The first words from Rose Zhang after the 20-year-old Californian capped off one of the more remarkable 13-day stretches in golf were telling.
“What is happening?” she said.
More tantalizing is what happens next.
Hype rules the day in a society built around social media, and Zhang is one of the rare athletes who delivered. The Stanford sophomore won her second straight NCAA title and then 13 days later was awash in wonder when she won the Mizuho Americas Open in her professional debut.
Women’s golf has not seen this level of anticipation since Michelle Wie West turned pro at age 15 equipped with blue-chip sponsors like Nike and Sony.
Zhang walked, talked and played like it was any other tournament. She is so comfortable with who she is that expectations are not part of the equation.
“I honestly didn’t even expect to make the cut,” she said Sunday evening as she sat next to a trophy stuffed with a bouquet of roses. “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. 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,” she said. “This is the game that I love, and I’m so thankful to be a professional doing it now.”
She became an LPGA Tour member with the win, important because she could not be considered for the Solheim Cup in September otherwise. Now she might as well be penciled in for the American team.
She earned $412,500, though money is not motivation and doesn’t compare to endorsements with the likes of Callaway, Adidas, Delta, Rolex, Beats by Dre.
Besides, Zhang has more pressing issues.
She made an appearance on NBC’s “Today” show on Monday, then it was back to Stanford to move out of her dorm and get through finals. She will be a full-time player and still intends to finish a communications degree, just as Wie West eventually did.
“I have no idea what I’m going to do with that,” Zhang said with a laugh, mentioning an essay that was due for one class, another project for computer science that sounded as though it gives her more anxiety that a downhill putt with a foot of break.
“I have a busy week ahead of me, and that’s not golf-related,” she said.
Her next appearance inside the ropes is back in New Jersey on an even bigger stage than Liberty National, the course across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Zhang already was given an invitation to the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Baltusrol.
Also on the horizon the first full week of July is Pebble Beach, where the U.S. Women’s Open is being held for the first time. It already was the most anticipated event on the LPGA schedule this year because of the location. Now it has even greater appeal.
Megha Ganne, who challenged for a U.S. Women’s Open title at Olympic Club as a teenager, was Zhang’s teammate at Stanford. She was asked earlier in the week what the golf world should expect from Zhang.
“More of what she’s already shown us in the past few years,” Ganne said. “I don’t think there is any part of her game or personality or game that’s lacking. She’s so ready for this. I’m just really excited for her. I think it’s going to be a joy to watch.”
That she was.
Zhang’s debut came against a field that featured seven of the top 10 in the world. She had to sleep on the 54-hole lead — never easy, even for more tested veterans — and never trailed on a tough Sunday in which she never made a birdie.
Most impressive was a 10-foot par putt on the 17th hole that kept her in the lead. She missed an 8-footer on the 18th to win in regulation, and then faced a sudden-death playoff against Jennifer Kupcho — a former NCAA champion and Augusta National Women’s Amateur champion, and now an LPGA major champion.
The winning shot effectively was a 4-hybrid from Zhang that settled 10 feet away from a back pin on the 18th green. Ultimately, she needed two putts for the win. What followed was a celebration already familiar to those who have seen Zhang.
She was handed a red rose, and then another, and then another. Before long, she walked off the 18th with enough for more than one bouquet.
There were a few tears, especially during her embrace with Wie West, the tournament host who can relate to a high level of hype. Wie thought outside the box, playing PGA Tour events when she was still in the eighth grade, dreaming of playing in men’s majors.
The difference was the outcome. It took Wie West four years to win on the LPGA Tour, five more to capture her lone major in the U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst No. 2.
Wie West played with Zhang at the Women’s Open last year and has become somewhat of a mentor to her.
“It looks easy for her when she plays,” Wie West said.
Zhang exudes humility and kindness, along with a calculated approach to golf that led to her Stanford-record 12 titles in just 20 tournaments. And now she’s 1 for 1 as a pro.
“I want to continue trying to carve a path for young kids to just follow your dreams,” she said. “I’m so thankful that the young kids enjoy me, enjoy my golf, and I’m just so thankful for the support. So I will continue to do what I’m doing. I’ll continue to fight. I’ll continue to work hard.
“Hopefully everyone can follow along.”
That shouldn’t be too difficult.
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