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Stanford star's incredible start begs question: Has a historic college season just begun?

Rose Zhang is now three for three in college starts, winning the Stanford Invitational this weekend with a school-record-tying 16-under total. (Photo courtesy of Stanford)

October 18, 2021

It’s been 19 years since Lorena Ochoa had what many consider the most dominant single season in women’s college golf history. An Arizona Wildcat sophomore in 2001-02, Ochoa won her first seven tournaments starts before finishing second at Pac-10 Championship in April. She won the NCAA Regional for an eighth victory, then finished T-2 at the NCAA Championship. Less than 12 hours after nationals, she turned pro, having competed against in her two-year stint in Tucson 1,880 golfers and beated all but 15 of them.

How much of that history Rose Zhang is aware of is unknown, but the 18-year-old Stanford freshman is likely to learn more of it in the coming week as she embarks on one of the more anticipated college debuts in recent memory—and starts to follow the legend of Ochoa.

On Sunday at the Stanford Invitational, Zhang finished her third college start for the Cardinal with her third victory. She made just two bogeys over 54 holes en route to shooting a school-record-tying 16-under 197 at the Stanford Golf Club. In nine college rounds, the Irvine, Calif., native has shot par or better eight times, is a collective 23 under par and has an impressive stroke average of 69.11.

Much was expected from Zhang upon her arrival in Palo Alto. She won the U.S. Women’s Amateur title in 2020, the U.S. Girls’ Junior Amateur title in July and has held the No. 1 spot in the World Amateur Golf Ranking since September 2020. Still, her early accomplishments have been nothing but stellar. No men’s or women’s player in school history has won her first three starts, and just six women’s golfers in program history have won three times in their entire careers.

“For me, I’m learning so much from watching her,” said Stanford women’s coach Anne Walker. “Her patience is just unreal. Watching her overall, the main word I take away is she’s a joy to be around and a very patient player.”

In recent years, players of Zhang’s caliber have bypassed college golf or made their stays short. But before enrolling this fall, Zhang insisted she was looking forward Stanford and determined to continue to work on her game before attempting to play professionally.

“Well, I think for me, I have a lot of maturing to do,” Zhang said in April after finishing third at the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. “I just think that college is the place where I'll be able to play even better, shoot better scores and mature as a person and character.

“For now, I don't really have any intention of turning professional. But when I'm ready, I think I will know it when I'm ready.”

In school, Zhang has the benefit of a deep roster to provide motive her to work each day. The Cardinal roster includes the reigning NCAA individual champion and player of the year, Rachel Heck, and first-team All-American Angelina Ye. Heck won five straight tournaments to cap her freshman year in the spring. Not surprisingly, the Cardinal are the No. 1-ranked team in the Women’s Golf Coaches Association polls, having won all three team titles so far this fall.

“That’s been the fun part. The last couple days we’ve seen really nice crowds coming out to watch them play. Several times different people mentioned like this reminds them back in the day when Tiger was here in the 1990s and people in the community knew the players and were watching the players and wanting to come out and see them in person. To have that vibe around the program is a blast … It’s a special time for Stanford golf.”

Zhang and Stanford have one more tournament on the fall schedule, the Pac-12 Preview in Hawaii the first week of November.