Amid great expectations, Rose Zhang begins pro career with ‘moderately casual’ 70
JERSEY CITY, N.J. — One of the most anticipated professional debuts in recent memory started as one might have expected.
“I remember hitting 3-wood on the first hole because I was so nervous and I thinned it so hard and it barely left the ground,” Michelle Wie West said Tuesday of her opening tee shot at the 2005 Samsung World Championship. “I was trying not to hit a stinger. I was actually trying to hit it high and it went so low and skipped the grass.”
Fast-forward 18 years and things have come full circle. Wie West, who is set to close her career at this year’s U.S. Women’s Open, is now hosting the LPGA’s Mizuho Americas Open. And this week’s inaugural edition is being highlighted by Rose Zhang making, arguably, the most notable professional debut on the women’s side since Wie West’s.
Zhang stepped up to the par-4 first at Liberty National to begin her pro career at 8:43 a.m. ET, with Wie West watching in the grandstand amongst a modest, yet spirited crowd. However, it was more than what Zhang expected.
“I was a little surprised that there were people out there,”she said after her round. “It’s early in the morning. It’s a Thursday. I don’t expect anyone to be out here and be like, ‘Oh, go Rose.’
“I guess there is a lot of significance to this round for me in particular, but I felt really just loved out there.”
Then, contrary to Wie West’s first drive as a professional, Zhang smashed her maiden tee shot down the middle of the fairway.
“I didn’t have too many nerves once I started playing,” she said. “After that tee shot, I was smooth sailing.”
Indeed. Zhang, who forwent her final two years at Stanford last week to turn professional, carded a 2-under 70 and finished her round inside the top 10, three strokes off the lead.
“I think it’s great that I started a little bit early,” she said. “That really settled the nerves a little bit, just because you wake up and then you start your prep work. But for me, I was just going out there and trying to shoot my best score.
“There was a lot happening the last couple days, so I really wanted to put myself in position to where I can just go out there, play some golf, and see what I can do.”
Sure, there were times when Zhang looked impressionable out there. She missed multiple short putts and carded back-to-back bogeys on holes 14 and 15. But she knows there’s still a ways to go.
“This was definitely a round that could have been better,” she said, “and that kind of gets me excited to work on more and to develop my game even further.”
However, Zhang also resembled the player who has been the world’s top-ranked amateur since 2020 — particularly on the par-5 13th, when she chipped in for birdie from 29 yards after finding the right fairway bunker with her tee shot.
“That chip went in and I felt cheers, felt roars, and I was just really thankful for everyone to be supporting me out there,” she said.
Rose is no stranger to being the center of attention, having won the 2020 U.S. Women’s Amateur, the 2023 Augusta National Women’s Amateur, consecutive NCAA Individual titles (the first woman ever to claim that feat) and back-to-back Annika Awards as the nation’s best collegiate player.
But now starting her LPGA journey (she’s made 13 tour starts as an amateur), it was business as usual.
“It was just a very smooth round,” she said, “Obviously, you’re on the biggest stage of golf, but I felt like it was moderately casual.”
With all those amateur accolades, there are lofty professional expectations placed upon her. Not that they are weighing on her mind.
“I don’t really have to think about other people’s expectations,” she said. “Like I said before, I think of it as a compliment that they think I’m capable of more.”
Modesty is a key part of Zhang’s laissez-faire attitude. Others, however, aren’t afraid to give Zhang the high praise she’s earned.
“There is no better player,” Wie West said when asked Tuesday if there’s ever been a more talented amateur player than Zhang.
And it’s Zhang’s mentality that may set her apart as a professional.
“She has proved that she’s a great golfer and the fact that she can handle herself when the pressure is on her,” Wie West said.
Though she’s only 18 holes into her LPGA career, her professional debut left little doubt about why she is anointed as the next great thing. She was calm, cool and collected, beginning with her opening tee shot. And if that’s the case every time she tees it up, maybe one day Zhang will be watching the next great prodigy hit her first tee shot at a tournament Zhang hosts.
But for now, it’s Zhang’s time to shine — so enjoy the ride.