Rose Zhang set the women’s course record at Pebble Beach, and it’s unlikely anyone would notice other than her local caddy, Stanford teammates, and college golfers.
Ten months later, Zhang was walking to Pebble Beach 17th Lawn with three US Open Women’s Tennis fans, and everyone turned to look.
And not just heads.
To her left were about three dozen US Open women’s champions posing for a group photo, some of them members of the World Golf Hall of Fame. If it had been anyone else, the laughter and chatter might have continued. Zhang forced them to at least look at her.
This is what Zhang, 20, an Irvine resident and Pacific Academy graduate, brings to this historic women’s tournament and possibly the LPGA tour. Having played two tournaments in her professional career, she now faces the biggest test in women’s golf and is already being talked about as much as anyone else at Pebble Beach.
Michelle Vee West was in this group. She bonded with Zhang to the point that someone suggested that the former child prodigy became Zhang’s mentor.
“She doesn’t need any mentors. She’s got it,” Wee West said. “She’s incredibly poised and has that inner confidence, that inner silent self-confidence that’s just incredible and she’s a real competitor. I am very excited about what she has already achieved in a few weeks as a professional and very excited to see what the future holds for her.”
Wee West knows what it’s like to walk into a room or walk across a golf course and everyone will notice. She was 14 when she shot 68 at the Sony Open PGA Tour and missed with one shot. She competed in LPGA competitions before she was old enough to drive. There was an element of jealousy over the corporate deals and media coverage that came her way.
Zhang attracted attention with her trophies. She won the U.S. Women’s Amateur and U.S. Junior Championships as well as back-to-back NCAA titles, the latter giving her 12 college titles in 20 starts. And on the biggest stage with network TV, she won the national women’s amateur tournament in Augusta.
And then she turned pro and beat a strong field at the Liberty National in her first start.
All of this can be hard to digest for someone who was still cleaning his dorm room at Stanford just over a month ago. Zhang seems different in many ways.
“The last month has been very crazy, hectic, but I’ve enjoyed every moment,” she said on Tuesday. “There’s a lot more attention, a lot more media, but that’s to be expected when you’re doing well and when you’re new trying to get out here and play your best. So I just took it easy.”
She is one of the favorites for the US Women’s Open, which is held for the first time in Pebble Beach and finishes in prime time on the East Coast.
The transition from amateur to professional was facilitated by a new name, image, and likeness policy that allowed her to build relationships and close deals before making the move professionally. She kept her expectations to a minimum. And then she performed at a level that raised them higher.
Zhang followed that win at the Mizuho Americas Open, breaking away from the lead at the PGA Women’s Championship in Baltusrol before finishing in a tie for eighth place.
“I never expected to be in this position. Just being able to compete was incredible, sensual, and I feel like my game was on par with many of the pros and veterans here,” she said. “But it’s not what I expected.”
The US Women’s Open is the next big test for Zhang and everyone else. The green is already firm, even with a marine layer protecting it from the sun for two days of practice.
Pebble Beach is famous among the US Open courses and is the most recognizable in America outside of the Augusta National. It brought big moments like Tom Watson chip-in in 1982, Jack Nicklaus hit the pin 17 with 1 iron, Tiger Woods won by 15 shots in 2000.
Someone has a chance to cut another piece of history.
Jin Yong Ko, who last week broke the record for the most weeks by being number one in the Women’s World Rankings, was so excited to play at Pebble Beach that she arrived last week. She hasn’t won a major tournament since 2019 and is looking forward to the next one. So did Lydia Ko, who finished last year in first place and had a slow start by her standards.
Zhang knows Pebble from the Carmel Cup, a college tournament last September, when she scored 63 points in the second round, breaking Brittany Lincicom’s women’s record. This led Zhang and Cardinal to another victory.
As for this 63? She calls it blur and mentioned that she is on auto-pilot for a reason. It turned out that her caddy kept statistics, and only later Zhang realized that she had hit all 18 greens in the regulations.
“Now, as far as I remember, I didn’t take out the wedge,” Zhang said with a laugh.
This comes in handy at Pebble Beach, known for its tiny greenery with slopes that can range from subtle to rugged. The roughness is thick enough to cause problems. Wind forecast. Expect anything this week is a motto that has served Zhang well so far.
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This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.