Stanford coach Anne Walker expected more out of her star. Rose Zhang was constantly putting herself into poor positions. Missing fairways. Finding the wrong side of the green. Taking herself out of the hole with little mistakes.
Things you don’t expect from the No. 1 amateur in the world. From the best women’s amateur of all time.
Zhang, then a sophomore at Stanford, sat 6 under heading into the final round of the 2023 NCAA Championship at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona. Even with what her college coach knew wasn’t close to her A-game, Zhang was still in position to win. To defend her title. To leave her mark. “Rose is fully accountable,” Walker said. “She’s an incredibly intelligent golfer. She decided that no matter what happened, she would be putting herself into position.”
Did she ever.
Zhang shot 4 under in the final round, coming from behind to become the first woman to win consecutive individual NCAA championships.
Only 13 days later on the other side of the country, Zhang hit a 4-hybrid from 180 yards to 6 feet on the second playoff hole to make birdie and win her professional debut at the LPGA’s Mizuho Americas Open at Liberty National in New Jersey.
In that 13-day span, Zhang showed why the hype she has received for years is well worth it. She had the greatest amateur career for any woman in the history of the game, and in her first professional event, she beat the best female golfers in the world on the biggest stage. Yet Zhang has hardly sniffed all she can achieve in golf, and at only 20 years old, her future is as bright as any young star in the game.
“Just to have someone come out there and do basically what (Nancy) Lopez did – prove that you were a great amateur and took it right into the pros. … We need that, you know?” Hall-of-Famer JoAnne Carner, who won five U.S. Women’s Amateur titles and an LPGA event as an amateur, said of Zhang.
Zhang’s rise from young tennis and soccer player to golf phenom started
in Irvine, California, at 9 years old.
Her father, Haibin, took Zhang to a park in their hometown to hit some shots. The natural left-hander swung the club right-handed, and her love affair with golf began. The duo watched YouTube videos to learn more about the game. Haibin collected bottle caps Zhang could hit in the front yard – they wouldn’t fly across the street into the neighbor’s house. Off a mat, Zhang would hit for hours and hours and hours, slowly crafting the silky smooth swing that thousands of young golfers now try to emulate themselves.
A couple years down the road, Zhang started working with instructor George Pinnell, which took her game to another level. Pinnell saw someone with a strong swing and terrific motion. They had 12 top-10 finishes in their first 13 starts together. Still, Zhang craved more. She had the itch to win. And win a lot.
And she did. After Zhang captured her first of many trophies, her family started running out of room to display them at home. When she was 12, she won her first American Junior Golf Association title.
“That’s when I knew we had something,” Pinnell said in an interview with the Washington Post. “She is different than anybody I’ve worked with. There’s just no one quite like her.”
Pinnell has coached other professioals, including PGA Tour players Anthony Kim and Kevin Na, but no one understood the golf swing like Zhang.
Once during a tournament, she struggled with a swing flaw and shot 77. After working on the range for 10 minutes, Zhang texted her coach that she figured out the issue. The next day she fired a 67 and won.
Her amateur record is unprecedented in the women’s game. She made her first cut in a major championship at 15 years old. At 16 she qualified for her first U.S. Women’s Open. At 17 she won the U.S. Women’s Amateur. Zhang held the top spot in the World Amateur Golf Ranking for a record 141 weeks. She also won a U.S. Girls’ Junior title, the 2023 Augusta National Women’s Amateur and consecutive NCAA championships, the first woman to accomplish that. She was the first to win each of the four most prestigious female amateur events.
Her Stanford numbers are shocking. She won more events (12 in 20 starts) than Tiger Woods (11 in 26). She set an NCAA scoring record, averaging 69.24 strokes per round. In the first start of her sophomore year, Zhang won the Carmel Cup at Pebble Beach, which included a second-round 63, setting a women’s course record on the Monterey Peninsula. Fast forward nearly a year, and Zhang finished in the top 10 at the famed course in her second major start as a professional in the U.S. Women’s Open.
All of this early professional success is coming in the midst of the biggest changes of her life, too.
“I will say that I haven’t been able to work on my game as much as I was able to before as an amateur,” Zhang said of the changes since turning pro. “There’s a lot more obligations that you have to do as a professional. You have a lot more press interviews, conferences, and it does take a lot out of you and a lot out of your time and energy. Therefore I haven’t been able to grind like I usually have been.
“I feel like as an amateur, you take it for granted where you can just be out on the range, no one is talking to you. You can hit balls for like four hours. You can chip, putt, do whatever you need to.”
In addition to a rapidly changing schedule and routine, one thing is
staying the same: Zhang wants her degree from Stanford.
Only a couple days after becoming the first to win her professional debut on the LPGA in 72 years, Zhang was on a plane back to Stanford, where she had a couple more finals to finish up.
Zhang plans to complete her degree while playing professional golf, traveling back to campus for classes between events. While that may seem difficult for most, Zhang has a unique way of making the difficult look routine.
“I would say commitments are definitely much more prominent in my life,” Zhang said. “As a professional, you have to do a lot more things, and you’re essentially your own business boss, so you have to really navigate towards what your career looks like, what your team looks like.
“Just understanding what rest I need and how to take care of whatever I need to, all of that kind of funnels to how I should use my time.”
Look no further than the Women’s PGA Championship at Baltusrol in June, when her caddie Jason Gilroyed said Zhang, making her first major start as a pro, had her B+ game, “And still had a chance to win, which is amazing.” Zhang finished in the top 10 and was in contention on the back nine.
Zhang’s professional career is off to a spectacular start, but she has hardly reached the potential of where she can go. Zhang is the next young American star with a chance to win multiple major championships and represent the U.S. on Solheim Cup teams well into the future.
She has set numerous records and gained millions of fans. Not too shabby for a 20-year-old.
Perhaps most impressive is her ability to self-reflect and diagnose how she can improve. Her mental game separates her from most – Zhang rarely makes mistakes, and when she does, she limits the damage. Time and again she finds ways to make the most of when she’s out of position, something that can fluster her opponents.
Walker knew Zhang could play better at the 2023 NCAA Championship. It’s why she challenged her phenom before the final round of stroke play. Zhang challenged herself, too, and the result was the same as it had been before and will be down the road.
The 68 shots Zhang hit that day marked the end of her amateur career. It was historic, a microcosm of her golf accolades thus far and a peek into what the women’s professional game is getting down the road.
“I kind of felt like she was already solidified as the best amateur of all time, and what she did (that day), that’s just the period on the end of the sentence,” Walker said. “No one’s ever done this before. It’s so hard to do. And she did it in a different way.