poppy Hills.”
“It means a lot,” said Zhou. “Not just individually, but also as a team. I really love this team and all the girls here so I’m so grateful that I’m going to be able to spend next week with them at Poppy Hills.”
Added Hegna, “They walk tall with their heads high and I’m really proud of them…I’m trying to keep them grounded and make sure that they appreciate every win, but we’ve still got things to do. We’ve got unfinished business.”
With the victory, Zhou also earns exemption into both the 2024 California Women’s Amateur and SCGA Women’s Amateur Championships.
“It’s so cool and I’m really excited to play,” she said. “I’m really grateful that the CIF and SCGA are giving me this opportunity to compete in those events.”