No one was surprised to see Rose Zhang holding the Mizuho Americas Open trophy on Sunday at Liberty National Golf Club. But few, even Zhang herself, expected success to come this early.
We all knew she would be great. Twelve wins at Stanford University, two national championships, an Augusta National Women's Amateur title, a U.S. Girls' Junior win, and a U.S. Women's Amateur victory are great forecasters for LPGA Tour success. However, even the best of the best on the amateur circuit can come out with the big dogs and struggle to keep up. But not Zhang.
"Answer is no," Zhang said when asked if she expected to win in her pro debut. "I honestly didn't even expect to make the cut 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.
"Obviously, I have frustrations, disappointments with my game, but I never once think about where I finish, where I should finish, et cetera. 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 is the game that I love, and I'm so thankful to be a professional doing it now."
It was a quiet start for the 20-year-old on Thursday as she carded five birdies and three bogeys en route to a 2-under 70. Zhang did one better on Friday, firing a 3-under 69 that saw her make two bogeys, three birdies, and an eagle on the par-5, 13th hole, but Rose blossomed on Moving Day.
She opened with a birdie on the par-4 1st hole and grabbed three more on holes 4, 6 and 8 to turn in 32, moving to 9-under overall. Then, Zhang rattled off four straight pars from holes 10 to 13, finally making another birdie on the par-3, 14th hole. Her last birdie of the day came on the drivable par-4, 16th hole after Zhang hit her tee shot to three feet, ultimately missing the eagle putt and tapping in for a birdie. She then parred the last two holes to post a 6-under 66, moving her to 11-under and giving her a two-shot lead heading into the final round.
"I've been pretty proud of how I've been able to stay composed," Zhang said of what she had learned about herself through 54 holes. "Prior to this week and last couple weeks, there has been a lot of golf, a lot of media, so I'm really proud of the way that I'm just sticking to my game plan and allowing myself to let things happen when I'm on the golf course."
Sunday saw a slow start from Zhang as she recorded eight pars and one bogey in her opening nine, turning in 37 and dropping back to 10-under. She had plenty of birdie looks on the back nine but couldn't convert any of them, coming to the last hole needing a par to take home the title. Bogey and she would head into a playoff with fellow Augusta National Women's Amateur champion Jennifer Kupcho, who posted the clubhouse lead at 9-under.
Her tee shot found the fairway bunker, and her approach shot wound up short of the green, leaving her a lengthy pitch shot to try to get up and down. Zhang hit her third to eight feet but missed the par putt, making a bogey to finish at 9-under and send her and Kupcho back to the 18th tee.
The pair made a mess of their tee shots, each hitting it way right, with Kupcho finding the long grass and Zhang again ending up in a fairway bunker. Both left their approach shots short, but each managed to get up and down for par, sending them again to the tee box for another playoff hole.
Kupcho and Zhang both found the fairway with their drives this time around, and Zhang put the squeeze on the major champion, stuffing her second shot inside ten feet with a hybrid. Rattled, Kupcho barely managed to find the front of the green with her approach and then crushed her birdie putt, running it past the hole. Unfortunately, she wasn't able to clean up her par putt and tapped in for bogey, clearing the stage for Zhang, who two-putted for par to capture her first LPGA Tour title, first professional victory and earn LPGA Tour membership.
"You guys will see me more on the LPGA Tour, as I am taking membership from now on, and I'll be playing in 2023," announced Zhang in her winning press conference. "I had to stay composed throughout the round. When you're under pressure, birdieing is very difficult and going at flags sometimes is just not smart. I didn't really give myself the most opportunities that I had given myself the prior days. I'm fortunate to have really grinded throughout the round and only managed two bogeys.
"The final shot on 18, the second shot, was one of the best shots that I've ever hit, especially with me being under pressure. Managing to hit a 180-yard shot to six, seven feet, has really enabled me to put myself in a position where I can two-putt for par and seal the deal. So, yeah, it was a very difficult shot with the wind pushing against me, but it went well."
Zhang's pro debut was better than that of Tiger Woods, who finished T60 after his "Hello, world!" moment at the 1996 Greater Milwaukee Open and Jack Nicklaus' T50 performance at the 1962 LA Open. It beats the T3 that Stacy Lewis earned at the U.S. Women's Open as well as Morgan Pressel's T5 at the SBS Open at Turtle Bay, even outshining Mizuho Americas Open tournament host Michelle Wie West's first start at the 2005 Samsung World Championship. She's captured an LPGA Tour title quicker than Annika Sorenstam, Lorena Ochoa and Lydia Ko. Still, Zhang, wise well beyond her 20 years, says that those statistics aren't even on her radar and instead focuses on doing as much as she can with the opportunity she's been given, both on and off the golf course.
"I feel like I've been given this platform to try to do the best that I can, be an influence to younger generations, and that's all I think about," Zhang said. "I don't think about the stats of, hey, in ten starts, I'm going to have my first LPGA Tour win, or it's my first time, I should be winning. These are not things that I think about.
"But I just can only say that this is just amazing, and I'm really just in a place where I want to improve myself, and I want to keep on doing better and better. So we'll be seeing what I do in the future. As of now, I'm just soaking it all in."
As she drinks in the moment, the 20-year-old will, of course, be celebrating this momentous occasion and reveling in the fact that she's now a 2023 LPGA Tour rookie. But Zhang also has something else on her mind that might end up being a little more stressful than winning her first pro event…final exams.
"I have no idea what I'm going to do with that. I've got an essay due, pset due for CS," she said. "We'll figure that out. I'm also moving on the 13th, so I have a busy week ahead of me, and that's not golf related."