A surprise star followed Rose Zhang’s brilliant Solheim Cup debut
CASARES, Spain — The two rookies had no way of knowing they’d spend a chunk of Friday afternoon at the Solheim Cup together, but somehow it always felt preordained.
Rose Zhang, the 20-year-old American sensation, knew she’d be playing alongside Megan Khang come Friday afternoon’s fourball session. She knew that it would be her grand debut to big-time team golf. She didn’t know who that match would be against, and she certainly didn’t know who would be watching along the way.
Ludvig Aberg, the 23-year-old European sensation, knew he’d spend a chunk of Friday afternoon’s fourball session at the Solheim Cup. He knew he would be following Madelene Sagstrom, his caddie Jack Clarke’s girlfriend, who also plays for the European side. He didn’t know much of anything else, but for a surprise Ryder Cup rookie soaking up some Spanish sun before the biggest week of his life, that was more than enough.
It wasn’t until shortly before 1 p.m. local time that the universe summoned the two rookies together. Zhang and Khang were slotted against Sagstrom and her playing partner, Gemma Dryburgh, for the first of the afternoon matches. Aberg, just days away from making his debut as the biggest rookie on the biggest stage in team golf, would have the opportunity to watch Zhang, the present biggest rookie on the biggest stage in team golf, undergo a parallel experience.
And so they walked together, Z ahead of A, for the better part of the afternoon at Finca Cortesin. Zhang, wearing a crimson polo and a still-surprising dose of level-headedness, battled an unusual right miss and a pair of relentless counterparts. Aberg, clad in crisp shorts cut just above the knee, a Caribbean blue polo shirt and a pair of sunglasses, watched jovially but intently.
It goes without saying that Aberg and Zhang play very different styles of golf. Aberg is a picture of the modern pro golfer: tall, chiseled, long, powerful. Zhang, on the other hand, is a picture of the timeless golfer: crafty, smooth, consistent, unflappable.
But even if he couldn’t learn much about club selection, there was something for Ludvig to learn from Rose on Friday afternoon. In fact, there was a lot for him to learn. Perhaps that’s why he stuck around for so long.
The first sign came on the very first hole, when Zhang stuffed her tee shot on the dastardly-but-drivable par-4 opener. She and Khang went 1-up there, flashing mile-wide grins as the crowd groaned at another American lead. Aberg watched closely behind, stifling a grin. He knew how hard it was to execute that shot in that moment, even if he didn’t yet know exactly how that moment felt.
“I think when I’m nervous I just look a little bit more tight,” Rose had told me on Thursday. “I think those nerves aren’t necessarily bad nerves, but I get adrenaline. I’m going to be dealing with that kind of tendency when I’m out here, but I’m just going to try to enjoy it.”
The adrenaline carried Zhang and Khang all the way to the seventh hole before things started to unravel. Now, as they headed for the turn, they were beginning to spray it. Rose had missed approaches on three consecutive greens, on one occasion shoving a 10-footer for bogey to halve the hole.
But just when it looked like the moment might be too big, a funny thing happened: Rose settled down, and settled in. The pair found a groove, and after lagging behind Khang for much of the morning, Rose started carrying the load for the pairing.
“It was a little bit of a struggle in the middle of it, but I feel like Megan just kept my spirits up,” she told GOLF on Friday evening. “Every single hole you’re going to have cheers. It’s so different from the other matches I’ve played in before. It’s been really cool to see. I’ve seen some spectacular golf shots, the caliber of play is just so different out here. It’s just so different to see.”
Aberg certainly noticed the environment. He cheered on the Euros with abandon on Friday. At a few different moments, he could be spotted training his cell phone camera toward the crowd, a smile plastered across his face. Even for a professional golfer on the brink of playing in the Ryder Cup, the excitement of team golf is enough to capture just a little bit of childish wonder.
Aberg certainly noticed the lack of environment, too. That came when the Americans notched any one of about 50 punches and counterpunches on Friday, the biggest of which might have come from Zhang herself as the Euros pressed to make things interesting down the back nine late in the afternoon.
On the 16th hole, a bending par-4, Zhang and Khang suddenly found themselves on defense. Dryburgh had just chipped-in for birdie, electrifying the European crowd. The U.S.’s only chance at staying even in the match now rested on the rookie’s 10-footer for birdie. Khang watched helplessly from the greenside as Dryburgh and Sagstrom shrewdly conceded her putt for par. The putt would be all Rose’s, without so much as a read from her teammate.
She hardly flinched.
“Oh yeah, I was like, left-edge,” she said with a grin later. “That’s all I thought about. It was tunnel vision at that point.”
Rose poured her putt in the middle of the middle. The crowd hushed. Sagstrom and Dryburgh looked stunned. Somewhere, Aberg must have smiled, but from much closer, Khang could hardly contain a yell.
“EVERY. TIME … Every. Time,” she shouted in a short staccato, squeezing her teammate by the shoulder blades. “Let’s GO, Rose.”
Eventually, Rose led the two Americans up the 18th, where a miracle up-and-down from the trees secured the halve, and a half-point for the U.S. The Americans now enter the weekend at the Solheim Cup clutching a surprise 5-3 lead — an effort aided by a brilliant, if imperfect, performance from the team’s youngest rookie.
Aberg wasn’t there to witness that last part. He left early, in part to practice for his own stint in blue and gold.
But he should hear the message Rose’s teammate delivered to the rest of the American contingent from just off the 18th green. It was practically directed at him, a fellow rookie looking to make his mark.
With her arm around Rose, Khang turned to her teammates with a grin.
“This ain’t no rookie, guys,” she said. “Rose ain’t no rookie.”