How many times is there a chance to see the best there’s ever been? How rare is the opportunity to pull out that over-used GOAT tag — Greatest of All Time — and really mean it? Which brings us to what’s happening these days with the Stanford women’s golf team.
This was on No. 12 at Augusta National last month, and right there in the middle of Amen Corner, Tiger Woods wanted to shake hands with a certain young woman from his alma mater.
“He knows who I am,” Rose Zhang would say later, “which is actually insane.”
Her coach at Stanford laughed about that quote. “She never assumes anything,” Anne Walker said. “I think that’s part of why she’s great. She never gets caught up in thinking she’s made it. She never feels like she’s arrived. She never feels like she’s the best.”
The best? By every measure, Rose Zhang is the finest amateur women’s golfer on the planet, leaving ball marks all over the record book as proof. And maybe even more than that. “Rose is currently looking on paper like the best amateur that’s ever played the game on the women’s side,” Walker said. Ever. “Nobody can come up with a like-for-like comparison. Her resume is just too outrageous.”
Zhang has won 11 times at Stanford in 19 events, matching a school record in victories held by three others. Know one of them? Tiger Woods. Except it took Woods 26 tournaments.
She’s set a record for most weeks as No. 1 in the World Amateur Golf Rankings and is closing in on a fourth McCormack Medal, which goes annually to the top amateur on Earth. Four would be unprecedented.
She just shot a 19-under 197 to lead Stanford to the title in the Pullman Regional, which was an NCAA postseason record by three strokes.
She established an NCAA record last season with a 69.68 scoring average as a freshman, and is nearly a stroke better this year at 68.70. Her career average of 69.22 would also top Lorena Ochoa’s all-time mark. “Flabbergasting numbers,” Walker said.
Zhang will be trying to defend her NCAA individual national championship next week in Scottsdale. Her team, too.
All of the above for the unassuming and driven sophomore from Arcadia, California, who picked up one of her father’s golf clubs when she was nine years old — “7-iron, regular shaft, regular length and I was also half my dad’s height,” is how she remembers it — took a whack at a ball, and missed. Still, she decided this was the game for her. It was love at first swing.
Now she’s 19 and to get an idea of how good she is, listen to the woman who coaches her.
“I would describe her as the Mozart of golf, the Van Gogh of golf,” Walker said. “She has a stroke of genius, she has an X-factor that you can’t describe, you can’t teach. She just has the ability to dig deep to a place where she can do something special under immense amounts of pressure.
“She still takes my deep breath away. Every time I ever watch the kid, she hits shots and makes swing where I’m speechless, even with all the golf I’ve watched. They’re shots that it’s not something a teaching pro teaches you. A teaching pro teaches you the fundamentals of a great golf swing and the ability to hit it from point A to point B in the textbook-type manner.
“She makes the impossible possible from these crazy spots.”
To think, seven years ago Walker got her first look at this 12-year-old phenom and watched her butcher a drive. Things got better. “She always says she had to convince me to take her, but it’s not true,” Walker said.
Zhang won the U.S. Women’s Amateur in 2020, before she won the U.S. Girls Junior championship. No one had ever done that before. She won the Augusta National Women’s Amateur last month, letting go of a five-shot lead on the back nine – hey, that even happens at the Masters — but regrouping to win in a playoff.
Making the cut in an LPGA major . . . matching or breaking par in 50 of 58 career rounds at Stanford . . . the first athlete to land an NIL deal with Adidas . . . firing a 63 at Pebble Beach for a women’s course record . . . representing the U.S. in a gaggle of international competitions . . . all in her column.
No wonder Tiger Woods knows something about her. Maybe the rest of us should, too.
How she prepares for each tournament by listening to a couple of Bible verses before going to sleep the night before. How she’s named Rose because her California parents loved the Rose Bowl Game and Parade. How she’s a communication major and had a 4.6 grade point average in high school. How her favorite athlete is Steph Curry.
And how she is so unfull of herself, but never blinks on the golf course. Nineteen events she has played in for Stanford. She’s finished out of the top-10 once.
“She is the absolute best teammate. She never puts herself first,” Walker said. “She’s the best in every room and every team and every group that she plays on but she is just so humble. If you don’t know who Rose Zhang was and you were just looking at a bunch of kids and the way they’re operating you wouldn’t pick her out as a superstar because she just conducts her business as one of the group. I’m quite certain that I will never coach a Rose Zhang again because they only come along in a generation.”
Walker mentioned how Zhang will watch other players, be envious of a good short game here, a steady driver there, and go back to the practice range to work. “I think that’s a unique skill,” Walker said. “Because there’s very few people who can get to the top of any profession or sport and then just have the inner humility to realize to keep going. Don’t look behind you, don’t stop don’t take in the glory, just keep going.”
The leading amateur women’s golfer in the world now has the floor.
All that history she’s making . . .
“I have no idea what records that I’m setting,” Zhang said. “I don’t really think about those, especially when I am playing because a part of being a high performer and part of playing well involves staying in the present. These are things that happen as by-products through my work and that’s how I take everything. I don’t really read about them but it is very cool when someone sends me an article and they go, you broke this record, that’s amazing. I’m like, wow, I can’t believe I did that, too. And then you move on with life.”
Sharing the Stanford victory mark, at least for now, with Woods, among others . . .
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“I would never have imagined myself to be in this position today, Me even being in the same sentence with Tiger Woods is just so weird and so foreign, but I couldn’t be more thankful.”
What she loves most about golf . . .
“I believe it’s the camaraderie of being in this golf community, Everyone is just so disciplined at what they do. I’ve gained my best friends from the sport. Just being able to be around such driven people and kind of understand how golf works and operates, that’s just something I don’t think you can find in many other sports. And you can play with anyone of any age at any time, which is also something so unique. That allows me to really keep my heart full and have a loving community around me.
“I do think golf is super unique where nothing happens twice. Every single golf shot’s different, every single swing is different. For you to play well you’ve got to be creative, you’ve got to adjust fast and that’s one of the beauties of the sport.”
Coming so far so quickly . . .
“It’s hard to describe; I’m always surprised by the outcome because I set my bar on outcome so low. But I do have extremely high standards when it comes to practice, so I feel like it’s a little bit of both. I’m both surprised but I’m not surprised through my work ethic.”
The origin of her renowned focus and poise . . .
“I think I grew up being a very poised kid. I feel like I had a quick understanding on social environments, Even though I was a kid at heart, ran around a lot, I still had a sense of poise and calm to myself and that allowed me to continue being myself. From a young age I was always very genuine about what I did.”
Being both a Stanford athlete and student . . .
“It requires a lot of self-discipline, it requires a lot of sleepless nights but I wouldn’t change it for anything. I think that I’m working towards something bigger for myself and I just enjoy the journey. That allows me to push through hard times. I think that’s the part of life that we should take part in.”
If her fellow students in courses such as Communication 108, Media Processes and Effects — her favorite class so far — understand her standing in golf. . .
“I think they do to a certain extent but I don’t really talk about it to them a lot. I feel they’re all very successful in everything that they do so they don’t really talk about it to me either. We just treat each other very normally and I think that’s the beauty of it. Just me as a normal person. I appreciate that they like me for me.”
The chance to repeat as a team national champion . . .
“I can’t even fathom how important it would be for me. Every single person on this team has been so close to me and every one of them has a special place in my heart.”
Finally, taking the time to think about where golf might take her . . .
“There are definitely quiet moments but there’s so much going on you can’t really think about it too much. I think this game has taken me to so many great places already. I just am super excited anticipating what this game will bring to me in the future. Regardless of what happens I’ll be able to take it with pride and just enjoy everything that comes my way, if it does turn out well, or if it doesn’t.”
For now, she’s content to be a Stanford Cardinal, surrounded by a team that has come to understand how unique this moment can be. Walker works hard at treating her athletes the same since she considers them all capable of something special. But . . .
“I would say there’s been an evolution. In the last six months we have changed our tune a little bit with Rose because it’s become apparent that she’s not just a phenomenal golfer she is currently tending to be the greatest female amateur that’s ever played the game. I wanted to make sure that we all stop -- me, her teammates all of us -- and as we’re going through this process with her and get to walk side by side with her every day that we really are stopping to take in what we’re witnessing. Because I believe that I’ll be telling my kids and my grandkids about this time with Rose Zhang and I really believe her teammates will be too.”