IT WAS LESS for more than a month Rose Zhang turned pro.
And this week she’s making it in her first major as a pro at the 2023 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at the Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, NJ. Zhang will be among 156 golfers competing for the Major title and huge cash prize (announced Friday, June 23).
As the 20-year-old prepares for the only Major she has not competed in as an amateur, she faces the pressure and expectations of making history again at a storied venue.
On May 26, the Stanford sophomore announced via Instagram that she “officially turned pro”. The post came just days after she won back-to-back NCAA singles titles, which marked her 12th win in her 20th college career event and broke the previous school record of Tiger Woods (26 events), Maverick McNealy (45 events) and Patrick Rodgers (35 events), among others.
Making her pro debut in early June at the Mizuho Americas Open at Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City, New Jersey, Zhang faced the big winner in a playoff Jennifer Kupcho and got her first professional win. The victory made Zhang the first woman in 72 years to win a professional golf tournament on her first attempt Beverly Hanson’s debut win in 1951. Zhang immediately received membership on the LPGA Tour, in addition to $412,500 in prize money from Liberty and eligibility to compete in the Solheim Cup in September.
“It was crazy,” Zhang tells ESPN. “And it was all blurry. But it was so special to me.”
This week at KPMG, Zhang will fight for a title carried by some of the biggest names in women’s golf – such as Mickey Wright, Nancy Lopez, July Inkster, Annika Sorenstam And Inbee Park, to name a few. There will be 10 former champions including LPGA stars Nelly Korda And Danielle Kang. And despite the star power of those in attendance, all eyes are on Zhang.
“We’ve had a lot of really good golfers this year,” Korda said during a pre-tournament press conference. “Rose is one-on-one, so she’s pretty good.”
“…It’s amazing to see her win her first week as a pro. I think it’s going to be really good for women’s golf. Hopefully we have some great fights ahead of us over the years.”
Zhang understands the expectations placed on her name. She feels responsible for further developing the game and inspiring the next generation. She also knows questions like “Will the rise of Zhang determine the rise of women’s golf?” linger around them. But ultimately, she wants to focus on her game and stay patient.
“That’s how people work. When you play well and develop a platform, people expect a lot more from you, and I can see that,” Zhang adds. “I think that’s the first thing for me, just being able to deal with who I am. And the people around me, like my family and friends, [to] really keep me grounded.
IF NOT. 1 SEEDS Stanford women’s golf lost to No. 5 University of Southern California in the NCAA semifinals, just a day after Zhang’s second singles title win at Grayhawk Country Club in late May. She had mixed feelings. After playing 36 holes in the almost 100 degree desert heat, she felt tired – like she was sleeping on the course. “It was hard to get into the match-play mentality and fully implement my game,” says Zhang. “I also knew it was my last event ever.”
During NCAA Championship week, Zhang and her teammates made the most of that experience. The Cardinals knew Zhang’s pro decision was imminent. She told her team and coaches ahead of the tournament that she would turn pro after her run at Grayhawk. The team and coach did not allow the game to be distracted. They pushed each other to fight harder. When the last putt fell in the semifinals, they gathered around Zhang and hugged her – they knew it was the end. The next day, Wake Forest won the NCAA women’s golf title, defeating USC.
The days between winning her back-to-back singles title and announcing her professional decision were filled with commitments and pressured important life decisions. She thought: How would she make her announcement? Where would she make her announcement? What would her professional schedule look like after completing her sophomore year at Stanford?
Since her sophomore year in high school, rumors about her pro career have been circulating. According to Zhang, when she signed on to play for Stanford, people said things like, “There’s no way she’s going to set foot in Stanford’s gates. She’s definitely turning pro.” Zhang’s family was confident in her decision to attend Stanford for training and join the women’s golf team. In return, Zhang knew she made the right decision and that she would improve her golf skills with the Cardinal team.
As an amateur, Zhang became a household name in the golfing world. For 141 weeks, Zhang was the highest-ranked amateur in the world — the tallest of any player of all time — and, in addition to the two NCAA championship titles, also won two consecutive Annika Awards and the 2023 Augusta National Women’s Amateur title. Her amateur achievements include 2021 United States Junior Girls Champion and 2020 United States Women’s Amateur Champion awards. In addition, Zhang signed contracts with Adidas, Beats by Dre, Callaway and Delta Air Lines prior to her professional debut.
She knew it would happen if she was willing. Not if her parents, coaches, sponsors or anyone else wanted her to go pro. “My decision was based on what I wanted,” says Zhang. “I had no doubts. I always thought, ‘If I don’t play well in college, that just means I’m not good enough for the pro level.’”
For Zhang, she achieved everything she could in college. And that’s when she knew it was time to turn pro.
ON JUNE 4THZhang was in a situation she had never experienced before. Over the years, she’s gotten used to chasing first place and getting back up from behind to claim titles. But this Sunday, the last day of the Mizuho Americas Open, Zhang failed at the last hole and prepared for a decider against Kupcho. She’d been in playoffs before, but as a pro she had never been in a playoff — nonetheless, it was a playoff to win her pro debut.
From the first tee of her pro debut, the golfing world held its breath and watched from afar. Again, questions swirled around Zhang: “Will she win on her pro debut?” And “Does it live up to the hype?” The chatter and questions grew even louder as Zhang and Kupcho drove back to the 18th tee to start the playoffs. “Would history be made today?”
After tying the first playoff hole, Zhang and Kupcho returned to the tee. Zhang seemed unimpressed and ready to finish what she had started. Dozens of fans, some calling themselves “Rosebuds,” lined up around the fairway and green to witness the story. “It was the most support I’ve ever received at any event I’ve ever attended,” says Zhang. “It was really incredible. Gave me goosebumps to the end.”
Zhang hit a 4-hybrid off the fairway and landed her second shot less than seven feet from the marker. “One of the best shots I’ve ever made,” Zhang adds. Kupcho made a three-putt, opening the door for Zhang. Two putts later, Zhang won.
A bouquet of roses fell into Zhang’s arms. Michelle Wie Westthe tournament host and one of Zhang’s mentors, hugged Zhang tightly.
“I was just so proud,” Wie West tells ESPN. “What impressed me the most was on Sunday [at Mizuho], she wasn’t her best. She didn’t do her best on Sunday. But the amazing thing about this win is that she perseveres. In professional golf, you’re not going to do your best every time. You won’t do your best more than half the time. She shows up when she has to. She persevered and believed in herself. That’s what impressed me the most about Rose.
After their congratulatory hands and hugs, Zhang’s friends flocked to the green to celebrate their victory. Over the next few hours, Zhang signed autographs, posed for photos, and responded to media inquiries.
During her media stint, Zhang received a public message from Woods via Twitter. “Incredible weeks for Rose Zhang as she defends her NCAA title then wins in her pro debut. Go Card!” Woods tweeted.
The comparisons to former Stanford Cardinals and prodigies like West and Woods never ended for Zhang. The hype and publicity have only increased. And all eyes remain on her.
“Rose is a huge liability right now and I think on a personal level it’s just good to let her play and keep doing the things she’s doing,” says Wie West. “You have to show mercy to Rose. Golf is a really tough game. She will continue to defy all odds, but at the same time she is human. She will make mistakes. She won’t win everything. And that is perfectly fine.”
In anticipation of her first major as a pro at KPMG on Thursday, Zhang wants the golf world to show her mercy. Zhang wants to remind herself to be patient and slow down – anything to withstand the pressure to live up to her groundbreaking story and push women’s football forward.
“I want to emphasize that sometimes it’s important to be patient, even with your favorite players. Tiger Woods did the unthinkable. Michelle Wie West had high expectations,” says Zhang. “We are all human and everyone has their ups and downs. Some more ups than downs in the spotlight. But I say just be patient. I also try to be patient with myself.”
She adds: “I’m still learning the ropes. This is my first year. I have no idea what’s going to happen.”