Stanford coach admires ANWA champ Rose Zhang's grit. Now about that hero shot on 15 ...
ANWA champ Rose Zhang poses with Stanford coach Anne Walker.
AUGUSTA, Ga. — It’s never easy being a golf coach. You stand outside the ropes, living and dying with shots, and sometimes even trying as hard as you might to create some kind of telepathy with a player to build them up or save them from themselves.
Anne Walker has had plenty of those days in 11 years as the women’s head coach at Stanford. Just last May, she paced and encouraged and fretted as Rose Zhang became only the 10th freshman in NCAA history to win an individual title. Two days later, her uber-talented Cardinal captured the second national title in school history.
As challenging as those experiences were, we can add Saturday’s final round of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur to Walker's list. “One of the most excruciating days I’ve had in the coaching business,” she told Golf Digest.
Walker watched helplessly as the 19-year-old Zhang, the No. 1-ranked female amateur golfer in the world, opened with a double bogey at Augusta National, eventually surrendered a six-shot lead, and then ultimately survived a playoff with 21-year-old Georgia senior Jenny Bae, winning with a par on the second extra hole.
“Rose was walking a tight rope all day,” Walker said. “It was just great to see that last putt go in.”
Few observers understood better than Walker what Zhang faced heading into the final round after two record-setting days at Champions Retreat that gave her a five-shot advantage. Zhang had not played particularly well at Augusta National in three previous appearances, and yet she was considered the prohibitive favorite to secure a quadrilateral of amateur wins—the U.S. Women’s Amateur, U.S. Girls’ Junior, NCAA Championship and the ANWA.
The day’s conditions were also difficult, with the wind whipped early in the round before a thunderstorm forced the players from the course for three hours. And Zhang found herself fully uncomfortable with her swing from the first tee. It wouldn’t be until the middle of the back nine that she found a “fix” by changing her grip.
“Yeah, I think it’s fair to say that she didn’t walk quite as easily as when she was shooting six and seven under [at Champions],” Walker said. “For good reason. It’s hard. And Jenny Bae put together a fantastic round of golf [shooting 70 to Zhang's 76]. But I also think it’s nice to be a couple of groups back in this tournament and not having anything on the line. She was walking with a pep in her step and loving her day.”
Rose? “She was trying to hold onto a newborn baby,” Walker added with a laugh while mimicking the cradling of a baby. “I don’t want to drop this thing! That’s kind of how she walked around the course.”
Amid all of the distress and pressure, not to mention a card of 40 on the front nine, Zhang collected herself in shooting even on the back to reach the playoff after Bae brilliantly birdied the 17th to pull even.
“It’s a hard victory to get,” Walker said. “When you think of what Rose carried on her shoulders … everyone talking about her, having the big lead, breaking the course records, being flawless. It’s really hard to live a life of perfect, and that’s what the media was putting on her. That she was perfect.
“For her to be able to come out here … and hold herself together in a playoff, that speaks volumes about what she has in her heart and what she has between the ears. I believe patience is Rose’s secret weapon, and I do think it’s a competitive advantage to have patience, and Rose has a lot of it.”
Rose Zhang talks to her caddie and dad Haibin Zhang on the 15th.
Now, about the 15th …
There was plenty of social-media chatter on Saturday when Zhang struggled early and people were questioning whether her father, Haibin, should have been her caddie for such a critical round. On the day’s broadcast, former LPGA player Morgan Pressel and caddie/commentator Jim “Bones” Mackay noted on several occasions about how a local Augusta National caddie could have been more helpful.
Count Walker among those observers who probably didn’t think the dad/caddie approach was the best one. Speaking of Zhang and her dad’s decision to go for the green on the second shot with a wood at No. 15, instead of laying up, Walker said, “I think that was a reminder to everyone that she’s  years old. She doesn’t have a professional caddie on her bag. She’s loved the experience with her dad on the bag. But if you have Bones Mackay on the bag, I think Bones is forcing an iron into your hand no matter what she is trying to do. So, she got away with it, and we’ll be thankful for that. But I think she and her dad will be having words about 15 tonight.”
After the round, Zhang spoke of debating with her dad about the best play on 15. She said she was “adamant” about laying up at first, but changed her mind after they talked. “I knew that my wedge game was very spot on the whole week,” Zhang said. “So I feel like it was definitely a smarter decision for me to lay up. Unfortunately, that's not what I did. But that's OK.”
Zhang, who earlier in the week was talking about using a local caddie before deciding on her dad on Friday, reiterated what it meant for him to be by her side. “I felt like even though an Augusta caddie is super knowledgeable at Augusta National, they've probably caddied for X number of years and their advice is very helpful … but I felt like at this stage I really wanted someone comfortable on my bag.
“It was a very difficult decision to kind of go through for me, but I really felt like it was the right decision to have him be a part of my journey, especially on the last day. Coming down the stretch I wouldn't have wanted anyone else on the bag.”
In her press conference, Zhang shared a funny story from her freshman year of college. Apparently, her new teammates were a big taken aback by how stoic she seemed.
“There was this joke in freshman year, my teammates would probably not agree with me now, but everyone thought that I was dead inside,” Zhang said, laughing. “I understand that not a lot of people agree with that now, but it was the whole joke in my freshman dorm that Rose just doesn't have any emotion. She's just dead inside.
"I kind of played along with it, thought it was funny and something that I guess I'm proud of.”