In stunning pro debut, Rose Zhang keeps rolling — right into history books

Rose Zhang made yet more history Sunday, becoming the first player in 72 years to win an LPGA title in her professional debut.

The post In stunning pro debut, Rose Zhang keeps rolling — right into history books appeared first on Golf.

Rose Zhang made yet more history Sunday, becoming the first player in 72 years to win an LPGA title in her professional debut.

The post In stunning pro debut, Rose Zhang keeps rolling — right into history books appeared first on Golf.

JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Just before the sun set over the New York City skyline Sunday night, golf’s next superstar officially arrived.

As cheers rained down from from the grandstands looming over Liberty National’s 18th green, Rose Zhang fished her ball out of the hole and raised her hands over her mouth in disbelief. Just more than a week after the Stanford wonderkid announced she was turning pro, she put the finishing touches on her first professional title at the Mizuho Americas Open.

“I just can’t believe it,” Zhang said.

With her playoff victory over Jennifer Kupcho, Zhang becomes the first player to win an LPGA title in her professional debut since Beverly Hanson in 1951. She’ll also receive a check for $412,500, immediate membership on the LPGA Tour and eligibility to compete in the Solheim Cup this fall.

“I’ve enjoyed the journey,” Zhang said. “I had so many cheers around me. All my friends and family. Just so thankful.”

She also assumes the mantle as the brightest young star in the women’s game, seemingly with the potential to reach heights that no American player has reached in generations.

The buzz around Rose Zhang’s golf game has been building for the last several years. She won the 2020 U.S. Women’s Amateur while still a junior, and added the U.S. Girls’ Junior title a year later. By the time she stepped foot on campus in Palo Alto, she had a resume that rivaled almost anyone in amateur golf.

Zhang’s two collegiate seasons only grew her stature. She won 12 times while at Stanford, breaking the Cardinal record held by, among others, Tiger Woods. She won a team title in her freshman season and back-to-back NCAA individual titles to boot. Earlier this year she triumphed at the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. When Zhang arrived at Liberty National earlier this week, her legend preceded her.

It’s not often that a sponsor’s invite is a headliner, but when Zhang got the nod, the buzz immediately began to build. Her media obligations early in the week cut into her practice time, and there was not a player in the field who garnered more ink.

“I’m human, so I certainly do feel it,” Zhang said Wednesday of the weight of the moment. “[But] I have a fundamental core that allows me to just keep going and not think about other people’s expectations.”

Zhang had proven that formula worked for her in the amateur game. Question was, could she also live up to the mounting hype in her debut as a professional?

Zhang’s putter cooled off Sunday, but her composure kept her in the mix. Getty Images

The first 54 holes of Zhang’s pro career could not have followed a better script. In the first round of the Mizuho — where the field played alongside the brightest talents from the American Junior Golf Association — Zhang shot a two-under 70. On cut day, she did one better, with a 69. Top 10 heading into the weekend is always good, but Zhang had her eyes on a larger prize. With a bogey-free 66 on Saturday, the 20-year-old slept on her first 54-hole LPGA lead.

“I think it’s just great to be in [this] position,” she said. “It just shows that leading up to the last three days you’ve been doing a great job at playing your best on the golf course.”

When she arrived to the course on Sunday, the expectations — and stakes — were even weightier. Eighteen holes were all that separated Zhang from history.

After a ferry ride to the course and quick warm-up session, Zhang stepped to the first tee alongside Atthaya Thitikul and Anna Davis. Michelle Wie West — the tournament host — walked over to give Zhang well wishes. “I’m so nervous for her!” Wie West said.

Zhang’s opening tee shot split the middle of the fairway.

But while birdies were in surplus early in the week, Zhang struggled to find them during the final round. With cool winds whipping off the Hudson River (paired with diabolical pin positions), hitting any approach close was tough. A cold putter didn’t help Zhang’s cause, but she played well enough to stay atop the leaderboard.

By the time Zhang stepped to the 18th tee, she needed just a par to complete her improbable run to the title.

Zhang played the 18th hole three times Sunday. Getty Images

Although Zhang made no birdies during her final round, she held firm as the pace car. Through 17 holes, she’d dropped just one shot, a bogey on the 4th. But, as so often is the case, finishing off the tournament was not so simple.

Her drive off 18 sailed left and rolled into the fairway bunker, limiting her chances of hitting the green in regulation. After blasting out to just short of the putting surface, Zhang spun a wedge to within 10 feet of the hole. One putt and the title was hers. The ball rolled end over end true to its line, but drifted right at the last moment, ensuring bogey and a playoff against Jennifer Kupcho.

Despite the disappointment, Zhang did not panic.

“I’ve done this before, especially at ANWA,” she said. “Even though playoffs are never comfortable, I felt like it was such a familiar position that I’ve been in before.”

As the duo rode back to the 18th tee, the crowd surrounding the green grew restless. They’d waited all day for the chance to witness history, and now there was a chance it would be spoiled.

Zhang refused to let that happen.

After matching with pars on the first playoff hole, Zhang and Kupcho again carted back to the tee box. Kupcho and Zhang both split the fairway, though Kupcho was 60 yards ahead. No matter, Zhang stepped up and hit a towering 4-hybrid to seven feet.

“One of the best shots that I’ve ever hit,” she said. “It was a very difficult shot with the wind pushing against me, but it went well.”

Kupcho three-putted from short of the green, and the coronation officially began.

A worthy winner — and a popular one, too. Getty Images

When the handshakes and hugs were complete, a stream of AJGA players streamed onto the green to mob Zhang. One of Zhang’s pals burst into tears as she embraced her friend.

“Oh my gosh, you’re crying?!” Zhang said. “Even I’m not crying!”

It wasn’t long ago that Zhang was competing alongside these juniors. Now, she’s beating the best pros in the world.

Zhang accepted a bouquet of (what else?) roses, and the petals scattered across the green. Wie West embraced Zhang in a hug and put her hands on the face of golf’s newest star.

“I’m so happy for Rose,” Wie West said. “I’m so proud of her.”

Mark Steinberg, the agent, bear-hugged his client, lifting her off her feet. Not long later, Zhang’s phone pinged letting her know it was time to pose for a BeReal photo, which she did as the flashbulbs popped from the throngs of photographers encircling her.

“I really got a bit of everything,” she said of her historic Sunday. “Got a taste of pressure, got a taste of the wind, and I tried to stay composed as always. I knew that golf was just a grind and you really had to dig deep. Once again, that’s what I did.”

As the sun dipped below the horizon, Zhang was whisked from station to station, fulfilling her obligations and posing for pictures. With the crowds dissipating and coming down from the collective high of witnessing history, Steinberg walked off the back of the green. He could muster only one word.


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