Rose Zhang salvaged 2020 and came out with the AJGA’s highest honor

By Julie Williams | November 2, 2020 4:32 pm

After Kelly Chinn listened to last year’s Rolex Junior Player of the Year, Maxwell Moldovan, give his acceptance speech at the AJGA’s annual award banquet, Chinn walked out of the room and made a remark to his dad.

“I want to be the one that makes the speech next year,” Chinn remembers saying. “I’m going to do it.”

It won’t be in front of a live audience – a global pandemic has forced this year’s “Greatest Night in Junior Golf” to go virtual – but Chinn will be the one in the spotlight. He accomplished his goal, which wasn’t an easy thing to do considering that golf shut down for months mid-year in the face of COVID.

When Chinn delivers his thoughts, he wants to express, first of all, what a miracle it is that the opportunities presented themselves in the first place – that he got to play as many tournaments as he did.

“Just want them (the AJGA) to know how much it meant to me, how much I worked for it,” he said. “That’s what I’d like to convey.”

Chinn, 17, won the AJGA’s top honor on the strength of victories at the Ping Invitational and last year’s Rolex Tournament of Champions, plus a runner-up at the Junior Players. He goes back to a conversation he had roughly a year and a half ago with Duke assistant coach Bob Heintz. Chinn has committed to play for Duke in 2021.

“He kind of told me that in order to be great, you gotta be somewhat arrogant, which seems kind of different, just by saying that,” Chinn said. He took it to heart, and admits that mental game, more than anything, produced results in 2020.

Chinn’s father Colin retired as an admiral in the U.S. Navy in August 2019. Before that, the Chinn family moved frequently – Hawaii, California, Washington and then to Great Falls, Virginia, where they’ve been based the past four years.

Chinn didn’t mind the moving so much because it allowed him to branch out in his golf. He’s seen a vast aray of course conditions and grasses. Hawaii tops that list. It was where he learned to get comfortable playing in wind.

Despite his ties to the military, Chinn said the service academies didn’t enter his mind in his college recruiting process. His dad’s influence is felt in other ways.

“My dad is one of the hardest workers I know, one of the most disciplined people I know,” Chinn said. “Growing up around him, I really understand that it takes hard work to be great.”

That comes through in the junior-golf grind. Between golf, tournament travel and school, it’s constant. When that let up late-spring, Chinn buckled down on a major swing adjustment. He worked with instructor Daniel Neben at TPC Potomac to get his swing more on plane. That resulted in a consistency boost.

Chinn will play the South Beach International Amateur in Miami to end the year, and hopes to be in the Jones Cup field in early 2021 as he transitions to amateur golf.

Rose Zhang final round of The PING Invitational – 2020 (24)

Rose Zhang during the final round of The PING Invitational – 2020. (AJGA photo)

In women’s golf, Rose Zhang has started that transition in a more rolling way. She won the U.S. Women’s Amateur in August, and finished 11th at the ANA Inspiration, an LPGA major, a month later. She also won the Rolex Junior Player of the Year award for the second year.

Zhang has tried not to focus on the hardware. It doesn’t take a medal to validate the work she’s doing in the game. She checked off several accomplishments in 2020 that would have made any other junior golfer’s bucket list. She has been careful to focus on the short-term.

Zhang checks boxes on a daily basis.

“I see these awards that I really want to earn but I don’t think about it on a daily, it’s more of if I can get my practice done, if I can get my schoolwork done,” she said.

If there was one thing Zhang learned in 2020, it was that there is no such thing as a perfect game. There’s always something to improve.

After she left the ANA Inspiration, Zhang realized she needed more work on her short game, needed to sharpen her irons, hit the fairway more often and gain a little distance. Most importantly, she kept a laser eye on how LPGA players prepare for a tournament and how they still fit in everything – like workouts and practice – even when they’re on the road every week.

“They weren’t hitting as many golf balls, they weren’t even putting as much,” she said of that practice round. “They were more just getting a feel of the course.

“I would be one of the juniors who would practice a little less during practice rounds and it seemed to me that I was practicing more than these pros out here, so it was definitely very different.”

Before she won the Rolex honor, Zhang also was named the Mark H. McCormack medal winner for rising to the top spot in the World Amateur Golf Rankings. The Women’s Am victory and her ANA finish certainly helped get her there, but there were three AJGA invitational titles too.

As for what we didn’t see? Zhang called up memories of multi-tasking.

“Definitely trying to stay on top of schoolwork and coming back from events, I went to school the next day and it was like nothing happened,” she said. “Especially with online classes that were very tough. Coming back and living a normal life and trying to catch up on schoolwork and do whatever I need to do is definitely something I’m very proud of.”

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