Jersey City, NJ. The burden of "expectations" can be a daunting one for that special group of players both blessed and cursed by the mere application of the word.
Rose Zhang's victory Sunday at the Mizuho Americas Open marked the first player since Beverly Hanson in 1951 (Eastern Open) to win on the LPGA Tour in her pro debut.
True greatness is not measured by meeting the expectations of others but by exceeding them. That was the case when Jack Nicklaus arrived on the scene. Ditto with Tiger Woods. But such lofty expectations can also prove to be a heavy anchor around the neck of those who have had early success and were unable to sustain it or had other priorities enter their lives.
The last female American player that truly moved the needle of interest was Michelle Wie West when she entered professional golf in 2005. The fanfare attached to Wie West had not been seen at the arrival years earlier of Nancy Lopez.
Wie West did claim the U.S. Women's Open in 2014 at Pinehurst but a combination of nagging injuries and a desire to expand her own personal life beyond the rigors of competitive golf meant a detour from accomplishing the expectations many believed were hers to achieve. Interestingly, Wie West was on hand to observe the tournament as an ambassador for the title sponsor.
The 20-year-old Zhang received an exemption to play in the LPGA's Mizuho Americas Open at Liberty National Golf Club. The club provides stunning views of both the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline. Yet Zhang's performance prompted all eyes on her since arriving at the Jersey City- based club.
The two-time NCAA women's individual champion had earlier this year won the Augusta National Women's Amateur. During her time at Stanford, Zhang claimed 12 collegiate titles and had won two USGA championships. Her collegiate wins exceeded what a fellow Stanford player named Woods had won when playing for the Cardinal.
Zhang's win did not come easy. Doing so via a two-hole playoff against an equally talented Jennifer Kupcho who made a final round charge to enter the fray.
The final round had Zhang starting the day in the lead by two shots over three players. Amazingly, Zhang did not birdie one hole during the final round but maintained her composure, staying poised throughout the round. At the final hole in regulation play Zhang had an eight-foot birdie putt to secure the win but missed. Undaunted she kept her focus throughout the playoff.
Zhang made a testing par putt of similar length to the one she missed just moments before at the 18th to keep the playoff going against Kupcho. She then finished off the event with a brilliant approach at the same hole and two-putting for the triumph.
Women's professional golf has made incredible strides in recent times with an array of talent players. The dominance of non-American players is self-evident with those from South Korea leading the way.
There are talented American players competing but only three are currently in the top 20 world rankings at this moment with Nelly Korda the highest in the second position. The American side has also taken a back seat in team competition having not won the prestigious Solheim Cup since 2017.
Congratulations to Rose on making history! 👏
With her win, Rose is now eligible for Solheim Cup participation! 🌹🇺🇸 https://t.co/ro5X0sl9DH
— Solheim Cup Team USA 🇺🇸 (@SolheimCupUSA) June 5, 2023
Zhang's start is an impressive one but she outlined her thought process succinctly after securing the triumph.
"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. I think about playing the golf course. I think about trying to shoot the best score I can."
Years ago, Nicklaus mentioned in his earliest days when competing at the highest of levels he simply put on blinders and did not permit himself to get distracted by a number of others things happening while playing. This was particularly evident when taking on Arnold Palmer during the height of his popularity and having to deal with unruly Palmer supporters who were not exactly embracing the Nicklaus invasion onto the scene.
Zhang's candor about the situation was both refreshing and revealing.
"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, etc. So, with that in 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."
The world of professional golf has plenty of twists and turns. Sudden things can happen both positively and negatively. Just ask Nicklaus. Just ask Woods. Just ask Wie West. Zhang's temperament was on full display at Liberty National and while nothing is ever guaranteed the pathway going forward holds great promise.
"I will say that this has been an incredible experience, but I have not seen anything thus far. Going forward I understand that there is going be a lot of bumps in the road, and I'm expecting a lot of obstacles that I'll have to uptake and uphold. But I think this is just the start. This is just a stepping stone. It's crazy that this is my first win, first professional win already, but no doubt there is going to be a more things happening down the road. I'm just going to be continuing to learn inside the ropes."
Great players realize the learning curve is never ending. They are also fully aware of the vagaries of golf. How things that seemed likely can go off the rails in any number of ways. The Woods career looked inevitable. Passing the Nicklaus mark of 18 major championships won seemed a foregone conclusion until derailed by a series of injuries, marital infidelities and reckless car crash in February 2021 that nearly had him lose one of his legs.
Zhang's demeanor upon receiving the trophy and bouquet of red roses displays a keen understanding that keeping things in the moment is paramount. Woods sent a congratulatory text message and the emotions of the moment were smartly counterbalanced in placing the accomplishment in context.
"I will continue to do what I'm doing. I'll continue to fight. I'll continue to work hard and hopefully everyone can follow along," said Zhang.
The great ones in all sports never look back and never get too far ahead. The unpredictability in golf is well known to those who play it. But the zest Zhang has shown is an infectious quality that clearly provides a much-needed boost women's golf has sought for quite some time.
Tiger gets it.
— LPGA (@LPGA) June 5, 2023
Zhang's 2023 year will likely mean a spot on the USA Solheim Cup team later this year in Spain. She becomes an immediate member of the LPGA and the $412,500 first prize amount looks to be the first of many such hefty checks coming her way. Securing 500 CME points is also an added bonus.
The grounded Zhang faces a more pressing issue. Returning to Stanford and completing final exams.
The specter of being placed alongside past women superstars such as Annika Sörenstam and Lorena Ochoa is flattering but Zhang's win brought to the forefront a heartfelt human emotion in simply celebrating a noteworthy occasion.
"What is happening? I just can't believe it."
This Rose is now in full bloom with more to follow.