At Pebble Beach, golf is saying goodbye to one star, hello to another
Wie West’s name has long been one of the weightiest in the game. Ever since her early teens, she’s been in the spotlight. She won a USGA championship, played multiple PGA Tour events and became the first woman to qualify for a USGA men’s championship — all before she could legally drive. By the time she turned 16, she was ready to turn pro.
In a game desperate for a new star in the women’s game, Wie West was the chosen one.
Nearly two decades later, Zhang’s name is held in a similar regard. She dominated in junior golf, winning the U.S. Women’s Amateur and U.S. Girls Junior (in that order, incredibly), and then continued her success at the collegiate ranks. She won 12 times at Stanford — including back-to-back NCAA individual titles — and added a victory at the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. She turned pro at a slightly older age than Wie West, waiting until she turned 20, and then promptly won in her first start.
In a game once again searching for a transcendent star, Zhang seems destined to fill that role.
This week at Pebble Beach, the two stars’ paths meet. For Wie West, it’s the end of the road. For Zhang, it’s the beginning.
Wie West was supposed to be the next dominant star in the women’s game, but it didn’t exactly pan out that way. She won just five times on the LPGA Tour — including a major title at the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open — never quite living up to the outsized expectations placed on her from a young age. Golf is a fickle game, even for the most talented stars.
After struggling with injuries for much of her prime, Wie West announced last summer that this year’s U.S. Women’s Open would be her final tournament.
“It was bittersweet to announce that,” Wie West said. “[But] it’s been an amazing journey, and I’m very excited for what happens next.”
Zhang, much like Wie West, is supposed to be the next dominant star in the women’s game. Her amateur record speaks for itself, and in just two pro starts, she’s already living up to the hype, with a win and another top-10 finish to her credit. She’s already played in two U.S. Women’s Opens as an amateur, but this week will mark her first start in the championship as a pro.
“I really felt that my game was ready for the next level,” Zhang said. “So here I am.”
It’s hard to argue based on her sprint out of the gates. But at this level, there are no guarantees.
Zhang and Wie West share a management company, so there is much overlap between them. Zhang won Wie West’s tournament, the Mizuho Americas Open, in her first start. And with each having attended Stanford, it’s a perfect recipe for a mentor-mentee relationship.
When Zhang took the podium at Pebble Beach Tuesday morning, Wie West was just a few hundred yards away on Golf Channel’s “Live From” set. As they talked to the media, each spoke glowingly of the other.
“She’s incredible,” Zhang said. “This is her last stretch, but I’m really honored to be able to just be a part of it.” Said Wie West: “She’s really done it all on her own. I really hope that I can be a sounding board for her.”
As Zhang stepped out of the interview area behind Pebble’s 18th green, Wie West was there to greet her. The two shared a quick hug as Wie West headed to her press conference and Zhang was whisked away to her next media obligation.
A couple of hours later, they met on the 1st tee for a practice round. Although Zhang holds the women’s course record at Pebble Beach, there was still much to learn from Wie West.
“It’s been nice that Rose has definitely asked me questions,” Wie West said. “She’s asked me to later on help her with her tournament schedule and with like school schedule and match that up. I just want to be a sounding board for her.”
As Zhang and Wie West played their practice round, alongside Marina Alex, their entourage swelled. Agents, equipment reps, media and family members dotted the gallery. Wie West’s husband, Jonnie West, was on the bag, as their daughter, Makenna, squealed with glee as she watched the seals on the beaches below. By their fourth hole, they had attracted the largest crowd on the course.
Wie West was quick to offer advice when called upon, and Zhang even shared some of her own — her favorite spot in Carmel for clam chowder.
“I’m super-excited for what she’s doing to come, because she has a lot of big things ahead of her,” Zhang said. “[And] not just from golf. That inspires me.”
When the three players reached the 7th tee, a photo-op was in order. Wie West and Zhang posed on the elevated tee box, along with Alex, as dozens gathered around and snapped pictures.
With Wie West stepping away, rounds like these will soon be a thing of the past.
Fortunately for golf, there’s another star ready to take her place.