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No parade, but Rose Zhang adds to amateur legacy with gutsy victory at Augusta National

AUGUSTA, Ga. – It was Friday afternoon, and seemingly everybody had already crowned Rose Zhang as the winner of the fourth Augusta National Women’s Amateur, when Georgia head coach Josh Brewer was asked what had to happen in Saturday’s final round for his player, Bulldogs senior Jenny Bae, six shots behind Zhang’s record-smashing 13 under, to deny the coronation.

“Augusta National has to happen,” Brewer responded.

Did it ever.

The winds howled, the skies opened for a few hours, and the venerable layout made the world’s top-ranked amateur, for the first time all week, look very beatable.

Zhang coughed up two shots on her opening hole, and then the rest of her commanding lead.

And Bae equaled the round of the day, birdieing her penultimate hole, to force a playoff.

But then, like so many times before, Rose Zhang happened.

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

The Stanford superstar’s parade might’ve been rained on, but in the end, the result was all too familiar. Zhang entered the week with inarguably the most decorated amateur resumé, men’s or women’s, in decades – victories at the U.S. Women’s Amateur and U.S. Girls’ Junior, NCAA team and individual titles, eight other college wins, a record 133 straight weeks atop the World Amateur Golf Ranking.

And with a par on the second playoff hole, Zhang finally, after four tries, secured what quickly has become the most coveted prize at this level: the ANWA’s silver bowl.

In a sense, Zhang can now claim the career grand slam of women’s amateur golf.

That’s what Rachel Heck calls it. As Zhang sped away from the pack at Champions Retreat, Heck, Zhang’s Stanford teammate, was home in Memphis recovering from thoracic outlet syndrome and having a rib removed. By Thursday night, Heck was booking a flight to Augusta.

She didn’t want to miss the surefire celebration.

“I thought today would be a nice walk around Augusta, no big deal, watch Rose run away with it,” Heck said. “I’ve never been so nervous watching someone else. I couldn’t watch her take her 4-footer on 18 [during the first playoff hole]. I had my eyes closed and listened to the crowd. My heartrate is so high right now, still, but I’m so proud of her that I can’t even describe it.

“… She’s gonna have that trophy. Her name is gonna be in the history books. But it does make for a better story, a little adversity.”

Rose Zhang is laying out a different path to success in women’s golf and paving the way for future stars to do the same.

No one expected this. Not only was Zhang leading; she was leading big. And she never loses leads. In fact, the last time she’s lost a tournament after holding the solo lead with one round to play remains the Girls Junior PGA Championship. Four years ago.

But there was a sliver of hope for Bae and Ole Miss senior Andrea Lignell, who was five back after 36 holes and paired with Zhang in the final twosome. Last year at the NCAA Championship, Zhang was boat-racing the field by seven shots through three rounds. She won that, too, but not for lack of making things interesting, shooting 75 and only winning by three.

“That was probably the most nervous that I’ve ever been in tournament play,” Zhang recalled. “I think for us as players, mentally, we always like to chase, and it’s very normal to be trying to make birdies and not worry about the consequences. But when you’re in the lead, you realize that you’ve been playing well, and you want to maintain it.”

The nerves resurfaced as Zhang’s 8:50 a.m. ET tee time crept closer. She had finished her warm-up, including putting, with at least 20 minutes to spare. She stood outside the scoring area for a few minutes with her dad, Henry, who had subbed in as caddie for the final round. She then moved toward the first tee while Bae and TCU’s Caitlyn Macnab were teeing off.

Zhang hugged her college coach, Anne Walker, and Dr. Condoleezza Rice before joining Heck for a quick prayer. Zhang, a Christian, was baptized last June.

On this day, Zhang was hoping her prayers would finally be answered around Amen Corner. In three prior ANWA starts, Zhang had advanced to Saturday at Augusta National each time, but she had never posted better than 2-over 74. Two years ago, she co-led with Ingrid Lindblad after two rounds before a triple bogey at the par-5 13th hole erased her three-shot lead and ultimately derailed her title hopes.

This time, Zhang again found herself fighting to keep things on the rails. She drove her opening tee ball into the right bunker, had to lay up and eventually three-putted for double bogey.

“I felt like the advantage disappeared after hole 1,” Zhang said. “I just knew that on this golf course, a five-shot lead is not enough. A 10-shot lead is not enough. Every single hole mattered.”

After seven, Zhang had added three bogeys and just a single birdie, her 3-over stretch dropping her to 10 under, just three ahead of Bae, when severe storms rolled in and stopped play. Perfect timing.

Walker called Saturday “one of the tougher days in my coaching career,” having to watch, from outside the ropes, her star player struggle in tough conditions on one of the toughest tournament tests, and with every single patron on property expecting her to win.

“All those factors, and then you have a five-shot lead,” Walker said. “So, there are a lot of things where you’re trying to swim upstream.”

When Zhang returned to the course, she missed a short birdie putt at the par-5 eighth, and while she proceeded to par each of the next four holes, there was Bae, in a full freestyle sprint, right in Zhang’s wake.

But Zhang has experienced unparalleled success for a reason. Not only does she possess impeccable tempo, which, per Walker, allows her to hit multiple gears with multiple clubs, and the tiniest dispersion rate among her peers (her teammates often joke about her one-handed follow-throughs that are usually followed by balls that land within 10 feet of the hole), but she also has the rare ability to quickly self-diagnose problems and find simple fixes on the fly.

Rooted in fundamentals, Zhang discovered before her third shot on the par-5 13th hole, a short wedge shot, that her right-hand grip was too strong.

“That was kind of my devil in the bag,” Zhang said.

She weakened it, and the next shot ended up just a few feet away for an easy birdie. The following drive felt good, too.

The same can’t be said for Zhang’s second shot at the par-5 15th hole. Another nice tee ball had left her at the top of the hill, 226 yards from the hole, but with trouble long and water short. Up by two and knowing the risks, Zhang was prepared to lay up.

But after a lengthy back-and-forth with Henry, who suggested she go for it, Zhang changed her mind and pulled 3-wood. Splash.

“I really just hit it thin, and it didn’t even come close to the green,” Zhang said. “From then on, I was kind of mad at myself for kind of opening that doorway so wide. … I feel like it was definitely a smarter decision for me to layup. Unfortunately, that’s not what I did.”

Zhang blasted her first putt, for par, 6 feet by before rolling in the bogey, which Zhang called a necessary boost of confidence.

“If I didn’t make that,” Zhang added, “that would have probably been the end of me.”

While Henry’s late jump on the bag might’ve been questioned by plenty on the outside, in Zhang’s mind, there was no doubt: “Coming down the stretch, I wouldn’t have wanted anyone else on the bag.”

After Bae stuffed her approach at No. 17 and got in the house at 9 under with a 2-under 70, Zhang calmly parred in to shoot 76 and avoid a shocking collapse in regulation.

“Hats off to Rose for hanging in there,” said Brewer, who caddied for Bae. “Parring the last three holes after what happened on 15 explains why she might go down as the greatest female amateur in the history of our game.”

There are several with arguments, including Lorena Ochoa, whom Walker believes is Zhang’s best comp. Different games, but similarly great people. Humble as they come. And prolific winners. Ochoa won 12 times in 20 starts over two seasons at Arizona. Zhang’s 16 starts have yielded nine wins; though, Ochoa never won an NCAA title.

And this new-age slam of winning a U.S. Junior, U.S. Amateur, NCAA individual title and at Augusta National? Obviously, Zhang is the first woman to complete the accomplishment. The only man is Tiger Woods.

“They’re the only two players with emojis,” Walker says.

Bae may be the fourth-ranked player in college golf this season, and already owns Epson Tour status for when she turns pro this summer. But Zhang, in her own words, just has a knack for always pulling out her “inner-grind” in the biggest moments. The great ones usually do.

And though Bae had tracked down the world No. 1 to force extra holes, Zhang still appeared unrattled and in control.

Walker has known Zhang since before the prodigy was qualifying for majors at age 14, and she considers Zhang to be the most patient player she’s ever been around.

“Today, my gut feeling was that might be what she needs to end up digging into,” Walker said, “and I feel like that’s exactly what happened.”

When Bae provided Zhang a second playoff hole after missing a 15-footer to win at No. 18, Zhang finally slammed the door back in Bae’s face.

As soon as Zhang struck her approach at No. 10, she called out, uncharacteristically, “Be good!”

“All day she doesn’t say a word, and then she says, ‘Be good,’” Walker said. “To me, that is that overarching patience that allows her in that spot to hit clearly what she thought was the best shot she had in her bag.”

Sure, adrenaline sent her ball to the back of the green, some 30 feet past the hole. But it didn’t matter; she was on. And Bae wasn’t, tugging her approach in response and watching as her ball landed just left of the green and bounced under a bush. Bae had a shot, just not an easy one, and she zipped a pitching wedge through the green and into the left bunker. She splashed out to a few feet, but all Zhang had to do was lag one close.

Two putts later, Zhang was tapping in for the win, and Heck was rushing out to gift her, fittingly, a red rose.

“Phew,” Walker said afterward.

Zhang was equally relieved. For weeks, she was billed as the heavy favorite for this championship. She fielded dozens of media requests and fulfilled numerous other obligations. The autograph and photo asks were plentiful. And despite all the noise, despite all the expectations, and the predictions, and the pressure, and even the Rose fanatics following her around wearing hats with rose emblems on them, she came through. Just like she always does.

It just wasn’t the superhuman rout that many had envisioned.

“I think that everyone should realize that I’m very much human,” Zhang said.

Human, yes. But still worthy of her crown.