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Rose Zhang won at Augusta, then in her LPGA tour pro debut. What’s next for this 20-year-old budding star?

October 17, 2023
Rose Zhang

DEMPSEY AND FIRPO

Irvine, California—a master-planned city in Orange County—is known for its universities, its shopping-mall expanses and its proximity to Disneyland. About 45 minutes from downtown L.A. by car, it’s galaxies away in terms of temperament. Family oriented, with an emphasis on close community and competitive schools, Irvine is the sort of place that cultivates talent and prizes hard work. It also has a solid golf scene—23 public and private courses within a half-hour drive, a robust incubator. Soon, if all goes to plan, it will also be known for Rose Zhang.

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It’s a sultry July day in Manhattan, and Zhang and I are taking in the sights at the Whitney Museum on the Hudson River. Among the most celebrated amateur golfers in the history of the sport, Zhang had made her rabidly anticipated, longawaited debut as a professional at the Mizuho Americas Open in June. Let’s stop and register this: What kind of 20-year-old has the burden of being long-awaited? What does that even mean? Twenty is the age when, in some distant formulation, the person you will eventually become has maybe, notionally, begun to assemble itself.

Zhang stands before the arresting image of Jack Dempsey in mid follow-through, looming over his Argentine challenger, Luis Firpo, who has just been knocked through the ropes with a savage left hook. In George Bellows’ famous 1924 rendering, Firpo is flopping haplessly, Dempsey looks almost apologetic and the audience goes berserk at the bloodthirsty spectacle. This is what they came for after all, to thrill at those chosen few with the brazen guts and steely skills to compete in the arena.

I ask her: “Do you like paintings of athletes?” “I do,” she says, “because you don’t see a lot.”

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This is true. The exploits of elite athletes are ubiquitous: broadcast on television, photographed for websites, tweeted and blogged about, meme-d and GIF-ed. We live in a world where recency bias and hyperbole are the twin engines that supercharge our round-the-clock obsession with sports and celebrity. Fall asleep for three months, and you’ll wake up to a whole new slate of best-evers and greatest-of-all-times, but how often are they painted and enshrined in a museum for generations to marvel at? Now that’s a legacy.

After dominating college golf for two years, including winning the NCAA individual title in 2022 and 2023, Zhang decided to leave Stanford to join the LPGA Tour. For all the stakeholders—agents, managers, current and prospective sponsors, her family, her growing legion of fans—it was a seismic development. So much expectation, so many people to make proud. What’s the opposite of that? As well-known as Zhang might have been to those of us fully integrated into the subterranean corridors of the golf underground, the public was mostly hearing her name for the first time.

ROAD AND ROCKS

We take in Edward Hopper’s 1962 drawing “Road and Rocks.” Unlike the lonely cityscapes Hopper is generally renowned for, this is a beautifully out-of-phase depiction of a winding road, with a looming overhang cliff that seems to signal both danger and beauty.

Zhang responded to the hype by winning her debut with a bloodless performance, eking out a tense triumph over the formidable Jennifer Kupcho in a playoff. Look at the footage when she taps in for the winning putt: the sigh of relief, the happy acknowledgement from her competitor. The prodigy arrives! The hype went from overdrive to kaleidoscopic. She had headline status at ESPN. Tiger tweeted about her. I got assigned this story. My first thought, before our meet-up, was, Rose Zhang’s life seems totally exhausting.

“I am exhausted,” she cheerfully concedes as we amble through the Whitney. “I’ve been under the weather the past few days. Oh, and the photoshoot took a while.”

I talked to Rose’s Stanford head coach, Anne Walker. The tenderness and intimacy of their coach-player relationship is palpable in the way families almost accidentally can’t help but speak candidly about one another. Walker says that when she took Zhang on as a player, Rose’s game was already good enough to play professionally. Their time together at Stanford would be all about how to deal with being a professional. “There were times coaching her when she wasn’t in a good spot. She was sick. She was tired. She was out of energy. She had a bad cold. She kept pushing and pushing. Then, we had the conversation about self-management.”

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Conversation or no, Rose Zhang has recently been pushing herself harder than ever. “Everyone feels pressure depending on what their situation is,” she says. “My pressure comes from the fact that I am pretty hard on myself.”

She comes by this honestly. Her father spent years at an investment-management firm. Her mom is still a dental technician. Talent is a gift, but hard work is what makes one worthy of it. Finding this balance remains something she’s working on. “I’ve received a lot of attention and media requests and obligations,” Zhang says. “It’s hard. It’s very hard.”

I feel a pang of guilt. It’s supposed to be her day off.

THE ROSE

We gaze at Jay DeFeo’s 1966 abstract-expressionism masterwork. An explosion of awe-inspiring visual overload, weighing more than a ton and standing more than 10 feet tall, the work registers beauty and grandeur on an epic scale. “Hey!” Rose beams upon registering its title. “That’s my name.”

Per Coach Walker, these are the attributes that make Zhang a force of nature: “She doesn’t have a big miss. She hits center-face a lot, and she hits center-face with a lot of different swings,” Walker says. “Sometimes maybe she’s not feeling her swing all the way, but she has a slower swing cadence and just kind of plays within herself, whatever she’s got that day. Hitting center-face in golf gives you a huge advantage. It’s easier said than done.”

Also: “She has a great short game that doesn’t receive much attention because she doesn’t miss very many greens,” Walker adds. “She doesn’t leave herself too much work.

‘ON THE COURSE, [ROSE] IS . . . SO IN CONTROL. OFF THE COURSE, SHE’S GOOFY, SHE’S SUPER AWKWARD.’

“It takes a lot to faze Rose,” Walker continues. “The great quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Brett Favre have talked about how the game moved slowly for them, right? You can’t teach that. For them, from a very young age, the game moved slowly. For Tom Brady, he had more time to throw than what we saw with the naked eye. For some reason, for Rose Zhang, the process of golf moves slowly.”

Zhang didn’t pick up her first club until she was 9 years old—perhaps on the late side for a prodigy—but once the game got under her skin, it became a borderline obsession. “I would never say golf is exactly a natural sport. I think it requires a lot of dedication and a lot of hard work to be able to play well mechanically and technically,” says Zhang, who won the U.S. Women’s Amateur in 2020 and the U.S. Girls’ Junior in 2021. “But I will say that I love the process. I love being able to go out there and work on my game every single day. That’s kind of what I really thrived on. Spending hours and hours on the range, hours on the putting green, chipping green, you name it.”

It was during these marathon practice sessions that the game began to slow down for her. Yet her life keeps moving faster, picking up momentum.

“It’s going to be a learning curve,” Walker says. “She won her first event and finished in the top 10 of her first three majors. People think it will come easy, but turning professional is a big step in your life. It’s like buying your first home or getting married or whatever. It’s bumpy, and it should be bumpy. That’s what makes you grow and makes you strong and makes you special.”

I asked Coach Walker why now was the right time for Rose to turn pro. “I liken it to when you open a bottle of Coke, and that Coke’s fizzy. Then you close it back up and then next time, it’s halfway fizzy. Over time, it loses its fizz, right? She was ready to compete with the world’s best. She needed to go while the fizz was still in the bottle.”

Consider that in 20 career college starts, Zhang had 12 wins and 19 top-10 finishes and an NCAA record 69.24 career scoring average. In her sophomore year, she had eight wins in 10 starts. She spent 141 weeks as the No. 1-ranked women’s amateur, more than any player in the ranking’s history.

The other trick with a fizzy bottle, of course, is making sure it doesn’t explode.

20 Questions and 50 feet With Rose Zhang

A DOOR TO THE RIVER

A glorious slash of yellow, brown and pink, Willem de Kooning’s “Door to the River” stands nearly seven feet tall above us on the Whitney’s seventh floor. De Kooning was one of the leading lights of the abstract-expressionism movement of the 1940s and ’50s, which was just around the time in America that golf was evolving from a marginal carny game to a mainstream sport. Golf is the most abstract expressionist of all our major sports. You can employ all the range finders and tricked-out, new-tech clubs and golf balls that travel cosmic distances, but 90 yards out of deep rough to a sloping green is still just guess work. There are no analytics that can make that shot for you.

Zhang’s favorite movie is “Knives Out,” Rian Johnson’s satire of indolent wealth and the tragi-comic carnage left in its wake. From the preposterous exertions of the PGA-LIV merger to the mortifying congressional hearings, there is a general sense that any vestige of what was once a working-class game hangs uneasily in the balance. Women’s professional golf, too, has dipped more than a toe into the troubled waters of malign foreign investment. The Ladies European Tour has its Saudi Public Investment Fund-backed Aramco Team Series, and the LPGA Tour has a partnership with the LET. This is another variable as Zhang arrives on the scene. The very charm of the LPGA Tour is that it’s not the PGA Tour. It’s diverse galleries and gracious opponents, all the great golf and none of the Brooks and Bryson vibes.

As streaming platforms seek to fill their limitless need for content, and corporations and nationstates plunge their endless tentacles ever deeper into the cultural landscape, the business of sports continues to feed uncontrollably. Inevitably, this effect has begun to prove transformational for the LPGA Tour. With an influx of sponsorship money, total player purses for 2023 have risen to $101.4 million, a 43-percent increase from 2019.

“The core fans love the LPGA because the players are more accessible,” Walker says. “Smaller galleries bring fans closer to the action. It’s a different viewing experience from the PGA Tour. It has more camaraderie among players. Viewers sense it.”

Zhang is sentimental but realistic. “Do I think money will change the tour? Probably. Is it for the better? Who knows?”

GETTIN’ RELIGION

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Archibald John Motley Jr.’s 1948 street scene is all vivid blues and late-night jazz, kinetic energy, pure revelry. I spoke with Zhang’s best friend and Stanford teammate Rachel Heck, 21, also hotly tipped as a future LPGA star, who recently returned to the game after a thoracic outlet surgery that required removing a rib. She was understandably afraid before the operation. “The day before surgery, the team was at a tournament. I remember Rose sent me the longest text message that just made me cry.”

When Zhang won the Augusta National Women’s Amateur in 2023, she asked Heck to be her traveling partner for the week. I ask Heck if she remembers where the two of them met. “It was at the AJGA Ping Invitational,” she says. “Rose was 12, and I was 13. She was so quiet, and I made it my goal to get her to come out of her shell because this was one of her first invitationals! I got her out of her shell.

“On the course, she’s so composed, so in control,” Heck says. “Off the course, she’s goofy, she’s super awkward and clumsy. She’ll just trip over things.

She’s hilarious. She’s texting me right now, actually. I told her I was going to do an interview about her, and I was going to say horrible things.”

As teammates at Stanford they bonded over growing up. “Even when we’re on the course, we never talk about golf,” Heck says. “We just talk about normal stuff like boys and classes and life. She’ll be like, ‘Oh, my God, I did the most embarrassing thing today,’ and she’ll just giggle.”

I inquired of Zhang at the Whitney if she had any talent as an artist. “No,” she answered, “but my friend Rachel does.”

Heck is a multimedia artist of considerable skill, so I ask her if she sees golf as an artform. She is unequivocal. “I see it as a very artistic thing. I see it in the swing, the fluidity of it. The movement is artistic. I envision every shot.” Heck says that the difference between her game and Zhang’s in some ways is a technical question. “Rose likes numbers; she likes to sit on TrackMan. I envision things.”

‘IT TAKES A LOT TO FAZE ROSE. . . . FOR SOME REASON, THE PROCESS OF GOLF MOVES SLOWLY’ FOR HER.

Art versus science on the course is one thing, but there is no TrackMan for dealing with the realities of turning pro. An inveterate grinder and a meticulous planner, Zhang will need to adopt— at least to some extent—the art of improvisation to successfully make the transition.

Walker enumerates the small changes that amount to major upheavals. “We all know about the sponsor commitments and that kind of stuff, but what’s really hard are the things that occur that we don’t necessarily think of: travel logistics and flight delays. At the hotel, the beds are different, the pillows are different, the food is different, the water’s different.”

There’s also jetlag and time-zone changes and irregular practice schedules and homesickness. Since we spoke in early July, Zhang has traveled to France to England to Ohio to Oregon to Vancouver, a punishing taste of life on the road. The world is now her canvas.

PROJECT FOR A NEW AMERICAN CENTURY

We approach Josh Kline’s epochal installation “Project for a New American Century,” a dystopian but deeply compelling bazaar of all that the ever-metastasizing corporate-tech duopoly has on offer. There are videotaped testimonials from non-union delivery drivers explaining their snack routine, body parts in shopping carts next to Amazon boxes and the eerie specter of the U.S. Capitol bathed in a blood-red hue. Zhang is captivated. “The sports world is so different from life in general.”

At Stanford, she loved learning about the past, from Chinese history to the Cold War. Golf matters, and then again it doesn’t. The weeks after her triumph at the Mizuho, Zhang’s results were up and down: a T-9 at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, a missed cut at the Dana in Toledo, another T-9 at the Evian in France, another missed cut at the Portland Classic. Hysterical projections that she will win every tournament she enters have been set aside. Here, too, is Zhang’s dilemma. She must immediately excel, and she must be patient. She must navigate the impossible balance between hard-wired ambition and a modicum of self-care as an ever-growing machinery hums beside her. These are the three plagues of the modern prodigy: be great, make it fast and be available.

BEFORE AND AFTER

We stand before Andy Warhol’s 1962 nose job cartoon piece “Before and After.” Andy Warhol always said: “The idea is not to live forever; it is to create something that will.”

If all goes as planned, there won’t be too many more instances when Zhang can walk around unbothered by the extent of her celebrity. Michelle Wie-West told me about being recognized for the first time in public. “I would go to a restaurant with my friends, and someone would come up to me, and it would be so awkward, right? Like, I mean, I was also a lot younger than Rose. I was like 13, 14. I think being 20 is a little bit different.”

Wie-West and Zhang share an overlapping trajectory that practically no other two people can possess. About the time Wie-West was wrapping up her professional career in June 2023, Rose was launching hers. They remain in close counsel.

Zhang has stories of her own about being approached by fans. At the Mizuho, she tells me: “I had this random boy come up to me and had me sign a banana. I was like, ‘What are you going to do with this banana after a while?’ ”

I asked Zhang if she ever thinks about life without golf. “Yeah,” she allows, “I ask myself ‘What if golf never works out?’ ” Right now, she can’t quite contemplate what that might look like.

Consider this: It’s 30 years in the future, and Zhang is on the walls of the Whitney, a towering rendering of the greatest female golfer ever to grace the game. Or maybe she’s just walking through with friends, a happy civilian who once but no longer carries a great burden.

I catch one last glimpse of her as our day together ends. Exhaustion notwithstanding, she smiles warmly at me and then bounds off energetic, graceful and funny. I asked Wie-West about her expectations for Zhang’s legacy, and she responded, “I think she’ll succeed beyond everyone’s expectations, whatever she wants to do.”

I asked Walker about Rose Zhang and all that fate has in store for her.

“She’s not scared.”

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