It’s a sequence of numbers Rose Zhang has likely heard more this week than she ever has in her life. A sequence of numbers that has shadowed her every move at Pebble Beach, serving as both a signal of what’s possible and cruelly, an unspoken expectation many will hold for her. It’s a nagging reminder that numbers are all that matter in competitive golf to a player who hardly ever plays her golf with a number in mind. But it also contains so much promise, following her around like an aura.
Rose Zhang once shot 63 at Pebble.
Zhang has been heralded as one of the brightest minds to enter the professional ranks, a young woman preternaturally wise and composed — and when she took a seat Tuesday morning for her press conference at her fifth U.S. Women’s Open, first as a professional, she was happy to describe the course record-setting round few actually saw.
“It came as a blur,” Zhang said. “It was the second round, and I was preparing myself to just be able to hit fairways and greens because that's what you have to do here. The greens are tiny. One of the caddies in our group actually kept all my stats for the round, and I apparently hit 18 greens. It was a little bit windy that day, so it really does help when you are out here and being able to hit greens and giving yourself a lot of good birdie opportunities.”
Seldom is her first round the best round. And not often is that second round a course record – though that 63 last fall was not her first time rewriting a course’s record book. In her freshman year at Stanford, Zhang set the course record at Meadow Club, the Alistar MacKenzie design just north of San Francisco, with a 64. One onlooker described the 63 at Pebble during the 2022 Carmel Cup as the “easiest” he had ever seen, with Rose’s Stanford teammate, Rachel Heck, backing up that assessment. “I can’t say I was surprised at all,” Heck says. “We were all like ‘Yeah, that seems about right.’”
A few things have changed since that fateful day last September. For starters, Zhang won’t be playing the same Pebble Beach. Yes, it will still play as a par 72, but the setup this week is expected to be a true US Open test put on by the USGA. Beyond the heightened rough and slick greens, the course will play over 350 yards longer than it did when Rose shot her 63.
Ask Zhang what else is different and she is quick to laugh. “One, I’m not an amateur anymore,” she says. A not-so-subtle reminder snuck up on Zhang this week when she exited her presser and former teammate Sadie Englemann reminded Zhang she’s no longer allowed at the amateur dinner, resulting in a fit of laughter. But she’s never too far away from the same teammates who she bid painful goodbyes just a month ago when she ended her collegiate playing career. Not only do they remain friends, but they also found time to play golf together earlier this week — Zhang spent two out of her three official practice rounds with Englemann and Kelly Xu (with Stanford assistant coach Brooke Riley serving as Xu’s caddie for the week). This time, there were grandstands and TV towers surrounding them, but it was hard to tell the difference between this walk and a typical Stanford women’s golf practice round.
Like the course records, Zhang has a way of making these moments feel effortless, whether it’s chumming it up with sponsors in Pro-Ams or being grilled by media in pressers. (In a month’s time, the attendees for her media sessions have tripled). The new demands on her time, and the way she has handled it, are all part of her grace. But it has certainly tested her energy after the breakout win at Liberty National.
“Are you Rose Zhang?” is a question no longer contained by a golf course.
There’s an ease and effortlessness that exudes from Rose when she plays golf, but once upon a time, it was not so easy. Swing coach George Pinnell fondly recalls a moment when Rose had lost her trademark patience. She was 12.
She’d just started competing on the Toyota Tour, and in her first six months, she pulled together some high finishes – but not one win. That Christmas break, the frustration seeped through. Weekly visits to Pinnell’s Golf Academy in Rowland Heights were typical, and so were their talks. He vividly remembers a frustrated Zhang asking him when she’d actually start winning.
Two months later, she won the next Toyota Tour Cup event she played in. Pinnell has remained by Zhang’s side for nearly a decade, and although her visits aren’t as often as they used to be, there’s very little about Zhang that’s changed. A little more extroversion, a little more balance, and yeah, the wins and course records piling up. But in eight years, Pinnell still sees a lot of the same driven competitor whose incredible tempo (yes, she’s always had it) and self-awareness put her in a class above the rest of his pupils.
“In order to be in contention and play well, you have to make the cut first, right?” she said when reflecting on her success at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, where she found herself in the mix on the final day and ultimately finished tied for eighth.
Pinnell’s own self-motivation might have proven influential. At 77, he continues to work ten-plus hour days, and although he’s following his most popular student on a motorized scooter around Pebble Beach, he’s got all the energy to aid Zhang with her swing whenever she asks. He’ll grab his cane and observe, take swing videos and provide input when asked. “I don’t know how many of these I have left,” he says. A key part of her group, her entourage at Pebble Beach is the same as it’s looked for a long time. Her easygoing, carefree attitude also remains.
Maybe that course record will change. Life surely has. The goal isn’t defying expectations now, it’s meeting them. All of the golfing universe is watching. Yet for as much that has changed so fast around Rose Zhang, she’s — so far — stayed the same. If she does somehow win it all this week, that’s the reason why.