Zhang wins NCAA individual title, 2nd straight for Stanford

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Rose Zhang has felt the energy, the pressure at major championships. The Stanford freshman has succeeded at every level she’s played, overcoming the stress to win prestigious amateur events.

So when Zhang caught a couple of bad breaks at the NCAA Women’s Championships, including a brutal one on the fifth hole, she never let it get to her.

That kind of mental fortitude allowed the world’s top-ranked amateur to add another title to her resume.

Zhang overcame a shaky front nine to shoot a 3-over 75 on Monday, capping her stellar freshman season by becoming Stanford’s second straight individual NCAA champion.

“I thought of it as, ‘OK, God is kind of testing me, I’m having a bit of bad luck here, but I have the strength in me to overcome that,’” Zhang said. “That grinding mindset really allowed me to overcome anything that would come my way.”

Zhang was wobbly after an early birdie in the final individual round at Grayhawk’s Raptor Course, allowing Texas A&M’s Jenny Park to trim a seven-shot lead to three by the 10th hole. Zhang righted herself with a short birdie on the par-3 13th and pushed the lead back to five when Park three-putted for bogey.

Zhang two-putted for par on the par-5 18th and celebrated with her teammates on the same green where Rachel Heck became Stanford’s first national champion a year ago. She finished at 6-under 282 to become the 10th freshman to win a national individual title.

Zhang also broke Heck’s NCAA single-season scoring record, finishing at 69.68.

“She has such a strong mindset,” Stanford coach Annie Walker said. “This wasn’t easy, no matter how it looked. It was a grind. She didn’t hit it the way she wanted and was out of position quite a bit. She never let it rattle her cage.”

San Jose State’s Natasha Andrea Oon shot a final-round 70 to finish at 3-under 285. Park also shot 70 to tie LSU’s Ingrid Lindblad for third at 287.

“I was very excited to play with the girls I played with today because they are obviously really great players,” Park said. “I tried to stay patient today and focus on what I could do.”

Zhang arrived at Stanford after a stellar junior career.

The Irvine, California, native became the third player to win the McCormack Medal as the world’s top amateur golfer more than once, and was the two-time Rolex junior player of the year.

Zhang became the eighth player to win the U.S. Women’s Amateur and U.S. Girls Junior Championship — and the first to win the Amateur first. She also represented the United States in the 2021 Curtis Cup and broke the amateur record in the LPGA Tour major then known as the ANA Inspiration in 2020.

Zhang’s dominance continued right into college. She became the first Stanford player — male or female — to win their first three events and was made All-Pac-12 first team.

Zhang was already committed to Stanford last year when she watched on TV as Heck won the national title as a freshman. Zhang never thought she would follow in Heck’s footsteps, but it looked like she would would breeze to the title.

She fought through windy conditions to open with a 4-under 68 at Grayhawk and followed that with a 70. A third-round 69 put her seven shots ahead of Oregon’s Tze-Han Lin and Georgia’s Jenny Bae.

Zhang needed the cushion.

She had a birdie on the short par-4 second hole, but her tee shot on the par-3 fifth plugged in the greenside bunker, leading to a double bogey.

“Absolutely brutal — all the way down in the bottom of the bunker,” Walker said.

Zhang failed to take advantage of the downwind par-5 seventh when second shot rolled onto a severe slope above the hole and had to make a 12-footer for bogey on the par-4 ninth after her second shot trickled off the green down a slope to the right.

Park took advantage of Zhang’s miscues, rolling in a birdie on the par-4 sixth and another up a big slope on the par-3 eighth. She pulled within three shots after Zhang three-putted for bogey on the par-4 10th to drop to 6 under.

Zhang took control again with her birdie on 13 and closed with three straight pars after three-putting the par-4 15th for a bogey.

“I felt like that (birdie) really let me ease into my mindset that now I have a birdie under my belt, I can keep on going, keep on playing, keep on grinding,” Zhang said. “I knew it was in me to hit a good shot when the time came.”

Her individual title and Brooke Seay’s ace on the 135-yard 16th gave Stanford the top seed heading into Tuesday’s team match play. Oregon, Texas A&M, UCLA, Auburn, Florida State, San Jose State and Georgia also qualified for match play.

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