The transition from the amateur to professional game involves way more than simply dropping the “(a)” after your name on the tee sheet. The difficult step to making the game your life’s work has tripped up many talented players.
But few have left the amateur ranks with a bar of expectations as high as it has been for Rose Zhang.
Even fewer have cleared it with the ease she’s exhibited thus far.
This week’s U.S. Women’s Open is only Zhang’s third start as a professional and yet she arrives at Pebble Beach Golf Links among the favorites among a richly talented field of 156. She’s won at every level along the way, including a dramatic pro debut last month when the 20-year-old became the first woman in 72 years, and only the second ever, to win on the LPGA Tour in her first event as a pro. Zhang, who spent two years at Stanford University, then followed it with a top-10 finish in her first pro major at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship two weeks ago at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J.
The splash by Zhang is among the most dramatic in women’s golf history. The gold standard for successful pro debuts was set by Nancy Lopez in 1978 when she won nine times, including five in a row. And 25 years ago, Se Ri Pak took golf global by storm with four wins, including the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open. Simply put, Zhang is the most talked about first-year professional in women’s golf since Michelle Wie, who turned pro in 2005 and won the U.S. Women’s Open nine years later at Pinehurst.
“I'm not an amateur anymore,” Zhang said Tuesday at Pebble Beach, speaking with notable composure, insight and honesty. “I'm a professional, and that changes a lot of things. In the past month it's been very crazy, hectic, but I've been enjoying every moment. 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. I really felt that my game was ready for the next level, so here I am.”
There are three crucial components needed to make the leap into the play-for-pay ranks: The physical skills to perform at the highest level; the competitive experience to establish a winning attitude; and the maturity to survive the demands of a very adult world. Zhang has shown all three, displaying a maturity as impressive as her physicial skills and résumé. When she speaks to a gaggle of reporters her laughter comes with spontaneous ease and her observations show an uncommon understanding of what it takes to play winning golf, especially for someone so young.
In April, she became the first player in history – male or female – to be No. 1 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking® for 141 weeks. She became the eighth player to win the U.S. Women’s Amateur (2020) and U.S. Girls’ Junior (2021), but the only one to claim the former first. In 2022, she became the first player in NCAA history to successfully defend her individual title. That came a month after capturing the Augusta National Women’s Amateur.
“I would have never expected myself to be in this position,” Zhang said about her immediate success as a professional. “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. But, yeah, it's not something that I anticipated, and I have just felt like these positions have just been, I guess, in a way it has helped me to really realize that I have a lot of potential and I can become better. I'm always just someone to try to put my foot forward and improve even more.”
While Zhang has only made two of four cuts in the U.S. Women’s Open (her best finish is T-40 in 2022 at Pine Needles), she arrives at Pebble Beach with a key secret weapon and an important familiarity with Pebble Beach. Her caddie, Jason Gilroyed, has, among his 27 LPGA wins and four major championships, victories in the 2009 U.S. Women’s Open with Cristie Kerr and last year with Minjee Lee.
“The transition from me getting a caddie has been really, really smooth, and Gilly and I have been working really well together thus far,” Zhang said. “I've already put that in my mind that professional golf is going to be very difficult, so with that kind of mindset, later on when I actually did come over to the professional world, I already prepared myself for all scenarios of just being able to grind, not having the greatest luck, and that puts me in a position where I can expect everything. When things come out good, I just roll with it.”
Last fall, Zhang set the women’s course record at Pebble Beach when she shot 9-under 63 in the Carmel Cup, a college tournament. Earlier this year, she played a round at Pebble Beach with Gilroyed and shot what he described as an effortless 68.
“That 63 as well, it came as a blur,” Zhang said. “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, and 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 able to hit greens and giving yourself a lot of good birdie opportunities.”
The distractions of professional life – media demands, sponsor obligations, championship promotion – has derailed more than one player. Zhang, accustomed to being in the spotlight the past few years as the No. 1 amateur, has handled the attention like, well, a pro. She’s kept her mind on what matters most – playing winning golf.
By Sunday afternoon, she she will look to add the biggest trophy to an already impressive collection of titles – the U.S. Women’s Open. A triumph would surprise no one – least of all Rose Zhang. She’s spent her life preparing for this.
Ron Sirak is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.