Rose Zhang was in trouble.
Three down to USC’s Brianna Navarrosa in the semifinals of NCAA match play, Zhang was in an unusual spot when she arrived at the 14th green. Her approach had settled 20 feet away from the hole. Navarrosa had her against the ropes. Zhang looked exhausted, and Stanford — the defending champions — was on the verge of giving up back-to-back points.
Not so fast. She buried the putt for a birdie, a sign of life Stanford desperately needed. A rare reaction followed. Zhang smiled as she walked over to scoop up her ball.
The college career of the greatest amateur in history still had a heartbeat.
As Zhang continued onto the closing stretch, USC would go up in two matches and needed one last point to advance to the NCAA final. The defending champs had only one point on the board, leaving Zhang as the anchor match. When she and Navarrosa tied No. 15, suddenly, No. 16 at Grayhawk Golf Club became do or die.
All day, Navarrosa’s steely determination and ball-striking had put Zhang on the ropes. But on the Par 3 16th, Zhang channeled something magical, hitting a gorgeous tee shot that landed softly and settled to three feet.
Navarrosa’s sat 10 feet away. Zhang looked like she was once again on the verge of something spectacular, something only she could conjure up. She had done this countless times throughout her career. But on this day, no putt seemed too big for Navarrosa, who never trailed in the match. The USC junior drained it with ease, and wouldn’t let up on 17th. The 157th-best player in the world closed out the No. 1-amateur in the world, 2&1.
Tear-stricken and emotionally exasperated, Zhang explained where she went wrong. “Everything caught up to me, the fatigue…when I was dialing in my yardages, trying to figure out my swing, nothing was going well. Felt like everything was a little bit of blur.”
The match was over – and so was Rose Zhang’s amateur career.
Even before the result of the National Championship, I’d been dreading the day I had to write this story.
Not because I don’t want Rose Zhang to turn professional. I think it’s the natural next step. But because we’d have to speak about Rose Zhang’s amateur career in the past tense, and I know how lucky I’ve been to witness a GOAT in real-time.
When I found out Rose was turning professional, I wasn’t surprised. We were on a video shoot in Palo Alto, and she was talking about her plans. She wanted to relocate to Las Vegas and finish up her degree at Stanford. At 25, I envied this 19-year-old for myriad reasons, but mostly at how settled she was in these plans. There was zero fear of the future in the way she spoke. Instead, there was a deep sense of security in what she had, even if it wasn’t everything she wanted.
Her contentment would be tested a few months later when she almost unraveled in the final round of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, a tournament she’d quietly coveted since its inception. But when she emerged victorious, it seemed like yet another obstacle overcome by the greatest amateur in history. Now, all that was left was to defend her NCAA title and try to lead an injury-riddled Stanford squad to a team championship.
First, she recaptured her own glory, becoming the only woman in NCAA history to do so. Then she ran out of gas, knocked off by the brilliant putting of Navarrosa, which felt like an abrupt end to the perfect story.
When she walked off the 17th green at Grayhawk Golf Club, still in a blur, she was met by Anne Walker, her coach and confidant for the last two years. The two shared a tearful embrace. A nearly 36-hole day after a week spent in desert golf will do that to a player. But so will a sudden end to a career that, in Zhang’s world, would have resulted in another team championship to the program that gave her so much.
“There’s somewhat of a soul-filtering process in the pool of people that qualify for Stanford athletics,” says Walker. “They already have some built-in soft skills. They’re hardwired to show up every day, be determined, be ambitious and give their all at whatever they’re doing.”
A 4.6 high school GPA and the No. 1-ranked amateur will make you a shoo-in at any golf program. But there’s no guarantee that such a player will be successful. Unless you are Zhang and win immediately – and three in a row, at that. In two years, she won 12 times in 20 starts, eclipsing names like Tiger Woods, Maverick McNealy and Patrick Rodgers to become the winningest player in school history, and matching Lorena Ochoa’s feat. Out of all 20 events, a total of only 31 players would beat Zhang.
That would be an incredible career if it ended there. But the Rose Zhang experience did not exist in a collegiate vacuum. It started even before she even signed her letter of intent to Palo Alto when she downed defending U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Gabriela Ruffels with an injured left wrist. In the last year she was eligible, she won the U.S. Girls’ Junior in the summer preceding college – becoming the first person to win both in reverse order.
Then came the Tiger comparisons. The NIL deals. The media attention. A near-dizzying warp-speed ascent, she’d remain the de facto No. 1 for the rest of her college career. And on that trail she’d encounter multiple obstacles – burnout, injury (an unlucky weight landed on her left foot, leading to a wonky start to her freshman spring) and a long sought-out journey to independence.
“In college, you have to live on your own and make your own decisions,” she said weeks after winning her first NCAA individual title. “That was when I realized what was the most important thing for me, rather than having other people tell me what’s best for me.”
Much of Rose Zhang’s epic career has been illuminated by her time with the Cardinal, but as significant are the moments she has walked alone. Her renewed faith in Christianity led to her Baptism after her freshman year. The major starts, when she became that one amateur who hung around all week. Connecting deeper with her cultural background by taking Chinese classes. And in the final ride with the sisters she never had, she would hoist a championship trophy alone.
It’s deeply symbolic of Zhang’s transition into her new life. Had she decided to turn pro as the No. 1-ranked junior in her class, perhaps her trajectory would have looked much different. The trial run at “adulting,” if you will, was backed by two years full of fun, friends and hard lessons learned. It all feels so fast, but in the context of Zhang’s timeline, she took her sweet time dominating everything.
In what’s now the biggest decision of her entire life, Rose Zhang has some semblance of direction. She will make her first professional start at the Mizuho Americas Open, and spend her summer playing four majors and three professional events. By her side will be Jason Gilroyed, whose caddying resume spans Minjee Lee, Alison Lee and Cristie Kerr.
Where is the ceiling for the greatest amateur golfer of all time? That’s tough to say. But compared to the deep historical significance of Rose Zhang’s amateur career, this next chapter is equally as massive. And thanks to her, women’s golf and women’s amateur golf are in a better place than she found it.
But so is she.