PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. (AP) — Rose Zhang set the women’s course record at Pebble Beach and hardly anyone noticed outside of her local caddie, Stanford teammates, and college golf enthusiasts.
Ten months later, she walked toward the 17th green at Pebble Beach with three amateurs in the U.S. Women’s Open and heads turned to look.
And not just any heads.
To her left were some three dozen U.S. Women’s Open champions who had posed for a group photo, several of them in the World Golf Hall of Fame. Had it been anyone else, laughs and chatter might have continued. Zhang made them at least glance her way.
That’s what the 20-year-old Zhang brings to this historic Women’s Open (beginning Thursday), and perhaps to the LPGA Tour. She is two tournaments into her professional career, now facing the strongest test in women’s golf, and she already is talked about as much as anyone at Pebble Beach.
Michelle Wie West was in that group. She has become close to Zhang to the point someone suggested the former prodigy had become Zhang’s mentor.
“She doesn’t need any mentors. She’s got it,” Wie West said. “She’s incredibly poised and has that inner confidence, that inner silent confidence in her that is just so incredible, and she is a real competitor. I’m super excited for all the things that she’s already accomplished in her few weeks as pro, and very excited to see what’s in the future for her.”
Wie West knows what it’s like to walk into a room, or walk across the putting green, and have everyone notice. She was 14 when she shot 68 in the Sony Open and missed the cut by one shot. She contended for LPGA majors before she was old enough to drive. There was an element of jealousy from the corporate deals and media coverage that came her way.
Zhang drew attention for her trophies. She won the U.S. Women’s Amateur and the U.S. Junior Girls, and back-to-back NCAA titles, the last one giving her 12 college titles in 20 starts. And on the biggest stage with network television, she won the Augusta National Women’s Amateur.
And then she turned pro and beat a strong field at Liberty National in her first start.
All this can be a lot to digest for someone who was still cleaning a dorm room at Stanford just over a month ago. Zhang appears to be different in so many ways.
“In the past month it’s been very crazy, hectic, but I’ve been enjoying every moment,” she said Tuesday. “There’s a lot more attention, a lot more media, but it’s kind of expected when you are doing well and when you are the rookie trying to go out here and play the best you can. So I’ve just been taking everything in my stride.”
She is among the favorites for the U.S. Women’s Open, held at Pebble Beach for the first time and with a prime-time finish on the East Coast.
The transition from amateur to pro was helped by the new name, image, and likeness policies that allowed her to build relationships and get deals before taking the professional plunge. She kept expectations to a minimum. And then she performed at a level that raised them higher.
Zhang followed that victory in the Mizuho Americas Open by getting within one shot of the lead at the Women’s PGA Championship at Baltusrol before finishing in a tie for eighth.
“I would have never expected myself to be in this position. Just being able to be in contention has been incredible, feeling-wise, and I feel like my game has been on par with a lot of the professionals and the veterans out here,” she said. “But it’s not something that I anticipated.”
The U.S. Women’s Open is the next big test for Zhang and everyone else. The greens already are firm, even with marine layer keeping the sun off them for two days of practice.
Pebble Beach is fabled among U.S. Open courses, and the most recognizable in America outside Augusta National. It delivered big moments like Tom Watson’s chip-in in 1982, Jack Nicklaus hitting the pin on the 17th with a 1-iron, and Tiger Woods winning by 15 shots in 2000.
Someone has a chance to carve out another slice of history.
Jin Young Ko, who last week broke the record for most weeks at No. 1 in the women’s world ranking, was so excited to play Pebble Beach that she arrived last week. She hasn’t won a major since 2019 and is eager for another. So is Lydia Ko, who ended last year at No. 1 and is off to a slow start by her standards.
Zhang knows Pebble from the Carmel Cup, a college event last September when she shot a 63 in the second round to break Brittany Lincicome’s course record for women. That carried Zhang and the Cardinal to another victory.
As for that 63? She calls it a blur and mentioned being on auto-pilot, and there’s a reason. Turns out her caddie was keeping stats, and only later did Zhang realize she had hit all 18 greens in regulation.
“Now that I remember, I didn’t take a wedge out,” Zhang said with a laugh.
That will come in handy at Pebble Beach, renowned for its tiny greens with slopes that can range from subtle to severe. The rough is thick enough to cause problems. Wind is in the forecast. Expect anything this week, a motto that has served Zhang well so far.
2023 US Women’s Open odds
- Rose Zhang: +1100
- Jin Young Ko: +1400
- Atthaya Thitikul: +1600
- Hyo Joo Kim: +1800
- Nelly Korda: +2000
- Leona Maguire: +2000
- Xi-yu Lin: +2200
- Miyu Yamashita: +2200
- Minje Lee: +2200
- Ayaka Furue: +2800
Odds courtesy of DraftKings. For more, click here.