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Rose Zhang keeps making history, wins first professional start after NCAA title

It wasn’t easy.

Rose Zhang hopped in a golf cart and headed back to the tee at the par-4 18th for a second playoff hole against Jennifer Kupcho at the Mizuho Americas Open.

The 18th hadn’t been kind to the budding superstar on Sunday; she bogeyed it in regulation and had to make a clutch putt on the first extra hole to stay in it.

For the first time in three tries she found the fairway, but was left with 180 yards for her approach. Kupcho had just 146 and appeared to be in the driver’s seat.

That changed with one swing.

Full-field scores from the Mizuho Americas Open

Zhang took the headcover off a hybrid and took dead-aim, curling an approach inside 10 feet on her 20th hole of the day. She called it one of the best shots she’s ever hit.

Kupcho, with an 8-iron in hand, came up well short of the pin and then putted off the green.

When Kupcho failed to secure par, Zhang only needed to two-putt for victory, and she did just that. It was a fitting conclusion. Zhang, who started the round with a two-shot lead, didn’t make a birdie on Sunday. Not one; 16 pars and two bogeys for a 74, then two more pars in the playoff.

And yet, as it has been for more than a year, the final moment belonged to her.

The 20-year-old quickly found herself holding a bouquet of roses as she was engulfed by close friends who watched from just off the back of the green. In her first start as a professional, Zhang was a winner, becoming the first woman to accomplish that feat since Beverly Hanson in 1951.

Just 13 days removed from winning her second consecutive individual national championship at Stanford, Zhang was overwhelmed after securing the victory, fighting back tears as she smiled ear-to-ear in her post-round interview.

“I honestly didn’t even expect to make the cut, and the reason why I say this is because I don’t think about my expectations a lot,” Zhang said Sunday. “I think about playing the golf course. I think about trying to shoot the best score that I can.

“Obviously I have frustrations, disappointments with my game, but I never once think about where I finish, where I should finish, et cetera. So with that on my mind, the expectation for me winning did not even cross my mind. I was just playing my game. I was having a good time out there. This is the game that I love, and I’m so thankful to be a professional doing it now.”

It was a whirlwind week for Zhang, who had all eyes squarely fixed on her after an amateur career in which she held the No. 1 ranking for 141 weeks, the most all time.

After opening in 2-under 70, Zhang said she was trying to keep everything in perspective and be realistic.

Fair enough.

After climbing further up the leaderboard with a 69 in the second round, she said there were no expectations for the weekend and she just wanted to learn what it means to be in one of the lead groups as a professional.

Smart. Lot of golf to be played.

Saturday’s bogey-free, 6-under 66 changed everything. It sent her to bed with a two-shot lead at Liberty National less than two weeks after her Cardinal teammates doused her with water at Grayhawk in celebration of another title.

Still, she spoke of learning as she processed the idea of playing in the final group Sunday, but admitted she was proud of the way she had handled herself with so much golf to close out her collegiate career and all the media responsibilities that come with being Rose Zhang.

Then came Sunday.

With temperatures in the 60s and a north breeze blowing through Jersey City, Zhang set out to make history, as she did so many times as an amateur.

For most of the day, it felt as if she was stuck in neutral. She failed to make a birdie in the final round, but only Kupcho – who shot 3-under 69 – put real pressure on Zhang late in the round.

The end result was yet another trophy for Zhang, but it’s so much more than just another victory.

It’s an announcement to the world that the talent she displayed in college will transition to the professional ranks.

It’s the ability to accept full membership on the LPGA, which makes her eligible for this year’s Solheim Cup in Spain.

It’s also the arrival of a new star in women’s professional golf. A star that – if social media is any indication – has a drove of fans behind her.

Zhang’s early career is somewhat unique in women’s golf.

When it comes to the elite of the elite, many players forego college and head straight to the professional ranks.

Zhang’s playing competitor on Sunday, Atthaya Thitikul, is just two months older than Zhang and already ascended to No. 1 in the world after a stellar rookie season on the LPGA.

Seven players have won major championships on the women’s side before turning 20. Zhang celebrated her 20th birthday on May 24.

This in no way diminishes Zhang’s accomplishment.

In fact, you could argue that it makes it all the more special.

By dominating in college, she made herself a household name prior to ever teeing it up as a professional.

Golf fans watched as she hoisted the trophy at Grayhawk two years in a row, becoming the first woman to ever win the individual national championship twice.

They watched as she faltered at Augusta National before composing herself to win in a playoff, much the way she did Sunday overlooking the New York City skyline.

The final chapter of Zhang’s professional career won’t be written for a long time, but the book has one hell of an intro.