Golfer Rose Zhang could transcend the LPGA

Golfer Rose Zhang could transcend the LPGA

After demolishing the college and amateur circuit while at Stanford, Rose Zhang is in her first season as a pro. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — The grass behind the 13th green of Menlo Country Club in Woodside, Calif., is dense and gnarly, a thicket where overhit drives meet ruin. In the pivotal stages of the Big Match, the annual rivalry between the California and Stanford golf teams, Rose Zhang stood over her ball there, forced to recover after taking too much club on the drivable par-4.

Anne Walker, the Stanford coach, heard the gallery murmur about Zhang’s doomed position and laughed to herself. She had watched Zhang compile perhaps the best amateur record in history, at least the greatest since another Cardinal golfer with a noun for a first name. Walker knew the attributes the shot required and that Zhang had them all: competitive poise beyond her 20 years, innate sense for the sport, a short game that verges on mystical.

Zhang opened the face of her wedge and swung, releasing one hand from the grip at the finish. The ball sailed on a gentle arc, plopped on the green and trickled into the hole for an eagle. Walker heard another round of incredulous gasps from fans gathered around the green.

“Everyone’s like: ‘No, that’s impossible! She was in this thick rough!’ ” Walker said. “For me, yeah, it was a great shot. But I’m like, ‘It’s Rose Zhang.’ I’ve kind of seen her do this. If you’re going to say it’s an impossible shot, chances are you’re about to learn the impossible is possible.”

What is possible in and for women’s golf? Zhang may stretch the definition of both. She could have turned professional years ago but instead went to Stanford and demolished the college and amateur circuits. In early June, she became the first woman in 72 years to win her professional debut when she captured the Americas Open, nestling a hybrid to inside 10 feet on the second playoff hole. She has a photogenic smile, a growing portfolio of corporate sponsors, a 3.87 grade-point average at Stanford and a wedge game that would make your club pro fall out of his golf cart. She has already enchanted the golf world, and those around the sport believe she has the potential to transcend the women’s game.

The U.S. Women’s Open will be contested this week for the first time at Pebble Beach Golf Links, where the 63 Zhang carded in last year’s Carmel Cup is the women’s course record. The reverence of the venue and Zhang’s presence make it the most anticipated women’s golf tournament in recent memory.

At once, Zhang is trying to maintain lofty ambitions and low expectations. She thought she would miss the cut at her pro debut. She enters tournaments without considering where she might finish; at one junior event, she didn’t realize she won until friends doused her with water after her final putt rolled in. She also recognizes her talent and the opportunities it could afford her.

“I definitely don’t want to just play well,” Zhang said on the eve of last month’s Women’s PGA Championship, where she finished tied for eighth in her first major as a pro. “I want to be able to impact something or someone. Just being out here, whatever I can do that can grow the game, grow women’s sports, grow golf, grow my faith and Christianity and spread the word — there’s a lot of things that if I just do well out here and do my job and broaden my horizons more, I’ll be able to make some sort of impact. And that’s kind of all I want.”

Zhang loves every morsel of golf. It is where she finds peace alone on the driving range and where she made most of her best friends. She still cherishes the satisfaction of a well-struck shot. The game’s balance of technique and creativity captivates her. At Stanford, she spent most waking hours — and many napping hours — at Siebel Varsity Golf Training Complex, studying, sharpening her game or hanging out. The endless work she puts into the game never feels like a burden.

“She does love the trophy, and she enjoys all of that,” Walker said. “But I can tell it doesn’t complete her. When she’s carrying the trophy, it’s not like, ‘Ah, a weight’s been lifted off my shoulders.’ It’s not like that in any way. It’s kind of like she can’t wait to get back to the tough work the very next day. The combination is pretty rare. I do think that’s what makes her unique. It’s also what puts her in the same breath as Tiger Woods.”

‘No one quite like her’

Zhang first swung a club when she was 9, on a patch of grass in a community park where she grew up in Irvine, Calif. She went with her father, Haibin, and whacked a few balls with a right-handed swing, even though she is left-handed. She liked it and wanted to keep playing. Haibin, who was born and raised in China and goes by Henry, collected around 400 bottle caps and laid down a mat in the front yard. Zhang would hit the bottle caps, chosen because they wouldn’t fly across the street into neighbors’ houses, for hours on end as Henry watched.

“That’s [when] I understood how to properly swing a golf club,” Zhang said. “We would watch YouTube videos, and we’ll be like, ‘Oh, this is how you should hit it, how you should swing, place your hands.’ That’s how I essentially started playing with techniques.”

Zhang had played tennis and soccer, but they did not interest her like golf. At 11, she went to work with golf instructor George Pinnell. He saw a loose swing, good motion and ample athletic potential. Near the end of their first year together, Zhang had bagged 12 top-10s in 13 events on Southern California’s elite junior tour without a victory. She asked Pinnell, “When am I going to get a trophy?” She then won her next tournament. Months later, at 12 years old playing against the area’s best teenagers, she won her first American Junior Golf Association title.

“That’s when I knew we had something,” Pinnell said. “She is different than anybody I’ve worked with. There’s just no one quite like her.”

Zhang made the cut at a major at 15, qualified for her first U.S. Open at 16 and won the 2020 U.S. Women’s Amateur at 17. She became the world’s top-ranked amateur in September 2020 and held the spot for a record 141 weeks. At Stanford, she set the NCAA scoring record at 69.24 strokes per round and won 12 of the 20 tournaments she entered, including two NCAA championships. In April, she won the Augusta National Women’s Amateur title with her father caddying, losing a six-shot lead on the final day before prevailing in a playoff.

One day at Pinnell’s academy during her freshman year at Stanford, well into her second year as the world’s top-ranked amateur, two younger girls asked Zhang why she always won. “There’s actually players at the junior, AJGA and NCAA level that are better than I am,” Zhang told them. “The reason I’m able to beat them is because I make fewer mistakes than they do.”

Most golf phenoms dominate with physical superiority and raw power. Zhang is different. She swings with exquisite form and tempo, but not in a way that separates her from peers. She drives with average distance. Watch her hit a few shots on the range among professionals or top amateurs, and she does not stand out. Watch her for a few hours, and she does. She hits with metronomic precision, her shots leaving her club at a direction and trajectory that could all squeeze into the same small window.

On the course, she separates with a mental game older players would envy and a miraculous short game. Most golfers have consistency or a flourish for saving pars. There are flushers who panic when in the rare instances they find trouble and magicians who are comfortable in bad spots because they’re always in them. Zhang fuses the best of both styles.

“She’s not out of position often,” Walker said. “But then when she is, she’ll take your breath away with the shot she hits.”

Pinnell has coached hundreds of players, several of whom — including Anthony Kim and Kevin Na — became professionals. He has never worked with a player who “understands the whys” of a golf swing like Zhang, he said. At one youth tournament, Zhang shot a 77 in the opening round and texted him afterward how she had played “brutal” because of a swing flaw. The next day, she shot a 67 and won the tournament.

When Zhang returned home for her next lesson, Pinnell asked her what had happened between rounds. She explained that she had gone to the range without balls, taken out a 9-iron and taken swings, pausing at specific checkpoints, for less than 10 minutes. She then put the 9-iron back in her bag and told her father that they could go eat dinner. “I about fell out of my chair,” Pinnell said. “I didn’t realize how deep it was in her. I was wondering if she had another coach out there.” The flaw would have taken even seasoned players a large bucket to iron out, if they could solve it at all. Zhang had identified and fixed it without hitting a ball.

“It takes a lot of time and effort,” Zhang said. “I don’t think it comes super naturally. But at the same time, once I learn something about golf, it just stays in me, and I can refer back to it. I feel like it’s a sport that naturally makes sense to me. Even if I do learn something new, I can use it, and I’m able to interpret things pretty quickly.”

Zhang has honed her swing over countless hours. She extracts joy from marathon range sessions, finding answers in the dirt. She still works with Pinnell, but at tournaments she essentially serves as her own coach. Walker does not hesitate to label her a genius.

“People hear the word genius, and they automatically go to their IQ and their intellect,” Walker said. “I think genius is — van Gogh was genius. Mozart was genius. Picasso. It’s a level of creativity. It’s a level of creativity that they have available and they can access that all the others don’t have.”

New opportunities — and attention

At the end of her practice round two days before the Women’s PGA Championship, Zhang’s pro-am partners requested a round of selfies on Baltusrol’s 18th tee. “We waited until the last hole to bombard you,” one of the amateurs said. Zhang laughed and urged them to pose with her. One of them lifted his phone as he thanked her.

“Now I’ll always have this,” he told her, smiling. “You’re a super big deal.”

“Nooo,” Zhang replied, shaking her head with a sheepish grin. “Not a big deal.”

In many ways, Zhang presents a dream opportunity for the LPGA. The depth in women’s golf is remarkable, but individual sports thrive when a singular star emerges. Many of the LPGA’s best players are reticent in the spotlight, sometimes because of a language barrier. The sport has been dominated by players from outside the United States, which has enabled the tour to spread globally but has hurt its ability to seize an American audience. If Zhang fulfills her promise, she will provide an expressive, American-born phenom.

The morning after she won her pro debut at Liberty National in Jersey City, she appeared in person on the “Today” show. On her hat and shirt at tournaments, Zhang wears logos from an airline and a bank next to those of a golf equipment manufacturer.

The transition to professional golf has upturned Zhang’s schedule. Sponsorship obligations, interviews and news conferences sapped her energy and infringed on her cherished practice sessions.

“I haven’t been able to grind like I usually have been,” Zhang said. “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. But I can’t really do that anymore. That will definitely take a bit of adjusting.”

Walker has searched for signs that Zhang’s success has burdened her and found none. Walker heard her say she never thinks about legacy, only hitting her next shot, accepting the results and hitting again.

“She’s speaking out loud what sports psychologists get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to teach,” Walker said. “It wasn’t taught to her. It’s just in her. That’s how she wakes up and operates.”

After a whirlwind New York media tour, Zhang flew back to Stanford. Walker wanted to pick her up at the airport, but a miscommunication prevented her from leaving on time. Walker texted Zhang that she would arrange for a car. Zhang told her not to bother — the hottest name in golf, trophy in tow, was already on the way in the Uber she called herself.

Back at Stanford, Zhang prepared for her last two finals. “I studied at night with my friends, and we were all in the struggle bus together,” Zhang said. She found particular relief in passing her Computer Science 106A exam.

A physical education professor, perhaps not quite understanding Zhang’s obligations, asked if she would speak to his introductory golf class. Three days after she made history in her pro debut, in the midst of moving out of her dorm, Zhang talked to the students. Nobody knew until the professor emailed the entire Stanford athletics staff in gratitude.

“How cool is that kid?” Walker said. “That’s amazing.”

Zhang plans to spend more time at Siebel. She intends on finishing her degree while on tour, traveling back to Stanford for classes. Golf is full of prodigies who burned out early, too consumed by golf and self-identifying with their success or failure. Zhang held off turning professional in the first place to avoid that trap, and she wants to remain at Stanford to promote the same well-roundedness as a pro.

“I love widening my horizons,” Zhang said. “That’s just the beauty of life. The people I’ve interacted with have extremely inspired me to become who I am today and become my own person. … Regardless of whether I play well or not, it’s not who I am. It’s not the definition of who I am. I feel like that can play a huge, huge role in my mentality and how I look at the game.”

Walker credited Zhang’s family for helping her remain well adjusted. Her brother, Bill, is 10 years older. Henry plays an active role in Zhang’s career, traveling to many tournaments. When approached, he politely said he does not give media interviews. At her Baltusrol practice round, Henry walked with her, wearing a long-sleeved pink shirt with the Augusta National logo. After some shots, they conversed in Mandarin as Zhang demonstrated her swing.

“Henry being with her as much as he is with her, [he] is the one who’s really responsible for how she thinks and how she views things,” Pinnell said. “It’s [guidance] from him that has made her really strong mentally. You’re never going to see another father as involved mentally as he is — sometimes too much. But his heart is in the right place. He’s doing the right thing that he believes in, and he’s really invested in her success. He is a huge reason why. But at some point, Rose is graduating to different levels, and she’s having to take responsibility for what she does.”

Zhang’s life has grown hectic, but her golf career is still relatively simple. She is still chasing the sport’s best players, still able to focus on hitting her ball straight, walking to it and hitting it again. At some point, if she continues on her trajectory, she will have to weigh the question of what it is she wants out of the game.

“Hmmm,” Zhang said. “There’s a lot you can put.”

“That’s a very hefty question and, as a 20-year-old, I still am unsure. I will say, golf has brought me so many platforms, so many experiences, travel, friends. There’s already a lot golf has brought me. I wish to continue to have those new experiences, new friends, and see the world in a new way. Golf is something that will help me do that.”

The game will continue to take Rose Zhang to new places. The rest of the golf world will come with her. No one can know what Zhang will do from the position she has put herself in. At this moment, for her, nothing seems impossible.

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