Where Rose Zhang walks, history follows. Her celebrated golf journey continued Sunday at the LPGA's Mizuho Americas Open while surviving a slog at Liberty National, shooting a closing 74 that was good enough to get into a playoff and beat Jennifer Kupcho on the second extra hole.
Zhang, 20, became only the second player to win her professional debut on the LPGA, joining Beverly Hanson, winner at the 1951 Eastern Open in the second year of the tour's existence.
Zhang's monumental win, coming only 13 days after she won the individual NCAA championship for the second time, marked the blazing beginning of the newest chapter on the LPGA under the watchful eye of the Statue of Liberty just off in the background. Zhang announced afterward that she did accept tour membership, one of the biggest perks of victory. That and the $412,500 first-place check.
The full Rose Zhang experience of humility can be encapsulated by the fact her only goal to start the week was to play on the weekend.
"I honestly didn't even expect to make the cut, and the reason why I say this is because I don't think about my expectations a lot," Zhang said Sunday night, her Mizuho Americas Open trophy sitting next to her full of roses.
"I think about playing the golf course. I think about trying to shoot the best score that I can. Obviously I have frustrations, disappointments with my game, but I never once think about where I finish, where I should finish, etc. So with that in my mind, the expectation for me winning did not even cross my mind. I was just playing my game. I was having a good time out there. This is the game that I love, and I'm so thankful to be a professional doing it now."
The sudden-death playoff began on the 18th as the sun started to set, and Zhang said she felt similarly to the playoff she was in at the Augusta National Women's Amateur in April. Across from her this time was a fellow ANWA winner in Kupcho, who seemed to have the momentum. The 26-year-old made up a five-stroke deficit to get into the playoff, and Zhang had just missed an eight-foot putt for the win in regulation.
However, both missed the fairway right, with Zhang in the sand and Kupcho in the fescue, setting up a chipping contest with both short of the green.
Zhang had a nearly identical putt to the one she missed from eight feet on the 18th to win on the 72nd hole. The California native responded, knocking the putt into the center of the cup to uproarious applause. Kupcho's calm par putt from five feet extended the playoff, showing the poise of a three-time LPGA winner.
Yet Zhang's best can hold up against anyone in the world and emerged on her second shot on the second playoff hole. Leaning in to see where her shot landed as the sun faded, Zhang's 4-hybrid ended up inside 10 feet.
"The final shot on 18, the second shot, was one of the best shots that I've ever hit, especially with me being under pressure," Zhang said.
Kupcho's approach ended up on the front of the green, from outside 60 feet. Then, going for the lengthy birdie, Kupcho putted it off the green, resulting in a bogey, allowing Zhang to two-putt for the win.
Unafraid of embracing the showmanship of a playoff battle, Zhang came to appreciate the grueling Sunday.
"I can't explain how great, how well written this whole day could have ended," said Zhang, who shot 70-69-66-74 for a nine-under 279 total. "But that playoff definitely provided a little bit of flavor, some thrill for everyone, so hope you guys enjoyed the show."
It allowed Zhang to win with a birdie-free 20 holes Sunday following a bogey-free 66 on Saturday. She had plenty of chances late to do so, with looks inside 15 feet on 12, 13 and 16. However, the short par-4 16th proved most painful, as her five-footer for birdie rattled around the left side of the cup and spun out, settling for par.
It felt like Zhang would pay the price for her missed birdie on the 17th—staring down a more challenging test than her multiple final exams next week at Stanford. Instead, she hit in the heart of the cup from 10 feet. The scrambling magic didn't save her on the 18th, with an eight-foot par bid trickling over the right-hand side of the cup. Her bogey moved her to nine under, sending Zhang to a playoff.
Kupcho caught Zhang quickly despite trailing by five shots at the start of the day. The 2022 Chevron Championship winner went four under through her first seven holes following an eagle hole out on the par-4 seventh to surge to 10 under. Kupcho began the back nine at nine under and rallied to get into the playoff with an up-and-down from 75 yards on the 15th to save par. Her clean birdie looks on the 16th and 17th failed to drop, resulting in Kupcho finishing at nine under par.
Instead of focusing on the fact she didn't win, Kupcho focused on the fact this is her first strong finish since her title at the Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational last July. The runner-up is Kupcho's first top-10 finish in 21 starts.
"It's hard for me to not think about it, but, on this type of grass I'm always the best," Kupcho said. "We're starting to hit in this type of grass going forward, so I'm excited to see where the season goes."
The spotlight, however, was all on Zhang, even before the Sunday sunrise.
Golf Channel, late Saturday, announced another hour of streaming coverage to catch more of Zhang's final round. On the course, she had a male fan club following most of the week, which dubbed themselves the 'Rose Buds.' Zhang joked with her caddie, Jason Gilroyed, that she felt embarrassed from the enthusiasm.
After the victory, Zhang was asked about a congratulatory Twitter reaction from Tiger Woods. She was in shock. She’s been compared with other LPGA legends like Annika Sorenstam, Lorena Ochoa and Lydia Ko. She doesn't beleive she belongs in the same breath.
Instead of considering herself the next great LPGA talent, Zhang's humility poured through as she reflected both on the week that happened and what lies ahead.
"I will say that this has been an incredible experience, but I have not seen anything thus far," Zhang said. "Going forward I understand that there is going to be a lot of bumps in the road, and I'm expecting a lot of obstacles that I'll have to uptake and uphold.
"But I think this is just the start. This is just a stepping stone. It's crazy that this is my first win, first professional win already, but no doubt there is going to be a lot more things happening down the road. I'm just going to be continuing to learn inside the ropes.”