Rose Zhang, Golf’s Next Phenom, Is Doing Her Own Thing
12:22 PM EDT on July 26, 2023
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — As she sat down in the press area after the third round of the 2023 U.S. Women’s Open, against the backdrop of picturesque Stillwater Cove, just yards away from Pebble Beach's iconic 18th hole, Rose Zhang didn’t want to take too many questions. It wasn’t because she played badly (she didn’t), and it wasn’t because she has a prickly relationship with the media (she doesn’t).
The good-natured Zhang wanted to keep things brief because some friends from Stanford, where she played collegiate golf and finished her final exams a few weeks earlier, had driven the 90-plus minutes to see her. And because she couldn’t catch up with them during her walk from the 18th green to the scoring tent and on to the press area, Zhang was afraid they’d go without saying hello.
“Please don’t leave! Please wait for me!” Zhang begged.
Zhang was at that moment tied for ninth at one of golf’s most visible major championships, on one of golf’s most revered courses. A month earlier, she had become the first player in 72 years to win an LPGA event in her pro debut. At Stanford, the Irvine, Calif., native carved out a career as the best women’s amateur in modern times, and even broke the school wins record co-held by Tiger Woods. All of this led to endorsements, media attention, and fan reverence rarely seen for a U.S. women’s golfer her age.
And yet Zhang, only 20 years old, is in the middle of a transition from the amateur world to the professional one. She’s continuing to get her degree at Stanford, all while receiving copious comparisons to Woods who, like Zhang, grew up in Orange County. She could become the face of golf in the United States. That's a wild thing to say about a 20-year-old who just started her career, but there hasn't been anyone quite like Rose Zhang.
Despite Zhang’s pro career being in its infancy, all her endorsements and attention are well-earned. In 2020 she won the U.S. Women’s Amateur, in 2021 she took the U.S. Girls’ Junior, in 2022 she claimed the individual NCAA championship, and then in 2023 she earned the Augusta National Women’s Amateur and another NCAA individual title before finally deciding it was time to turn pro. She won 12 of 20 tournaments at Stanford and spent a record 141 weeks ranked as the world’s No. 1 amateur women’s golfer.
But that was just a prelude to her first weeks as a professional: In early June she won the LPGA’s Mizuho Americas Open, shaking off a rough final round to reach a playoff against major champion Jennifer Kupcho. On the second extra hole, Zhang hit an excellent second shot to within six feet of the pin that ultimately sealed the victory.
This made Zhang the first player since Beverly Hanson in 1951 (the LPGA was founded in 1950) to win her LPGA professional debut. By comparison, Annika Sörenstam—generally considered the best women’s golfer ever, or at least in the modern era—finished T38 in her first pro event. Woods fared even worse in his (T60). Both were older than Zhang at their time of debut.
Zhang’s next two tournaments were majors, and although they did not end in triumph, they were remarkable in their steadiness amid the growing attention on herself and the sport. The first was the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, held at former men’s U.S. Open and men’s PGA Championship host Baltusrol Golf Club, where Zhang stayed in contention until late Sunday and finished tied for eighth. This all led to her weekend at Pebble Beach—part of a holy trinity of globally famous courses alongside the St. Andrews Old Course and Augusta National, as well as the site of Woods’s most dominant major victory, but never the home of the U.S. Women’s Open until this year.
After her two previous pro finishes, Pebble Beach felt like an event for Zhang, who saw some of the biggest galleries of the weekend as scores of people—aided certainly by Pebble Beach’s proximity to Stanford and her native Southern California—flocked to see the phenom. On Thursday, with Zhang playing alongside major champions Lydia Ko and Brooke Henderson, Zhang’s agent Kevin Hopkins (who represents many players on tour) told LPGA.com that her crowd “might be the biggest LPGA gallery I’ve ever seen.”
On Friday, a cloudy and downright cold-for-California morning, dozens of fans made the mile-long walk from the main entrance to hole No. 10 where Zhang started, while some other groups had practically no one following them. And on Sunday, Zhang’s crowd beat out the sizable Korean fanbase—women’s golf is huge in Korea—following contenders and former major winners Hyo Joo Kim and Jiyai Shin. Despite being eight shots back of the lead, Zhang even began that day with a much larger gallery than the final group of 54-hole leader Nasa Hataoka and eventual winner Allisen Corpuz.
This all happened despite the fact that, in less-than-ideal conditions—cloudy and chilly on the first two days, considerably windy on the third, all four days playing much more difficult than when Zhang set the women’s course record—Zhang never got close enough to feel like a threat. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t reward her growing fanbase (some call themselves “Rosebuds”). She hit a few brilliant shots (a perfect wedge to set up a birdie on the par-3 No. 7 on Thursday, an outstanding chip while on the green later that day on No. 17) and the occasional poor one (her first-round approach on the imposing No. 8 that led to a double-bogey). She never let the tournament get away from her; she stayed practically glued to her eventual T9 placing once she reached that spot on the third day. In all she had three pro starts, one win, and two top-10s in majors.
Compare this to the player whose record Zhang broke as No. 1 women’s amateur: Ireland’s Leona Maguire, excellent in her own right and a winner on the LPGA Tour just a few weeks ago. Maguire was the No. 1 amateur for 135 weeks, turned pro in 2018, and ... didn’t register a top 10 in a major for three years, and didn’t win on the tour for four. These days the 28-year-old Maguire is one of the 15 best players in the world.
It’s no wonder, then, that Zhang is already a star out there. Throughout the weekend, the contingent surrounding her tee box or green was rarely less than two or three rows deep. To see her shots and putts without fighting the crowds, I actually watched her rounds on my phone while following her. She's already getting the “featured group” treatment, meaning viewers can watch her round in its entirety off the main broadcast; this is typically reserved for only the most widely supported players. And on SportsCenter each night of the tournament, Zhang was usually the first golfer highlighted. Her name was always listed on ESPN's bottom line crawl, even as many players ahead of her on the leaderboard went unmentioned.
The level of hype and attention around Zhang has led to those inevitable comparisons. They function as something of a rite of passage for every bright young golfer, but it carries an extra set of expectations when placed on a player from the women’s tour. When people say that a woman might be “the next Tiger Woods,” they are not just commenting on her talent and potential. They are pining for a player who, through some combination of immediate major success and personal magnetism, can create a whole new level of interest in the sport itself.
Given how competitive she’s been in majors, Zhang does seem to have a better shot than most at living up to the expectations that come with invoking Woods’s name, at least on the course. But golf is littered with the next Tiger Woodses. Those more ineffable qualities, the ones that can elevate an athlete from greatness to globe-spanning stardom, are harder to suss out this early in Zhang’s career.
There is an undeniable element of cool to Zhang as she strolls down the fairway in her sunglasses, but she mostly cuts a quiet figure while playing. She projects a relaxed calm where Tiger exuded intensity; their approaches to the game are notably different. Woods in his prime had an eye-catchingly tight, powerful swing. He hit swashbuckling shots that no casual should try to imitate. His fist pumps resembled athletes in much more action-oriented sports. None of this was singlehandedly what made him the most dominant player ever, but his aesthetics, as much as all the trophy collecting, helped bring in casual fans from all walks of life who previously thought golf was a methodical snoozefest.
Zhang, meanwhile, has a swing that hardly stands out—it’s metronomic and eminently repeatable, which is one of her secret powers. She’s not a short hitter, but not an abnormally long one either. She’s neither exceptionally small nor an intimidating physical presence. She rarely, if ever, takes a big risk on the course; even while eight, nine, or 10 shots back on Sunday at Pebble, with longtime LPGA Tour veteran Jason Gilroyed as her caddie, Zhang stuck to her typically conservative style, sidestepping the temptation to recklessly attack pins. And when she does roll in birdie putts, pull off impressive par saves, or even win her first-ever pro tournament, her reactions are muted. She's a golf-typical minimalist—a hand wave here, a smile there. Her fans and friends are more animated.
Zhang might find advantages elsewhere. She happens to be entering the tour at a time when the LPGA is experiencing considerable growth, most evident in its presence among the cliffside vistas of Pebble Beach itself. Holding women’s majors at famous courses has not been commonplace.
“I don't think I would have thought that we would come [to Pebble Beach] when I was first starting,” said Minjee Lee, a two-time major champion from Australia who turned pro nine years ago. “It wasn't even—I didn't even think about it.”
After Pebble Beach and Baltusrol back-to-back this year, the future lineup is filled with noteworthy courses: Inverness, Riviera, Oakmont, Merion, Pinehurst, and Pebble Beach again are all among the upcoming hosts, while the Women’s Open Championship is going to St. Andrews in 2024.
“I think being on iconic venues is a more sustainable improvement for the Tour, because it increases the media value, and you have to increase media value to attain more money,” said Michelle Wie West, who at Pebble Beach played her final tournament before retiring. “When you have our women on iconic venues such as Pebble Beach, the fans love it.”
Many records and firsts bore this out: The 2023 U.S. Women’s Open tournament boasted an all-time-high $11 million in prize money (double the purse of two years ago). It featured the first-ever use of the ShotLink stats system at a women’s event. (“We need to be able to engage fans with technology and statistics,” Wie West said.) For the first time, the tournament was broadcast live all four days in primetime. And in a world of decreasing TV ratings nearly everywhere, Wie West’s words came true: This was the most-viewed U.S. Women’s Open since her 2014 win at iconic Pinehurst No. 2.
Regardless of venue, the game is also experiencing an exciting influx of talented players even beyond Zhang, Corpuz, or Maguire—so much that 35-year-old, two-time major winner Jiyai Shin, who doesn’t play often in the U.S. anymore, said she was more excited about seeing this new crop of players than playing Pebble Beach.
“Since I last played in the U.S. or LPGA, there was a generation change,” Shin said after the tournament. “The course is a special course, but I was very much looking forward to new players. … I was very much inspired by watching them.”
Those players also hail from all over the world, which hasn’t always been the case for the women’s game. In the early years the U.S. dominated, until players like England’s Laura Davies and Sweden’s Sörenstam started to win majors. After Se Ri Pak’s breakout in the late 1990s, the sport exploded in Korea; women’s golfers representing Korea have won 30 majors since 2001.
Now leaderboards feature flags of all kinds—Japan and Thailand boast multiple major winners and regular contenders; China is growing (Yin Ruoning, who like Zhang is 20, won the 2023 Women's PGA Championship); New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Ireland, France, and South Africa all feature players in the top 20; and Spain, India, and Mexico have players in or around the top 50.
“The amount of talent we have out here right now, and it's so diverse,” said Lee, herself just 27. “The depth is so much deeper.”
Being compared to Tiger Woods creates two big problems: First, it compresses the timeline for success. If the major championships don’t start coming quickly and consistently, the comparison and subsequent attention are quickly dropped. Even if the first problem is solved, it creates the expectation that winning will come frequently and consistently over an extended period of time. Woods won 15 majors, second-most of all men's golfers, and 14 of them came in a span of just over 11 years.
From 2014 to 2023, only two women, Minjee Lee and Anna Nordqvist, have won more than two majors. Although Zhang got off to a brilliant start, more recently she’s beginning to experience the pain of the grind.
At her pre-tournament press conference ahead of the Dana Open near Toledo, Ohio, Zhang offered a friendly laugh when a reporter used the word “easy” in a question about her adaptation to the pro game.
“By no means do I think it’s easy,” Zhang said. “In the last couple events I’ve been playing in, I’ve really realized how difficult being on tour is … I have not thought this was an easy ride at all.”
Two days later, Zhang proved her own point. After starting the Dana Open with a strong opening-round 66, she followed up with a birdie-less 77 and missed the cut. Zhang said before the tournament that she had gotten a little sick, and that she’d had a tough time getting from Monterey to Toledo. The previous week, before the U.S. Open, she was already talking about being worn down by the early grind of the pro tour.
But Zhang knows suffering is part of being a professional golfer. If she's going to find her footing as quickly as everyone hopes, she’ll need to adjust to the tight schedule and increased physical toll.
After having spent time around Zhang at Pebble, and having watched her play, I don't see her as concerned with her place in the game at the moment. It’s clear, in a strategy crafted with longtime coach George Pinnell, that she’s keeping her focus on what’s directly in front of her. "We don’t want expectations,” Pinnell said.
Zhang's also focused on being 20 years old. At Pebble Beach, she asked during her own SiriusXM radio interview if anyone had tips for how to handle afternoon tee times. After her first round, Zhang watched with excitement on a reporter’s phone a clip of 2019 U.S. Open champ Gary Woodland hitting a shot very similar to her first-round chip on 17. She joyfully recalled seeing a dog owner try to keep their pooch from chasing a sea lion on the beach near one of Pebble Beach’s holes during her course-record day.
A few days later, when I asked her about the comparisons to Woods, she seemed surprised. “That’s interesting, because I feel like I haven’t really gone on the internet and searched my own name and seen my name next to Tiger Woods,” Zhang said.
And when she spoke about her goals as a player, she did not set her sights any higher than hitting the ball where she wants it to go. “Worst-case scenario would probably be me not knowing how to play golf and shooting in the 80s my pro debut,” Zhang said of her thoughts before her first win. “Or maybe duffing a shot, [hitting] the worst shot of all-time.
“But in general, [I] never really thought about a best-case scenario. More so just try to hit the ball. Like just get it up in the air, hit it in the fairway, on the green, and do your own thing.”
Hype has the potential to be the most damaging to those who are most keenly aware that it’s been assigned to them. Out of all of Zhang’s early career accomplishments, none might be more important than how well she’s been able to shut out the noise. She could very well “leave a major footprint” on golf, as Pinnell put it to me, but that comes later. For now, she's just worried about hitting the ball straight and making time to see her friends.