As hype grows for LPGA star Rose Zhang, she focuses on her game

IT’S BEEN LESS than one month since Rose Zhang turned pro.

And this week, she tees it up in her first major as a professional at the 2023 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, New Jersey. Zhang will be among the 156 women golfers competing for the major title and $10 million purse.

As the 20-year-old prepares for the only major she hasn’t competed in as an amateur, she faces pressure and expectations to make history again at a storied venue.

On May 26, the Stanford sophomore announced via Instagram that she was “officially turning professional.” The post came just days after she won back-to-back NCAA individual titles, marking her 12th win in her 20th collegiate career event, breaking the previous school record held by Tiger Woods (26 events), Maverick McNealy (45 events) and Patrick Rodgers (35 events), among others.

Her professional debut at the Mizuho Americas Open at Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City, New Jersey, in early June, Zhang competed in a playoff against major winner Jennifer Kupcho and claimed her first pro victory. The victory made Zhang the first woman to win a professional golf tournament on her first try in 72 years, since Beverly Hanson’s debut win in 1951. Zhang gained immediate membership on the LPGA Tour, in addition to the $412,500 purse at Liberty and eligibility to compete in the Solheim Cup in September.

“It was crazy,” Zhang says to ESPN. “And it was all a blur. But it was so special to me.”

This week at the KPMG, Zhang will compete for a title held by some of the greatest names in women’s golf — such as Mickey Wright, Nancy Lopez, Juli Inkster, Annika Sorenstam and Inbee Park, to name a few. There will be 10 past champions, including LPGA stars Nelly Korda and Danielle Kang. And despite the star power in attendance, all eyes are on Zhang.

“This year, we’ve had a lot of really good golfers,” Korda said during a pre-tournament news conference. “Rose is one-for-one, so she’s pretty good.”

“… It’s amazing to see that she won her first week out as a professional. I think it’s going to be really good for women’s golf. Hopefully, we have some great battles coming down the stretch over the years.”

Zhang understands the expectations put on her name. She feels responsible for growing the game and inspiring the next generation. She also knows questions like “Will the rise of Zhang determine the rise of women’s golf?” linger around her. But ultimately, she wants to focus on her game and stay patient.

“This is how people work. If you’re playing well, and you’ve developed a platform, people expect much more out of you, and I recognize that,” adds Zhang. “I think that’s the first thing for me, just to be able to handle it the way I am. And the people around me, like my family and friends, [to] keep me really grounded.”

WHEN NO. 1 SEED Stanford women’s golf fell to No. 5 University of Southern California in the NCAA semifinals just one day after Zhang’s second individual-title win at Grayhawk Country Club in late May, she had mixed emotions. After playing 36 holes in the nearly 100-degree desert heat, she felt fatigued — like she was sleeping on the course. “It was hard to get myself into the match-play mindset and fully execute my game,” Zhang says. “I also knew it was my last event ever.”

During NCAA championship week, Zhang and her teammates made the most of the experience. The Cardinals knew that Zhang’s pro decision was imminent. She informed her squad and coaches before the tournament that she would be turning pro after their run at Grayhawk. The team and coaches didn’t allow it to distract play. They urged each other to fight harder. Once the last putt dropped during the semifinals, they gathered around Zhang and hugged her — they knew it was the end. The following day, Wake Forest won the NCAA women’s golf title, defeating USC.

The days between claiming her back-to-back individual titles and announcing her pro decision were jam-packed with obligations and pressure-filled major life decisions. She thought: How would she make her announcement? Where would she make her announcement? What would her professional schedule look like while finishing her sophomore year at Stanford?

Since her sophomore year of high school, whispers about her turning professional swirled around her. When she committed to play for Stanford, according to Zhang, people said things like: “There’s no way she’s entering the gates of Stanford. She’s definitely turning professional.” Zhang’s family trusted her decision to pursue an education at Stanford and join the women’s golf team. In return, Zhang knew she was making the right decision, and that she would sharpen her golf skills with the Cardinal team.

As an amateur, Zhang became a household name in the golf world. Spending 141 weeks as the No. 1-ranked amateur in the world — most of any player ever — Zhang claimed in addition to the two NCAA championship individual titles, back-to-back Annika Awards and the 2023 Augusta National Women’s Amateur title. Her amateur accomplishments include being the 2021 U.S. Girls’ Junior Champion and 2020 U.S. Women’s Amateur Champion. Additionally, ahead of her pro debut, Zhang signed deals with Adidas, Beats by Dre, Callaway and Delta Air Lines.

She knew it would happen when she was ready. Not when her parents, coaches, sponsors, or anyone else wanted her to become professional. “My decision relied on what I wanted,” Zhang says. “I had no doubts. I always thought, ‘If I don’t play well in college, it just means I’m not good enough for the professional level.'”

To Zhang, she accomplished all she could in college. And that’s when she knew it was time to go pro.

ON JUNE 4, Zhang found herself in a position she had never experienced. Over the years, she has become comfortable with chasing first place and coming back from behind to claim titles. But that Sunday, the final day of the Mizuho Americas Open, Zhang bogeyed the last hole and prepared herself for a playoff against Kupcho. She had been in playoffs before, but she’d never been in a playoff as a professional — nevertheless, a playoff to win her professional debut.

Since the first tee shot of her professional debut, the golf world held its breath and watched from afar. Questions lingered around Zhang again: “Will she win in her professional debut?” and “Will she live up to the hype?” The chatter and questions only heightened as Zhang and Kupcho rode back to the 18th tee to start the playoff. “Would history be made today?”

After Zhang and Kupcho tied the first playoff hole, they returned to the tee box. Zhang looked unfazed and ready to finish what she had started. Dozens of fans, some of whom called themselves the “Rosebuds,” lined up around the fairway and green to witness history. “That was the most support that I’ve gained out of any event that I’ve ever played in,” Zhang says. “It was actually incredible. Gave me chills up until the end.”

Hitting a 4-hybrid from the fairway, Zhang landed her second shot less than seven feet from the pin. “One of the best shots I’ve ever hit,” Zhang adds. Kupcho three-putted, opening the door for Zhang. Two putts later, Zhang won.

A bouquet of roses found its way to Zhang’s arms. Michelle Wie West, the host of the tournament and one of Zhang’s mentors, embraced Zhang in a tight hug.

“I was just so proud,” Wie West says to ESPN. “What I was most impressed with was that on Sunday [at Mizuho], she was not her best. She did not play her best on Sunday. But what’s so amazing with this win is that she holds on. In professional golf, you’re not going to play your best every single time. You’re not going to play your best more than half the time. She shows up when she needs to. She held on and believed in herself. That’s what I was most impressed with from Rose.”

After her congratulatory handshakes and hugs, Zhang’s friends flooded the green to celebrate her victory. For the next few hours, Zhang signed autographs, posed for photos and responded to media requests.

During her media responsibilities, Zhang received a public message from Woods via Twitter. “Incredible few weeks for Rose Zhang, defends her NCAA title and then wins in her Pro debut. Go card!” Woods tweeted.

The comparisons to former Stanford Cardinal players and prodigies Wie West and Woods haven’t stopped for Zhang. The hype and publicity have only amplified. And all eyes remain on her.

“There’s a big burden on Rose right now, and I think on a personal level, I think it’s just good just to let her play and keep doing the things she’s doing,” Wie West says. “You have to give Rose grace. Golf is a really hard game. She’s going to keep defying odds, but at the same time, she’s human. She will make mistakes. She won’t win everything. And that’s completely OK.”

In anticipation of her first major as a professional at the KPMG on Thursday, Zhang wants the golf world to give her grace. Zhang wants to remind herself to be patient and to slow down — anything to manage the pressure to live up to her recording-breaking history and to uplift the women’s game.

“I would emphasize that sometimes it’s important to be patient with even your favorite players. Tiger Woods has done the unthinkable. Michelle Wie West had a lot of expectations,” Zhang says. “We’re all human, and everyone has their highs and lows. Some more highs than lows in the spotlight. But I will say, just be patient. I’m trying to be patient with myself as well.”

She adds, “I’m still learning the ropes; this is my first year. I have no idea what’s going to happen.”

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