The past, present and future of women’s golf played together. Here’s how it went
SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — When the 2:01 p.m. threesome stepped on the 10th tee box on Friday, they commanded the largest gallery on the course. A steady drizzle soaked Baltusrol for much of the morning during the second round of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, but the gallery was undeterred. With a trio of superstars grouped together — Lexi Thompson, Minjee Lee and Rose Zhang — these fans were getting their money’s worth, soggy socks and all.
Thompson, Lee and Zhang are not only three of the biggest names in this week’s field, they’re also emblematic of the passing of time: past, present and future stars playing alongside one another.
Thompson represents one end of the spectrum, a star with her best days (seemingly) behind her. Although she’s just 28, her mileage inside the ropes rivals just about any other active player’s. She turned pro in 2010 — at 14! — and has been in the spotlight ever since. With 11 wins and a major title, Thompson has put together an excellent career, but as one of the brand names in the women’s game, there’s always been a yearning for more.
Golf can be a cruel game, of which Thompson’s career has been a steady reminder. After winning a major at 19, she’s been stuck in neutral trying to do it again. There have been close calls — all ending in heartbreak — but that next major title has never come. This season, a breakthrough doesn’t appear imminent. In four LPGA starts, Thompson has made just one cut; her best finish: T31.
Round 2 at the Women’s PGA was more of the same. Dropped clubs were common; so too were bewildered looks after missed putts. Thompson rallied late in the day with a quartet of birdies to sneak inside the cut line, raising her spirits considerably, but she still sits a distant eight shots behind the leaders.
“It was a tough day and a half,” she said. “Last week was tough, too. I’ve been grinding. I’ve been working extremely hard, and it’s been tough. Just trying to get something that can click with my swing.”
Lee, the reigning U.S. Women’s Open champion, trudged through the rain alongside Thompson, but her play was more polished. With six birdies and just two bogeys, the two-time major winner posted four under, tying for the lowest round of the day. While much of the field drifted backward in difficult conditions, Lee crept up the board.
“Obviously had a really nice day today,” she said. “I’m hoping that the momentum carries on into the weekend.”
Lee is just a year younger than Thompson, but her star power has only recently begun to materialize. She won her first major just two summers ago, and added another a year ago in North Carolina.
“Today I had a really good back nine and just made two birdies and two bogeys on the front,” Lee said. “Pretty solid day overall.”
The No. 5-ranked player in the world, Lee is one of the biggest names in women’s golf. Buoyed by pinpoint precision with her irons, she’s a threat to win every time she tees it up. When the putter cooperates, there are few players who can match her.
Rounding out the threesome was the 20-year-old Zhang, already dubbed the future of the game. A month ago, the new kid on the block was still in college, battling it out at NCAAs for her second consecutive individual title. Now, she’s competing with the best in the world. That “future of golf” moniker isn’t just because of her amateur record, though. Zhang is the real deal — and she’s already proved as much in the pro ranks.
Three weeks ago at Liberty National, Zhang had her “hello, world” moment as she made her pro debut at the Mizuho Americas Open. On Sunday evening in New Jersey, she stood on the 18th green and hoisted the trophy. One start, one win. Not a bad way to start your career, huh?
The Women’s PGA is Zhang’s first start since that coronation. But as big a statement as that win was, Zhang remains humble — almost to a fault. Her goal this week? Simply playing the weekend.
“I would be very happy to make the cut,” Zhang said earlier this week. “Just like last [time] at Mizuho, I was literally just expecting to make the cut.”
Thirty-six holes in and that goal has been secured. Zhang posted rounds of 70 and 74 and is six back of the lead heading into Saturday.
“I’m just kind of in the mindset of learning and just treating everything as a learning process,” Zhang said. “That allows me to just take it one by one and think about everything that’s happening and just soak it in.”
After finishing their rounds and being shuttled back from the distant 9th green to scoring, Thompson, Lee and Zhang each spoke to the media.
Thompson exuded a renewed energy, content to have found something in her game in the closing stretch, and trying like hell to hold onto it. Lee spoke to a crowded room of scribes, confident in her swing, but sticking to the pro-golfer script that you must take the tournament one shot at a time.
Zhang exited scoring to relatively little fanfare. After a disappointing end to her round, much of the media’s attention was elsewhere. But she did speak glowingly about the experience of playing with such highly regarded players.
“They’re seriously amazing,” Zhang said. “It’s really cool to be alongside them. Just seeing each of them play their own games and be alongside them is really cool to see. I’m really honored to be alongside them.”
Friday wasn’t quite a passing of the torch — Thompson and Lee still have plenty of game — but the tomorrow’s stars are coming up fast.