SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – For once, Rose Zhang will be chasing with a big title on the line.
And in her sights is a familiar face.
“Gosh, I’ve known her for way too long,” Zhang said with a laugh. “We go way back...”
Zhang, the reigning individual champion at this week’s NCAA Division I Women’s Golf Championship, sits tied for third at 6 under as she’s guided Stanford to a seven-shot lead entering Monday’s final round of stroke play at Grayhawk. But four shots in front of the Cardinal sophomore is USC freshman and Zhang's childhood pal Catherine Park, who reached 13 under on her back nine Sunday before a few late bogeys left her at 10 under.
“Oh, yeah, I know Rose,” Park said with a giggle and a big smile.
Park met Zhang, who is a year older than her, long before Zhang was the world’s top-ranked amateur and winner of literally every major title at this level. Park was 9 years old, Zhang age 10, and they were both budding junior golfers playing out of Oak Creek Golf Club in Irvine, California, a public layout known for its above-average driving range. Park jokes that the only reason Zhang talked to her at first was because she knew Park’s older sister, Victoria, was a professional golfer. When Park reached the eighth grade, she started working with Zhang’s longtime instructor, George Pinnell. Soon the two were frequent practice partners.
“And naturally, we just became great friends,” Park said.
Zhang recalls the first time she and Park ventured out onto the golf course at Oak Creek for their first round together without their parents. They were still in middle school and too young to take carts, so they threw their bags over their shoulders and started walking. Zhang remembers Park also was carrying a heavy cooler filled with drinks and snacks.
“We were weak,” Zhang said, “and trying to carry these big, heavy golf bags, it was just a whole rough scenario. We grinded through the last 10 holes, our bags sagging, we played terrible and when we finished, we were so tired. But we were also cracking jokes and laughing the entire time.
“We always have a really good time together, and we have a lot of fun stories. We’ve been through thick and thin. Anything we need to rant about, we’re always there for each other. I couldn’t ask for a better person to try and chase down tomorrow.”
Zhang knows it won’t be as easy as some may think. She calls Park “one of the best ball-strikers I’ve seen.” USC head coach Justin Silverstein can attest.
The Trojans train using something called the extreme line test, a drill that requires players to hit 20 shots while alternating clubs between 9-iron and 2-iron (or the equivalent). The is a specific order that starts with a 7-iron, and after each shot, the player measures how many yards off center they were. Those numbers are totaled, and that score gives players a tangible way to see improvement – or regression – in their iron play.
Rico Hoey holds the men’s record of 43 yards. Park has set the women’s record three times this season, her current best being 45.
“Her ball-striking – high, spinny, hard – it’s really, really impressive,” Silverstein says. “When she hits balls, people on the range are like, that girl’s a good player. And she knows she’s good. Rose knows she’s good. This isn’t a surprise to Rose. Now, maybe how quickly it happened…”
Park, who was consider by another top Pac-12 coach to be the best player in a recruiting class that also included Stanford’s Megha Ganne and USC teammate Amari Avery, will be the first to admit that college was an adjustment. When she arrived in Los Angeles, her speed on the greens was terrible – she hit her putts way too hard – and she didn’t know her yardages.
“I had a weird system for my yardages,” said Park, giving an example of how her stock pitching wedge yardage was “120-130.”
Silverstein challenged his stud freshman early – DECADE course management, extensive wedge work, driver strategy, how to hit off-speed shots and lots of speed drills. But after Park began the fall with three of four finishes outside the top 20, including a T-62 at Stanford’s event, he pulled back on the reins.
“We were just throwing all this stuff at her and expecting an 18-year-old to go play; what a terrible coaching move by us,” Silverstein said. “Yeah, we kind of want her to go make her own mistakes, but also like, we need to give her a chance to play well.”
So, Silverstein took the burden of decision-making mostly out of Park’s hands. After an up-and-down start to Park’s spring, lowlighted by Park being disqualified at Houston’s event for signing for an incorrect score, Silverstein started walking every hole with Park at the Silverado Showdown in early April. Park, who also had started to finally groove a cut shot with new instructor Ted Oh in February, finished runner-up in that event, and Silverstein has walked with her ever since. Park then placed third at Pac-12s followed by a T-17 finish at the NCAA Pullman Regional, where she played the second round alongside Zhang, somehow the first time that’s ever happened in an official tournament.
Now, she’s on the cusp of becoming a national champion.
Park started to feel the nerves early Sunday afternoon as she tried to steer her round into the clubhouse. She birdied Nos. 10, 11 and 13 to stretch her lead to six shots, but that’s when she badly hooked her tee shot into the desert at the par-4 14th hole. It took a while for her to take her unplayable, and she appeared rushed and a little rattled the rest of the way. She hit a poor approach and chip at the next hole, bogeyed that, and then ran her first putt well past the hole at No. 17 to card her third bogey in four holes.
“I think No. 14 took her out of her rhythm,” Silverstein said.
Added Park: “It literally felt like a roller coaster. My heart was racing. Hopefully, that’s out of my system and tomorrow I’m steadier.”
Park hasn’t won a tournament since 2019, her freshman year of high school, when she held off future USC teammate Cindy Kou to win the AJGA Se Ri Pak Junior Championship and earn a KLPGA exemption. In that time frame, Zhang has won 21 times, including the U.S. Women’s Amateur, U.S. Girls’ Junior, Augusta National Women’s Amateur and 11 college titles, including last year’s NCAAs.
Yes, Park, even up four shots on Zhang – and two on San Jose State’s Lucia Lopez-Ortega – is very much the underdog of the pair.
“I know there’s going to be pressure in my head somehow, naturally,” said Park, who sits No. 135 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking (Zhang, of course, has been No. 1 the longest of any player ever). “But I don’t want that to overcome any decisions I make tomorrow. I still want to go with the same game plan, not stray from my routine, not try to make shots happen.”
Zhang knows Park too well to overlook her.
“Everything in her game is powerful but also methodical,” Zhang said of Park. “She has a really great athlete gene in her. I could see her name on many other leaderboards in the future.”
Just on Monday, Zhang hopes Park’s name is second, right behind her’s.