AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Rose Zhang will be the first to tell you that closing out a golf tournament when you have a large lead is a mighty challenge.
Just last year at the NCAA Championships, she took a seven-stroke lead into the final round, leaked oil down the stretch, but still ended up winning by three shots. She took a five-stroke lead into the final round of the Augusta National Women's Amateur on one of the biggest stages in all of sports, and though she wobbled over the final 18 holes, she didn't break.
Her close friend and teammate, Rachel Heck, was there by her side on Saturday, just as she was a year ago at Grayhawk.
Heck, the third-ranked amateur in the world who was forced to withdraw from the event due to injury, flew into Augusta on Friday evening so she could again be by her friend's side for one of the most important rounds of her career. They shared dinner with friends and watched Niall Horan in concert, just the way it was always supposed to.
Rose Zhang embraces Jenny Bae
But the next morning, when the noise drowned out, discreetly, Rose and Rachel stood side-by-side in prayer 20 minutes before her 9:50 a.m. tee time. At that point, Zhang didn’t need to ask for a miracle. All week, she was in full obliteration mode. The coronation was surely just a few hours away.
Until it wasn’t.
Zhang opened up her final round of the ANWA by suffering many self-inflicted golf wounds. Her very first tee shot landed in the right bunker which led to a double bogey, setting the tone for the day. Zhang rebounded with a nice wedge into the second green that set her up a forgiving birdie, but the trouble was far from over. Three bogeys over the next five holes would haunt her during a three-hour weather delay.
The well-timed break for Zhang gave her a chance to reset, calm her nerves a bit and figure out what went array with her swing. The break also gave her closest pursuers, Andrea Lignell and Jenny Bae, to rethink their chances a bit.
Decked out in a black Georgia sweatshirt in 72-degree heat with her college coach, Josh Brewer on her bag, Bae was quietly going about her business. After the break, she cruised through Amen Corner with two pars and a birdie on 13, closing to within one of the lead.
Zhang’s playing partner in Lignell almost evaporated her chances after a shaky morning start, but two consecutive birdies kept her in the mix. They’d be her final, as a bogey on No. 14 and pars to finish out kept her three shots outside of the playoff.
The eventual winner has had more rehearsals with this back nine than most of the players in this field. She quieted the demons with a birdie on 13, the hole that cost her the championship in 2021. But after a long and animated conversation with her caddy, her father Henry, Zhang decided to go for the green on her approach into the par-5 15th hole, but hit it into the creek guarding the green, leading to a bogey.
“It wasn’t the smartest decision, but at that time I felt like any sort of lead needs to be maintained,” she said. Rose Zhang greets Rachel Heck
One group ahead, Bae, ranked 28th in the world rankings, roused up a home crowd by hitting her 54-degree wedge to a foot for an easy birdie.
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt happier on a golf course that much in my life,” Bae remarked. “I’ve never heard such big yelling on a golf course. It just felt amazing.”
For the first time in 36 holes, someone seemed poised and eager to deny the world's No. 1 the only title missing from her shiny trophy case.
For three years, Zhang's golf prowess has often been referred to as superhuman, and her career would certainly be remembered as one of the greatest of all-time, regardless of her fate on Saturday.
But Augusta National has been her kryptonite over the years and would once again reveal some familiar vulnerabilities.
She missed a potential winning putt on her final hole of regulation and with a playoff with Bae now looming, the impending coronation was suddenly in jeopardy.
Zhang’s cordial demeanor didn’t change. She and Bae, who have always been friendly, chatted on the 18th tee box before the sudden-death playoff began. Both parred the first playoff hole and hit identical drives on No. 10 on the second playoff hole.
Zhang was first to hit from the fairway and her approach, though long, was safely on the putting surface.
“It’s very uncharacteristic of me, but I’ve always had a struggle playing that hole,” she said. “When I saw the ball go semi straight I was really like, ‘Please be good,’ because it was perfectly center of the green, going that direction.”
Bae found the pine straw to the left and landed in a bunker when she attempted to escape. Somewhere, someone was listening, and Zhang two-putted for par to claim her long-awaited Augusta National Women’s Amateur title.
It took four tries, but Zhang finally has her hands on the trophy that had eluded her before Saturday.
She came close in 2021, but her title hopes were dashed after she hooked her drive on the 13th, which led to a double bogey. Who knows? Maybe if she would have won, she would have turned professional, the mosiac would have changed and her Stanford teammates like Heck, Megha Ganne and Brooke Seay wouldn't have been able to share a memory of a lifetime with their friend on one of the most iconic courses in the world.
A search for a deeper purpose outside of golf encouraged her to take it slow. Contrary to popular belief, that’s Zhang’s natural inclination.
A lot of her identity is naturally tied to golf -- the immaculate scorecards, the trophies, the records. But there's more to Rose's life than just golf. She enjoys hikes in the hills near the Stanford campus, brunch with friends and is prone to occasional binge-watching of her favorite YouTube videos. She is also grounded in her faith, her Stanford community and takes Chinese classes to understand more about her cultural identity.
"I feel like just being at Stanford, it really created such a huge impact in my life on a personal level," said Zhang. "I think that the golf part is always something you can improve on lifelong, but college is such a precious couple of years."
And her final round on Sunday reminded us that contrary to popular belief, Rose Zhang is human after all. The normally stoic 19-year-old could be heard clearly belting out, "Be good," when she hit her approach shot into the 10th green on the second playoff hole.
"Did I -- sorry? Yes, that is very uncharacteristic of me, because every single good shot that I hit, it's nothing but sit or go.
Golf is only one part of Zhang's life. She's a daughter, a sister, a friend, a teammate, and a valued member of various communities with a wide variety of interests. That came to light today when she explained that special quiet moment with Heck.
“It was absolutely necessary and essential,” Zhang said.
Heck, sitting in the press conference, couldn’t help but beam at her friend’s response. “For her to actually come out and watch me…it really shows how incredible she is. It really reminds myself that at the end of the day, (even if) you’re doing well, you have other people you need to support.”
It's Zhang's deep-rooted support system that helped her win one of amateur golf's most coveted championships, one she wanted as much for others as well as herself.
ABOUT THE Augusta National Women’s Amateur (ANWA)
54-hole stroke-play tournament that will include a
72 player international field. The field will include
winners of other recognized tournaments while also
utilizing the Women's World Amateur Golf Rankings.
The first two rounds will be played at
Retreat Golf Club before the field is cut to the low 30
and ties for the final round at Augusta National.
The tournament will be played the week before
Masters, concluding on Saturday.
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