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A road less traveled: Rose Zhang creating the blueprint for a different path to the pros

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Until now, there’s been virtually one path to success.

Lydia Ko. Nelly Korda. Lexi Thompson.

They’ve all followed the same script: Hotshot junior wins big, gains attention, eschews college golf, turns pro.

They’ve all been wildly successful at the next level, and yet you still can’t help but wonder if there are any regrets, if they think they’ve missed out, if they feel, in some small way, incomplete. If some of the issues that have chipped away at their pro careers – parental influence, caddie/coach changes, chasing money, social immaturity – could have been alleviated with at least a few years of acclimation and growth at the college level.

Full-field scores from the Augusta National Women’s Amateur

Rose Zhang could have pursued that familiar path, too.

The 19-year-old has been the top-ranked amateur in the world for nearly three years. She was the most accomplished American junior golfer of the past decade, if not longer. In spring 2021, as a high school senior, she held a three-shot lead here at the Augusta National Women’s Amateur before coming undone with six holes left. Afterward, she didn’t sulk or pout or assign blame elsewhere. Of her future, she was ecstatic about the prospect of college and said, “I have a lot of maturing to do.”

At the time, many told her she was making a mistake by forgoing the usual path. That college golf, that the college experience, would “ruin” her.

“I negated that, I hated that,” Zhang said this week. “I hated that statement and wanted to push myself to the limit.”

Not just physically. Not just educationally. She choose to attend Stanford to better herself.

“I really wanted to figure out who I really was and my independence,” she said Saturday. “It really allowed me to get my own space and really understand what I’m about, and that allows me to improve on my golf game because I realize that a profession is a profession, but yourself is also something that you need to work on.”

In two remarkable seasons with the Cardinal, Zhang has won nine times in 16 starts, demoralized opponents and inspired teammates. She has also left opposing coaches in awe; if she turned pro right now, three coaches opined this week, she’d be a top-25 player in the world.

Has she upgraded certain areas of her game over the past two years? Sure.

She’s fine-tuned her body. She’s added distance and a deeper repertoire of shots off the tee. She’s turned her wedges into lethal weapons. But when she turns pro – all signs point to her doing so after the NCAA Championship next month – she’ll be equipped to handle more than just her between-the-ropes performance.

“I think it’s just Rose being Rose. She’s patient,” Stanford coach Anne Walker said. “She kind of felt like the LPGA would always be there. I think it was clear her golf game was ready to a point where she could go play, and we’d seen that, she knew that, but it goes back to being a professional golfer. She was a complete golfer, but she felt like there was more she could gain in the area of being a better professional, and she’s done that.

“She’s evolved. She’s had to do a lot of things on her own that allows her now, at this point in her career, to me, she appears twice as confident, twice as mature.”

That includes some key developmental moments: making friends, moving away from home, learning time-management skills to balance a rigorous academic schedule with her own practice regimen. But there’s small stuff, too, little improvements that matter only to her. Earning her driver’s license. Getting her nails done with teammates. Taking walks around the lake listening to sermons. Making connections across campus.

Part of that is unique to Stanford, of course. In this tiny world of amateur golf, Zhang is a rockstar, an NIL marketer’s dream, with the media crush, the patrons wearing “Rose” emblems on their hats, the kids lined up for autographs. “She’s not normal,” Walker said. But on campus, Zhang is surrounded by like-minded peers who are highly intelligent, highly motivated, highly ambitious. Classmates who are starting companies, who are founding non-profits, who are changing the world in ways big and small. “There, she’s one of many,” Walker said. “Everyone there has something they do that’s really unique and really special, and Rose just seems to make a connection with them.”

Last year, one of Zhang’s fellow freshmen reached out on Instagram. But this was no ordinary first-year student. She was 28, a former ballerina who had surrendered any semblance of a normal upbringing by dancing at the historic Royal Albert Hall in London since the age of 15, and who was just now pursuing a college education. But she learned about Zhang’s Stanford story, about how she had stiff-armed the pros (for now) in an attempt to become more well-rounded, and that she wished, back then, she had made a similar choice.

“I can’t imagine missing out on the college experience,” said Stanford teammate Rachel Heck, another decorated junior who is now in her third year. “I feel like I’ve grown a lot since freshman year, and if I’d gone straight and hit the road with my mom and dad, there’s really no room for growth there.

“But college, it’s like fake real life. It’s like a free trial of living on your own, and you don’t have a lot of consequences yet, but you can still learn a lot.”

Rare is the male American phenom who bypasses the college game and goes straight to the pros. Jon Rahm, Collin Morikawa and Scottie Scheffler stayed all four years and got their degrees. Patrick Cantlay, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth all left, at varying ages, when they felt as though there was little left to accomplish. “So if you’re a young boy who’s 10, 11, 12, and those are your role models,” Walker said, “you’re looking at what did they do, how did they get there, and that just automatically becomes part of the fabric of your vision.”

But on the women’s side, only one top-10 player (Celine Boutier) played college golf in the States. Zhang’s chosen path – junior dominance, two years of college development, amateur stardom – could prove eye-opening for a cohort of young studs who are often too eager to join the unrelenting, unmerciful world of pro golf.

“When we think of our phenoms – the Lydia Kos of the world, the Lexi Thompsons, the Kordas, Morgan Pressel – they went a different direction,” Walker said. “So when that’s your role model, then you think that must be the way. So, hopefully, Rose does have an opportunity to perhaps lay out a different path and show that there are two paths. There will always be two paths. But you can choose either – you can choose the one that’s right for you – and both can lead to great things.”

And chances are, nothing in Zhang’s professional career will compare to the pressure she felt on Saturday morning at Augusta National, with so much history at stake. In what will be her final ANWA appearance, she was looking to complete the new-age slam: a Junior Amateur, an Amateur, an NCAA individual title and, perhaps, the most prestigious championship in the women’s amateur game – a victory at the home of the Masters.

Beginning the day with a five-shot lead, Zhang endured a three-hour weather delay, lost her advantage with a final-round 76 and then prevailed in a two-hole playoff with Jenny Bae. Of the hundreds of trophies she has hoisted in her life, this might be the most significant.

And who was waiting on the first tee, and at the turn, and then in the playoff to congratulate her?

Her coaches. Her friends. And Heck, the 2021 player of the year who is sidelined with a shoulder injury but flew in at the last minute Friday to support her superstar teammate. In the morning, they talked through the jitters and then prayed together before Zhang headed inside the ropes for a round unlike any other in her unparalleled career.

“For her to come out and watch me and be so selfless and just supporting me,” Zhang said, “it really reminds myself that, at the end of the day, you’re doing well, but you have other people around you that you also need to support.”

Maybe there’s no room for that sort of camaraderie at the next level; everything changes when money and legacy are involved. But as the ANWA proved, Zhang isn’t entering the next phase of her career alone, in a cocoon with just her parents and agent, with no other priorities or interests or values.

No, she’s skipping down her chosen path – and bringing along a robust support system she mightn’t otherwise had.

For this world No. 1, at least, she isn’t lonely at the top.