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Different fashion, same result: Rose Zhang an NCAA individual champ again

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Rose Zhang was in unfamiliar territory as she began Monday’s final round of the NCAA Division I Women’s Championship. Typically, the Stanford sophomore enters these types of moments with the lead – sometimes a commanding lead – before often switching to cruise control down the stretch. This time, though, she was the chaser, four shots back of USC freshman Catherine Park.

Different fashion, same result.

Zhang caught Park, passed her, then calmly held on for a one-shot victory as the 19-year-old superstar became the first women’s player to ever win consecutive NCAA individual titles. Zhang also tied Lorena Ochoa’s NCAA record for wins in a single season with eight – just two of those were come-from-behind triumphs.

“I can’t believe that, I still don’t know what is going on,” Zhang said about a half-hour after her latest shining moment. “And it’s hard to process because when you’re chasing from behind, you really don’t know what is happening until everything’s completed, until everything’s done. … I genuinely just – I can’t believe this is all happening, and it’s just, it’s just simple to say that I’m super grateful.”

Despite her dominating year, which has included Pac-12 and NCAA regional titles, a NCAA-record 68.7 scoring average and her grand-slam-completing Augusta National Women’s Amateur victory in April, Zhang arrived at Grayhawk feeling a little unsure of herself. It showed early as she carded three bogeys and shot even par in the opening round. She rebounded with a 5-under 67 but dug herself a four-shot hole with a pedestrian – by her standards, of course – 71 in the third round.

Stanford head coach Anne Walker said that during the first 54 holes, she’d seen Zhang in “places that I don’t normally see Rose Zhang,” and so on Monday morning, before Zhang’s round, she challenged her star player to focus on putting herself in better positions. Zhang agreed.

“I pushed her a little bit … and Rose was fully accountable,” Walker said. “Today she decided that no matter what happened, she would put herself in position. For me, that’s what I saw. I don’t feel like she pushed anything today.”

Added Zhang: “Going into this week, I didn’t have a lot of trust in my game, but this final day was kind of all-in, just go out and try and do my best and put myself in a position where I could potentially move up the leaderboard, and that’s all I was thinking.”

What followed was a bogey-free 68 as Zhang missed just one green in regulation – that was on the par-4 penultimate hole, and Zhang got up and down easily. Before that, as Park succumbed to nerves and lost her speed with the putter, Zhang birdied Nos. 4, 6 and 7 to put the heat on her childhood pal from Irvine, California. When Park three-putted No. 15, Zhang had just birdied No. 11 behind her to go from one shot back to a shot ahead at 10 under. San Jose State’s Lucia Lopez-Ortega would tie Zhang before bogeying two of her final three holes and ending up tied with Park for second.

Full-field scores from the NCAA DI Women’s Golf Championships

Not that Zhang knew any of what was happening on the leaderboard. She didn’t look at one all day. It wasn’t until she ripped her drive on the par-5 finishing hole that Zhang was clued in.

Walking off No. 18 tee, Walker turned to Zhang and said, “You know, we’re going to go down there, and you’re going to have a number that’s going to be in play.”

Zhang responded, “Yeah, I know.”

To which Walker quickly added, “And we’re going to lay up.”

Zhang then looked at Walker, confused.

“I was like, Why should I lay up, Coach?” Zhang recalled. “This is clearly 195 [yards], I can get that no problem, just hit it left side, even if I’m in the bunker, it’s perfect. But she was like, none of that.”

That’s when Walker informed Zhang that she had a one-shot lead and par would get the job done. So, Zhang laid up with 9-iron and wedged it to 8 feet.

“And two putts was good enough, so that was the smartest play,” said Zhang, who earned an exemption into the LPGA’s Dana Open by winning the individual title. “I’m conserving my energy and thrilling action for tomorrow in match play.”

Yes, Stanford continues its NCAA team title defense in Tuesday morning’s quarterfinals against eighth-seeded Pepperdine. The top-ranked Cardinal will be the overwhelming favorites.

That’s a position Zhang is very familiar with.