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Why Rose Zhang's collapse was the most impressive part of her ANWA win

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Ross Kinnaird

April 01, 2023

AUGUSTA, Ga. — She rarely concedes much, good or bad, a stoic soul through and through. Whatever she does reveal is shielded by sunglasses that are fastened under the bill of her hat. But what was happening to Rose Zhang—something that wasn’t supposed to happen—was so harsh and visceral and present that it could not be concealed by shades or ball cap. To onlookers it looked like a collapse, and that is a pain that pierces twice. Once upon its realization, then recognizing you are powerless to stop it. The type of hurt that sinks most souls.

Zhang, as she proved emphatically Saturday at Augusta National, is not most souls.

Her supposed coronation at the Augusta National Women’s Amateur turned into a competition, but when Zhang was down she refused to be counted out and in the process proved why her future is so bright. The Stanford sophomore double bogeyed the first hole, withstood a three-hour weather delay, lost a six-shot lead, and ultimately prevailed on the second hole of a playoff with 21-year-old Georgia native Jenny Bae.

“The beginning of this week has been pretty crazy already with different press interviews, a lot of expectations on me, and I had a lot of expectations on myself,” Zhang said after her roller-coaster win, secured even after she shot four-over par 76 to Bae’s 70. “To overcome everything, I'm just super grateful to be here.”

Zhang, 19, entered as the tournament favorite, with reason. She won the NCAA individual title as a freshman last May while simultaneously helping Stanford win the team championship. She captured the U.S. Women's Amateur before the U.S. Girls' Junior. Last month she passed Lydia Ko for the most consecutive weeks as World No. 1 amateur. The only thing missing from her résumé was the ANWA trophy.

Through two days Zhang seemed well on her way to filling that void, making this impossible game look impossibly easy with a record-breaking opening-round 66 followed by a record-breaking 65 to take a five-shot lead into the final 18 holes. It was the type of tour de force performance that announced Zhang to the world. It proved the hype was real and begged questions about where she could ultimately go.

However, Zhang’s low scores came at a property named “retreat”—Champions Retreat—and the final round was at Augusta National, whose beauty often disguises the fact that it is a course powered by an undercurrent of chaos. Any notion otherwise was erased at the first, where a wayward drive and shaky putt led to a double bogey. But her playing mate, Andrea Lignell, doubled the second to Zhang’s birdie, and in the group ahead Bae doubled the third to grow Zhang’s advantage to six. The only issue in doubt was who would finish second.

Except Zhang bogeyed the fourth, then the fifth, followed by the seventh, the wheels not so much loose as threatening to come completely off. A thunderstorm intervened, and though three-hour delays are not particularly welcomed by golfers, for Zhang the timing could not be better. She now had a chance to get right, to shake off whatever was ailing her, to return to being the player she seemed to be on the precipice of becoming just hours before.

The rains did douse the flames to an extent, as Zhang played her next seven holes following the resumption of play in one under. Problem was, Bae did not get the notice this tournament belonged to someone else, as the Georgia product continued to chip away at Zhang’s lead. A lead that appeared to vanish at the par-5 15th. Attempting to reach the green in two, the ball was nowhere close to its destination, finding the pond in front of the green. Zhang's left arm went off the club and gestured towards the sky as to say, “What gives?” although it was unclear if she was questioning the wind or why her ball didn’t do what it was supposed to do or perhaps why the golf gods are so cruel. It was a moment eerily similar to her 2021 ANWA experience, where she triple-bogeyed the 13th, a hole that ultimately kept her one shot shy of a playoff.

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Christian Petersen

Now, Zhang is projected to do great things when she turns pro, and perhaps those hopes will come to fruition. But there have been plenty of players who were expected to be great because it’s easy to envision continued success when things are going well. The harbinger of true greatness is how the performer responds in the storm, when the things that seemed so effortless now seem foreign, when the bar is so high that it feels unattainable.

Rose acknowledged that she was fighting her swing on Saturday. She was also fighting the belief others had in her, belief that—at this tournament, at least—she had not met. “It was very hard to get to this point,” Zhang said. “I really had to stay focused. Like the previous events I played in … I guess I would say that those events are just a testament to how I was able to grind. But this event really, really had me thinking a lot, and I really, really wanted to be focused on every single golf shot. And with everyone watching, with all the expectations, it was a little difficult to do so, but I'm really proud of how I handled everything.”

When things could have gone south, Zhang remained steady, making par on the final three holes to earn a spot in a sudden-death playoff with Bae, whose brilliant approach at the 17th gave her a birdie from near tap-in range. After trading pars at the 18th, the duo moved to the 10th, and in her approach the forever-stoic Zhang could be heard yelling “Be good.” It was, the shot finding the back of the green, and a shot that looked better after Bae’s second flew long and left into the pine straw under a low-hanging tree. Bae’s recovery was not to be, with Zhang’s lag doing enough to earn the win.

Afterwards Zhang was humble in victory, stating how she never felt safe with the lead, not at this course against this competition. She said her big takeaway from the round was how many areas she needs to improve in her game.

That was the golf takeaway, we should say. For Zhang leaves Augusta National knowing more about herself.

“I think that everyone should realize that I'm very much human and that I do have my fair share of dumb mistakes out on the golf course,” she said through a smile. “But I'm just really proud of myself in terms of how I was able to overcome so much media, so much expectations. Going into the event everyone was talking about how I should win, how this will finalize the trio of amateur golf. I wasn't thinking about any of that, to which I think is a true statement for what I actually care about.

“I never really care about wins, but I do care about how I play and I care about the people around me. I think that really just trying to excel in my profession and trying to do the best I can is something that I cared a lot more about than just a simple win. So it's been crazy, but it's been really good.”

Rose Zhang has racked up her share of wins. You don’t have to squint hard to see more on her horizon. But what shined brighter than the silver cup she hoisted on Saturday was her ability to bounce back from the brink, and that should scare the rest of women’s golf. For there’s little that can stand in Zhang’s way now that she overcame herself.