Grillrooms, barbershops, 19th holes and neighborhood sports bars stay in business by stoking arguments over who’s the best. Rocky Marciano or Muhammad Ali? Bird or Magic? M.J. or LeBron? Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle? Hogan, Nelson, Tiger, Jones, or Jack? The debates are endless. That’s what makes them fun.
What you won’t hear is an argument over the greatest female collegiate golfer of all time. That one’s settled. Rose Zhang – who won her second consecutive NCAA individual title at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona, last Monday and who turned pro late last week – is golf’s Pete Maravich. She’s a player whose collegiate career was so eye-popping that we expect people to point to it for decades.
Zhang won 12 college tournaments at Stanford – the most by any golfer in school history for a university that produced Tiger Woods, Notah Begay, Maverick McNeely, Patrick Rodgers and Andrea Lee. Woods, McNeely and Rodgers had 11 wins each. McNeely did it in four years, and Woods and Rodgers needed three seasons. Zhang, who turned 20 last Wednesday, won 12 in two.
And though Amy Olson holds the women’s collegiate record for most wins, at 20, she amassed those victories in four years at North Dakota State. Juli Inkster had 17 wins at San Jose State in the late 1970s and early ’80s along with three U.S. Women’s Amateur titles. But Olson and Inkster played four years of college golf, and neither won an NCAA title.
Also, Zhang became just the third player in history and the only sophomore to be a two-time recipient of the Annika Award given to the best college golfer in the country. The others were Leona Maguire and Maria Fassi, both of whom played four years, at Duke and Arkansas, respectively.
Zhang, of Irvine, California, also tied a couple of legends with her eight-win season. Lorena Ochoa, who played at Arizona, won eight times in 2001-02, as did Illinois’ Renee Heiken (now Renee Slone, the Illini women’s coach) in the 1992-93 school year. But Zhang’s record included individual wins at the Pac-12 Championship, the NCAA Pullman Regional and the NCAA Championship. Once again, neither Ochoa nor Heiken won an NCAA title.
As if that weren’t enough, Zhang compiled a 68.81 scoring average this season, breaking her NCAA-record 69.68, which she set as a freshman.
“I’m super proud of where I stand now. I couldn’t have done it without all the prep work and all the mental games that my family, friends and coaches have taught me.” – Rose Zhang
She also set a women’s course record at Pebble Beach, a 9-under-par 63 in the Carmel Cup, one of the tournaments she won. And for good measure, although it doesn’t show up on her college stats, Zhang won the Augusta National Women’s Amateur in April. Throw in that before entering a classroom in Palo Alto, California, Zhang won the U.S. Women’s Amateur and the U.S. Girls’ Junior, and the case for “best ever” looks awfully strong. She sat atop the World Amateur Golf Ranking for 141 weeks, sailing past the previous record of 135 held by Maguire.
Her last win as an amateur didn’t come easily. Trailing by four shots coming into the final round at Grayhawk, Zhang shot a front-nine 33 to vault into the lead. Chasers came and went in the final couple of hours, but after piping her drive on the par-5 18th, Zhang needed only a par to win.
That’s when her coach, Anne Walker, stepped in.
“I was walking down 18 and I striped a drive. Coach was like, ‘You should lay up,’ and I was confused,” Zhang said. “I had 198 (yards to the flag with water on the right), and I had an I-need-to-go-for-it mentality. But she was like, ‘No, you’ve got a one-stroke lead.’ So I went, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll second-guess everything that I just did at that moment.’”
Zhang laid up, hit the green in regulation and two-putted for history.
“There are so many elite athletes out here, so the competition is super strong,” Zhang told Golf Channel immediately after the victory. “To be able to come out on top shows I’ve been dedicated and driven, and I’m super proud of where I stand now. I couldn’t have done it without all the prep work and all the mental games that my family, friends and coaches have taught me.”
How will Zhang, who was granted exemptions into the U.S. Women’s Open at Pebble Beach and the AIG Women’s Open at Walton Heath, do in the professional ranks? It’s hard to say. In her sixth season as a pro, Maguire has won once on the LPGA Tour and twice on the Epson Tour.
Fassi, in her fifth season on the LPGA, remains winless. Olson, who has been on tour for a decade and is expecting her first child this summer, also has yet to win.
But an unknown future should not dampen the present. Zhang is the kind of champion for whom it’s easy to cheer. She’s a hard worker, a devout Christian, and the kind of leader and teammate whom every coach and parent would want.
All you need to do is watch the replay of her winning at Grayhawk. As her teammates rushed out to congratulate her, the first thing Zhang said was, “It’s so special being here with you guys.”
That’s a champion worth celebrating, for a good long time to come.
Top: Rose Zhang (center) celebrates her second NCAA individual title with her Stanford teammates. Photo: Christian Peterson, Getty Images
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