No sooner had Rose Zhang finished off one of the more extraordinary fortnights in golf history – capping her Stanford career with an unprecedented second NCAA title, ringing in her 20th birthday, entering the professional ranks and immediately becoming the first player to win on her LPGA debut in 72 years – than she was back on a plane to Palo Alto to nail down some unfinished business.
Three more final exams. One last problem set for CS-106A, the introductory computer programming course that’s sworn her off coding for life. Moving out of her on-campus dorm and closing the book on her sophomore year.
“I have a busy week ahead of me,” Zhang told reporters on Sunday after her milestone win at the Mizuho Americas Open. “And it’s not golf-related.”
It’s been a dizzying stretch for the 20-year-old prodigy from Orange county, who shaded Jennifer Kupcho in a sudden-death playoff over the weekend at Liberty National Golf Club to become the second player ever – and first since Beverly Hanson in 1951 – to win an LPGA tournament on her first crack. At the Jersey City course in the shadow of the Manhattan skyline, Zhang bested a stacked field that included seven of the world’s top 10 players, earning $412,500 in prize money, a name-check from Tiger Woods and a place in the history books.
Zhang was already a well-known entity among golf fans before last week. She spent a record 141 weeks as the world’s top-ranked amateur golfer, winning the US Women’s Amateur in 2020, the US Girls’ Junior in 2021 and the Augusta National Women’s Amateur in April. Her school-record 12 victories in 20 starts at Stanford – where she became the first ever woman to win multiple individual national college championships – was even better than Woods’ 11-for-26 clip during his time with the Cardinal. Owing to recent changes allowing college athletes to profit on their name, image and likeness, she has amassed a growing portfolio of sponsors that includes Adidas, Beats by Dre, Callaway, Delta and Rolex.
But after breaking through for her maiden title faster than Annika Sorenstam (who needed 34 starts), Lorena Ochoa (30), Nancy Lopez and Lydia Ko (10 apiece), to say nothing of Tiger (five), Zhang’s profile has reached new heights and stoked an anticipation unlike anything seen around the women’s game in the US since Michelle Wie entered the paying ranks aged 15.
“I honestly didn’t even expect to make the cut,” Zhang said. “And the reason why I say this is because I don’t think about my expectations a lot. I think about playing the golf course. I think about trying to shoot the best score that I can. The expectation for me winning did not even cross my mind. I was just playing my game. I was having a good time out there.”
This time last year – not that you’d have known it from her impeccable results – Zhang found herself battling with the mental and physical rigors that came with sustaining her elite level. She credits her more relaxed approach and emphasis on process over results with her ability to compartmentalize pressure and deliver on the biggest stages of her career.
Take her long-sought win at Augusta National in April, where she went off as the hot favorite, watched a five-stroke lead evaporate on Saturday before hunkering down and winning in a playoff the next day. Or this past week, where she followed her 70-69-66 start with Sunday’s two-over 74 – including a missed eight-foot putt on the 18th hole that could have closed the show – before finishing the job with a highlight-reel approach shot on the second playoff hole.
“You can’t let yourself get too loose, but I’ve definitely kept a lot of things in perspective now,” Zhang told the No Laying Up podcast in March. “Being in the longevity of this game. For me, I was very much living in the moment, but at the same time I was placing so much emphasis into every single moment that I’ve been living in. That gets to you quite a bit. I’ve realized that there’s got to be a way to try to live on a daily basis without having to be so hardcore.”
Zhang, who plans on remaining enrolled at Stanford and completing her degree while she plays on the pro circuit, accepted LPGA membership after her milestone victory, skyrocketing from No 482 to No 62 in the world rankings. Her next start will be the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Baltusrol followed by a July trip to Pebble Beach, where the US Women’s Open will be staged for the first time. A spot at next year’s Paris Olympics appears there for the taking.
The women’s tour is deeper and more competitive than ever, but a lack of the sorts of crossover stars that help boost TV rights fees and tournament purses has no doubt held it back in a crowded US marketplace. Zhang’s magnetic blend of skill, humility and personality could be just what the LPGA needs to help grow the game and narrow the widening prize-money gap with the men’s tour. So far, so good.
“I want to continue trying to carve a path for young kids to just follow your dreams,” she said. “I’m so thankful that the young kids enjoy me, enjoy my golf, and I’m just so thankful for the support. So I will continue to do what I’m doing. I’ll continue to fight. I’ll continue to work hard. Hopefully everyone can follow along.”
Bryan Armen Graham
Published: 2023-06-09 08:00:54