By Beth Ann Nichols | April 3, 2021
AUGUSTA, Ga. – Rose Zhang approached the microphone with a smile. The first question asked of her was to describe the adventure on the par-5 13th.
“I duck-hooked a drive,” Zhang began as she went blow-by-blow through the triple-bogey eight that derailed her run at the Augusta National Women’s Amateur title.
Zhang chalked it up to bad course management.
Could she recall the last time she’d made a triple?
“It was … I can’t, honestly,” she said laughing. The writers gathered ’round laughed too.
Those who know 17-year-old Zhang best say she’s kind, humble and funny. That was on full display when she came up one shot short of a playoff at Augusta National, watching a 12-foot birdie putt on the 18th slide right of the hole.
What’s next for Zhang?
Many expect the No. 1-ranked amateur in the world to turn professional. Her game is clearly ready for that next step. She’s arguably the best American junior golfer to come along in a decade and many wonder how time at Stanford starting later this fall could possibly help her advance.
“I think, for me, I have a lot of maturing to do,” said Rose, who’d just knocked the socks off a half a dozen scribes with her clear and sunny perspective. “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.”
She said it so sincerely.
“A lot of us want a little more than just golf,” said Stanford sophomore Angelina Ye, who finished 15th and walked most of the back nine with Zhang.
Tiger Woods played two years at Stanford. Annika Sorenstam played two years at Arizona, as did Lorena Ochoa. Phil Mickelson won three NCAA titles at ASU.
Only one American has earned LPGA Player of the Year honors since 1994 and that was Arkansas graduate Stacy Lewis in 2012 and 2014.
George Pinnell has worked with Zhang for six years and said the laser-focused teen rarely has time away from her golf and studies.
“For all of us, it’s a good time for us to get away from home and develop,” said Pinnell of college, “and be on our own. Learn how to socialize with other people.”
Ye’s favorite part about college life is team camaraderie. The LPGA can be a lonely life, said Ye. The same goes for junior golf, too.
“I love Rose,” said another future Cardinal teammate Rachel Heck, “I think everybody does. I don’t think one person could say a negative thing about Rose.”
Over the past year Zhang, who won the 2020 U.S. Women’s Amateur, has learned how quickly life can change after suffering a wrist injury that plagued her throughout the second half of 2020 and left her sidelined for six weeks over the winter.
For a player who easily grasps big-picture perspectives, the value of a back-up plan surely isn’t lost on her.
“I think she’s going to blow any hard worker I’ve ever had on my team away,” said Cardinal coach Anne Walker. “She is disciplined beyond belief.”
Pinnell, 75, credits Zhang’s father Henry for her strong mental approach, saying that she thrives on the challenges he presents. Henry, who is usually on the bag, followed every shot at Augusta from outside the ropes.
Walker credits Pinnell for not only being a swing coach but a mentor, too. He’s worked with 50 AJGA All-Americans over the years, including a young Kevin Na and Anthony Kim.
“We see so many coaches with elite talent who don’t totally know what to do with that talent,” said Walker, “and they get overwhelmed with it themselves.”
Not the case with Pinnell, who spends a lot of time with Zhang working on structure in the golf swing. They like to keep it tight with few loose-moving parts. Her natural tempo is beautifully smooth and unteachable. Zhang processes things differently, he said.
When pressed for an example, Pinnell tells a story from the AJGA Ping Invitational last October, when Zhang fell four strokes back after a 75.
After the round she went out to the range and started taking slow methodical swings with a 9-iron, going through the fundamentals that she’s worked on with Pinnell all these years.
After several minutes she threw the club back in the bag and told her father – “I’ve got it” – and that it was time to have a nice dinner and rest. She never actually hit a golf ball.
The next day, Zhang shot 67 and won the tournament.
Pinnell didn’t hear that story until a week later, and in that moment he finally understood why she rarely contacts him during a tournament with questions. She’s too busy self-correcting.
Pinnell, like so many others, believes Zhang could be a generational type of player: “I think that is in her veins.”
When on the road with Zhang at an event, the coach and pupil have a most unusual pre-game routine. After pleasantries are exchanged at the elevator, Rose goes into game-face mode. They pile into a car, driven by Henry, and usually head to the course in silence.
As the warmup begins on the range, it remains quiet. Pinnell doesn’t speak unless Zhang initiates. The discipline and focus are off-the-charts high.
Which is what makes Rose’s reaction to a tough loss all the more impressive. She takes the game seriously, yet accepts the results as they come.
“It’s just I think sometimes you can’t really be too hard on yourself,” she said, “especially when you are on the greatest stage of amateur golf. This is Augusta National. I think it’s our responsibility to just be excited and happy to be on this golf course and to be able to be in contention.
“I don’t really want to take any bad memories away from here.”