For Rose Zhang, the *real* journey begins now
SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — If you believe Rose Zhang, the last three weeks of her life have been chaos.
In the last seventeen days, Zhang has, in relatively chronological order, played in her first LPGA event as a pro, dealt with her first professional 54-hole lead, played in her first professional playoff, won her first professional event, become an international golf sensation, appeared on the Today Show, and, most recently, received a DM from her one of favorite athletes ever, Steph Curry.
But those extraordinary circumstances are not why the last three weeks of her life have been chaos. Far from it. The real culprit of Rose’s last month has been an enemy of the more mundane variety.
“I studied at night with my friends, and we were all in the struggle bus together,” Zhang said without a hint of irony on Wednesday afternoon. “Once I got back on campus, all my friends were like, yo, congrats. After that we spent time just talking about random things and how they have been surviving campus life.”
You see, the thing nobody tells you about being the most decorated 20-year-old golf prospect out of Stanford since Tiger Woods is that the classes are not any easier once you’ve become an overnight celebrity. They may be harder, in fact. Even for the most exciting young talent in pro golf in some time, Stanford is, well, Stanford.
“Ugh, the toughest final. Definitely my computer science final, CS-106A,” Zhang said, a pained look on her face. “That entire class has been quite difficult.”
CS-106A was on Rose’s mind the last time I saw her, just days before her stunning victory at the Mizuho Americas Open just up the road at Liberty National. She groaned as she talked about the class on the ferry back to her lower Manhattan hotel.
“I don’t know why I took it,” she said. “All of my friends are CS majors, but I’m a comms major.”
She laughed as she peered out at the skyline.
“I really need to study.”
ROSE ACED HER FIRST SERIOUS TEST, a stunning victory at the Mizuho Americas Open. But that didn’t mean she was expecting to.
She’d let out a scream seconds after clinching a playoff victory over Jennifer Kupcho.
“What is happening?!”
Her disbelief continued well into the week after. Finals or not, she had noticed a different tenor around Stanford upon her return from Jersey City and was blown away by the media reaction to her victory.
“It’s been quite a lot, to be fair,” she said. “I definitely did not expect a lot of frenzy to occur over my last win. I expected people to know. I expected people to be just super happy about it, but I never thought that media would also be like all over it, as well.”
It seems that reality has set in now, three weeks later, but expectations have arrived with it. When Thursday dawns, Zhang will embark upon her first-ever major start as a pro at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship — an event that could send her newfound stardom into the stratosphere. She was followed by a significantly larger-than-normal crowd during her Wednesday practice round at Baltusrol and her media obligations stretched for more than an hour after that.
No matter what happens this week in Springfield, there will be no surprises this time. The betting markets like her as one of the five biggest favorites in the field, and the crowd of 100 or so that followed her on Wednesday seemed to like her even more than that. (Two dozen or so reporters jammed shoulder-to-shoulder into the tiny interview room on the Baltusrol parking lot made this clear, too.)
She is diplomatic to a fault, but it’s clear she’s noticed the extra attention.
“Another one?” she asked her agent politely but tellingly on Wednesday afternoon, as a cart waited to whisk her from her press conference to a TV hit with Golf Channel. She went and interviewed, dazzlingly, for 15 minutes.
Rose is adjusting, but spend a few minutes around the spectacle and you’ll be adjusting, too. How can a player of Zhang’s age and relative inexperience enter a major championship in such high regard? How did she become one of the most sought-after autographs in women’s golf overnight? Were those seriously Tiger Woods comparisons?
The burden of fame is one of the oldest stories in sports. A century’s worth of golf stars — from Hogan to Palmer to Nicklaus to Woods to Wie — have struggled under the weight of near-constant attention. Those trials have not produced many success stories.
Still, it is hard to picture a player with a better predisposition for the spotlight. Rose’s personality shines from the spotlight like a warm breeze, at once unassuming and deeply self-assured. She is both razor-sharp and refreshingly benevolent — traits that have quickly endeared her to her fellow LPGA stars.
“I think she’s just got to keep being herself, just be the Rose Zhang she is,” said fellow former teenage star Lydia Ko. “She can’t be like somebody else because she’s never going to be. She’s been doing so well. I don’t know if anyone can give her advice just because we’ve walked in similar roads and pathways. I think she’s going to do awesome, and I think it’s exciting for golf and women’s golf to have a player like her.”
It’s exciting for women’s golf, but it’s fair to wonder if it’s exciting for Rose. Expectations, the kind she’s suddenly surrounded by at the KPMG Women’s PGA, can be overwhelming. Particularly when fame seems so inevitable.
“I’m sure a lot of kids and players are going to going to grow up and say, hey, I want to be like Rose,” Ko said. “I want to go to Stanford, I want to come and be an LPGA Tour winner.”
Ko was once the next big thing in women’s golf, her dizzying ascent to World No. 1 — the youngest player of either gender ever to reach that title — eventually proving an anchor on her career. She has spent the better part of the last nine years trying to find her way back.
She knows the weight of what Rose faces, but she doesn’t seem particularly worried about it, either. As she talked about her 20-year-old counterpart on Wednesday, Ko could hardly stifle a laugh.
“People have asked me what advice would I give [Rose],” Ko said. “I’m like, I don’t know, she’s playing better than me, so what advice would she give me?”
IT’S TRUE. The biggest test facing Rose Zhang is still to come.
But her last one provides some clues as to how she’ll fare.
Zhang returned to Stanford at the beginning of June on the heels of the biggest win of her life. She’d just pocketed a check for $412,000 and cleared the runway for a whole lot more. Her phone was flooded with phone calls from media organizations, potential sponsors, and other business opportunities. Everyone wanted a piece of the girl who’d already lassoed the golf world; they didn’t seem to mind that she was still very much a girl, having turned 20 only a few weeks prior.
“I’ve been taking a lot more, I guess, ‘business phone calls‘ than I was when I was a college athlete,” she said. “As a professional, you have to do a lot more things, and you’re essentially your own business — your own boss — so you have to really navigate towards what your career looks like, what your team looks like.”
This boss imposed a few hard-and-fast rules: no partying, no media obligations avoided; no excuses. Was Rose ready for the challenge?
“Definitely,” she said without hesitation. “I’ve been taught to never give up and always face your challenges, regardless of what happens. Even if you don’t succeed, it’s always going to be alright.”
But there was one area in which failure was not acceptable: schoolwork. Stanford had been Rose’s dream school, and after two years on arguably the greatest golf team in women’s college history, she’d made the promise to herself to finish her degree. In her press release announcing her decision to turn pro, she reiterated that she would be finishing her degree as a pro.
The biggest obstacle in that path, it seemed, was finals week. Tests were rapidly approaching upon her return from a worldwide media tour, and Zhang was admittedly dealing with an early rash of senioritis.
“Once I came back, I was stressed about it, but at the same time, I wasn’t stressed because I honestly couldn’t care at that point about what my grades were,” she said with a grin. “As long as I passed the class, as long as I completed what I needed to, I was pretty much done with sophomore year.”
She returned to Stanford to find her friends in full cram-mode and dove in head-first. A week’s worth of studying culminated in the final exam, the last test before a summer that could well become the next two decades of her life.
As she arrived at Baltusrol for the Women’s PGA, she finally heard word back from her professor. She stepped into a golf cart on Wednesday afternoon as she delivered the news, first with her hands, then with a mile-wide grin.