SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Rachel Heck knows a thing or two about success. As a freshman at Stanford, Heck won six times in one semester, including all three postseason championships, just the third player at the time to ever do so.
Of course, that was before Rose Zhang.
Since joining a talented Cardinal roster two seasons ago, all Zhang has done is obliterate her competition. At the college level, she’s the only two-time NCAA individual champion in history while racking up 12 individual victories, including eight this season as a sophomore to tie Lorena Ochoa’s NCAA record for wins in a single season. In the amateur arena, her name is on each of the big four trophies as a winner of the U.S. Women’s Amateur, U.S. Girls’ Junior, World Amateur Team Championship and most recently the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. And on the professional stage, Zhang has missed just three cuts in 15 starts, been low amateur at two different major championships and finished runner-up in an Epson Tour event as a high-school senior.
“The level of domination is mind-blowing,” Heck said. “No one’s her. I haven’t seen anything like this in my lifetime – not on the men’s amateur side, the LPGA, the PGA Tour. No matter what level you’re at, it’s hard to keep winning. I don’t care if it’s junior golf or amateur golf, she just keeps winning. … She’s too good for this.”
Last Monday, Zhang matched Heck in sweeping conference, regional and national championships, completing the third leg in come-from-behind fashion at Grayhawk. A day later, Zhang routed her NCAA quarterfinal opponent, Pepperdine’s Reese Guzman, but in an afternoon semifinal bout with USC’s Brianna Navarrosa, Zhang looked very much human. She lost the match, the decider in a Trojan upset of the top-ranked Cardinal, and just like that, Zhang’s college career was over.
If the tears in her and her teammates’ eyes that Tuesday evening in Scottsdale, Arizona, weren’t a dead giveaway, Zhang, who had kept her plans under wraps from the public for months, made things official Friday morning by announcing that she’d be foregoing her final two seasons of eligibility and, after a record 141 weeks spent as the No. 1 amateur in the world, turning professional. She will make her pro debut at next week’s LPGA event, the Mizuho Americas Open at Liberty National.
Goodbye, greatest women's amateur career of all-time?
One could certainly make the argument that Zhang jumps to the play-for-pay ranks with G.O.A.T. status in tow. Not that there aren’t several predecessors with arguments:
• Glenna Collett-Vare won a record six U.S. Women’s Amateurs and at one point between 1928 and 1931 reeled off 16 consecutive tournament victories.
• JoAnne Carner claimed five U.S. Women’s Amateur titles and won an LPGA event as an amateur in 1969.
• Juli Inkster didn’t just capture three U.S. Women’s Amateurs, but she also won 17 times at San Jose State. Amy Olson, while at North Dakota State, later broke Inkster’s NCAA record for career wins with 20.
But the standard, at least up until Zhang’s arrival, has been Ochoa, who in two seasons at Arizona won 12 of 20 tournaments and as a sophomore went 933-2-3 against her competition, a head-to-head mark that may never be topped. (To compare, Zhang was 691-15-1 this season.)
In many ways, Zhang is Ochoa two decades later – and that’s why it’s so hard to give one the edge in the best-ever debate. Zhang’s college coach, Anne Walker, who while at Cal played against Ochoa, sees many parallels between the two superstars – extremely gifted, humble, generous, universally loved.
“Everyone wanted to play with Lorena because she was a joy to play with,” Walker said. “She was so fun, and you left the round feeling like you were one of her best friends. That’s how I remember feeling playing with Lorena. I feel that same sense from other teams that they really want to play with Rose.”
When Ochoa turned pro, she delivered hand-written thank-you letters to those affiliated with the Arizona women’s golf program or who played a part in her career. Then there’s the legendary story of Ochoa hanging out with the grounds crew at tournaments and even cooking breakfast for the staff at Mission Hills the year she won the Kraft Nabisco Championship, in 2008.
Walker doesn’t fancy Zhang as good a chef as Ochoa, but that doesn’t diminish Zhang’s love and appreciation for people. While Zhang was inking NIL deals with big companies such as Callaway and Adidas, she was also signing up as a volunteer driver on her church's carpool list.
“For the kids who don’t have cars and need a ride, she picks them up,” Walker said.
Walker also recalls a moment from the 2002 NCAA Championship, one of two events that Ochoa lost as a sophomore. She and her fellow Bears were departing for their early-morning tee times, the sun not yet up, when, much to their astonishment, they saw Ochoa returning from a run.
“She had just finished a 3-mile loop,” Walker said, “and here we are like, Ugh, we have to go play golf this early.”
Fast forward to the morning of Zhang’s final stroke-play round. While her teammates slept in, Zhang was awake by 6 a.m., more than six hours before she was to tee off and begin her pursuit of USC’s Catherine Park, who started the day four shots ahead. Zhang ate breakfast, got a workout in, and later posted a bogey-free, 5-under 67 while missing just one green in regulation.
Back on campus, Walker says it’s near impossible to beat Zhang to the team’s practice facility each day, and she’s usually the one shutting off the lights, too.
“I just enjoy the grind,” Zhang said. “I sacrifice a lot of sleep and a lot of rest, and it’s because I enjoy the process.”
A masterful blend of hard work and God-given talent, Zhang has been tabbed by a few college coaches as a top-25 player in the world the moment she hits her first shot as a professional, though she’ll start her pro career ranked just inside the top 500 in the Rolex Rankings.
USC head coach Justin Silverstein, who as a Pac-12 rival has had a front-row seat to the Rose Show, marvels at Zhang’s golf skills, from her precise driving ability to her elite wedge play and short game to a putter that is close to tour elite. But the most impressive weapon in Zhang’s arsenal, Silverstein says, is her brain.
“It’s her ability to get herself back to neutral every time,” Silverstein said. “No one I’ve seen can do that like her.”
Arizona head coach Laura Ianello, a college teammate of Ochoa’s, is familiar with that type of mental advantage. “Lorena, every tournament, she expected to win,” Ianello said.
But asked to definitively say who had the greater amateur career, Ianello took the safe play, “They’re both Hall of Famers in my book.”
Still, Ianello agrees that women’s amateur golf, especially at the college level, is “way deeper” than when she and Ochoa were in school. Perhaps that’s the tiebreaker, as the numbers certainly back up that assessment. According to the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings, Zhang (67.56 power rating) was 1.41 shots per round better than the No. 2 player this season, Mississippi State’s Julia Lopez Ramirez, and she was 3.57 shots per round better than No. 50. Ochoa, during her dominant sophomore campaign, was 1.33 shots per round better than No. 2, Tulsa’s Stacy Prammanasudh, but 5.11 shots better than No. 50.
So, not only was Zhang slightly better than her closest competition, but Zhang’s competition throughout the field was stouter.
Zhang also won two notable tournaments that eluded Ochoa, Pac-12s and NCAAs (twice), while finishing with the lowest career scoring average by a female college player, 69.24.
Plus, Ochoa didn’t have nearly the demand for her time as Zhang. In addition to her tireless work ethic on the golf course, Zhang holds a 3.86 G.P.A. – she's planning to continuing pursuing her communications degree as a pro. She also fields – and accepts – an exponentially larger number of media requests than any other college golfer, including current men’s stars such as Gordon Sargent and Ludvig Aberg. That doesn’t even include her sponsorship obligations. And yet, she still has time to be a college kid – making lots of friends, going to dinners and getting her nails done with teammates, attending sporting events.
“There’s a lot on her plate,” Walker said. “I never really wrap my head around how Rose does it.”
Zhang doesn’t have an elaborate explanation, either: “These are all things that I choose to do. I could very much choose to not do anything, but I just like it. I think it's as simple as that.”
Even as she fielded questions, holding a second NCAA individual trophy, Zhang shied away from the G.O.A.T. talk. In her mind, “I’m just a regular person.”
“I don't think about it at all, to be fair, because the people around me don't make me a big deal,” Zhang said. “I still have to go back to school, take my finals. I still have other responsibilities and have to complete all of them, same as my teammates and my classmates. … I'm not – I'm not special in any regard.”
Zhang, of course, is being modest – much like Ochoa some two decades ago when during a class discussion, while her peers took turns bragging about things they did over spring break, Ochoa chose to talk about her “OK” top-40 finish in an LPGA event before being pressed by her professor to reveal that she'd won a tournament the week before in her native Mexico.
And if Zhang isn’t special, then how else could Heck explain the feeling of watching Zhang putt out on Grayhawk’s par-5 closing hole to win yet another landmark championship? Or every other big victory – after all, since the beginning of 2019, Zhang has won a whopping 22 times.
“Honestly, I feel like the luckiest person to get to be by her side through it all, from last year’s national championship to last summer to Augusta to now” Heck said. “She’s one of my best friends in the whole world, and I spend 24/7 with her, but sometimes I even take a step back myself and look at it objectively like, how lucky am I to get to be by her side as she writes history?”
Walker would argue extremely.
You see, in Zhang’s coach’s opinion, there is no comparison: Zhang is the G.O.A.T.
“It's pretty easy to wrap up,” Walker said in the moments after Zhang’s final college triumph. “Before this week, I felt like she was already solidified as the best amateur of all-time. And what she did today, that’s just like, that’s it. That’s the period on the end of the sentence because no one’s ever done this before, and it’s so hard to do, and … yeah, she’s Rose Zhang.”