AUGUSTA, Ga. — Injured Stanford golfer Rachel Heck was watching the opening rounds of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur on TV at her parents’ home in Memphis, Tennessee, earlier this week.
When Cardinal teammate Rose Zhang grabbed what seemed like a commanding 5-shot lead after 36 holes, Heck knew she had to be there to watch Zhang try to complete what has been called the “amateur grand slam.”
Instead of spending the rest of her spring break at home and flying back to California, Heck took a detour to Augusta National Golf Club on Friday.
“I didn’t realize how nerve-wracking it was going to be,” Heck said. “I thought today would be a nice walk around Augusta. No big deal and watch Rose just run away with it. Not exactly how it went. I’ve never been so nervous watching anyone else. I don’t even know if I’ve been that nervous playing.”
It was a lot closer and took much longer than expected, thanks to a three-and-a-half-hour weather delay, but Zhang captured the missing jewel of her amateur career by defeating Georgia’s Jenny Bae on the second hole of a playoff to capture the ANWA title Saturday.
Zhang, the No. 1-ranked amateur in the world, has now won the 2020 U.S. Women’s Amateur, 2021 U.S. Girls Junior, 2022 NCAA women’s individual title (Stanford also won a team championship) and the ANWA, which is widely regarded as the most coveted women’s amateur tournament in the world.
“I greatly wanted to win this, and it was a huge desire, but at the same time, I didn’t want myself to get too ahead in terms of my thinking and where my head was at,” Zhang said. “But I feel like coming back here for the fourth time is just such an honor. I think that I’m grateful to have these last couple years. Just getting the invite is a special moment, let alone playing in the final round all four times.”
Zhang, 19, had cruised through the first two rounds of the tournament, which were played at Champions Retreat Golf Club in nearby Evans, Georgia. She set an ANWA single-round scoring record with a 6-under 66 Wednesday. She broke it again the next day with a 7-under 65. She was 13 under after 36 holes and led Ole Miss’ Andrea Lignell by five shots and Bae by six.
It wouldn’t be so easy on Saturday at Augusta National Golf Club. Zhang carded a double-bogey on the first hole and her lead slipped to four. She had a birdie on the par-5 second and was six shots in front after three holes. But then Zhang had bogeys on Nos. 4, 5 and 7. Play was stopped at 10:30 a.m. ET because of inclement weather and wouldn’t resume until 1:50 p.m. ET.
“I feel like it’s always difficult to have such a big lead, especially on such a prestigious stage,” Zhang said. “When things matter the most and you have a big lead but the job’s not done, it definitely puts a lot of things into perspective. I tried to stay as composed as possible, but at the same time, I was a little tight the first couple holes.”
The delay seemed to steady Zhang. She was standing on the fairway of the eighth hole when play started back. She had a par on that hole and each of the next four. She opened a 2-shot lead over Bae after making a birdie on the 13th.
“I just felt like my swing wasn’t comfortable, and I really just tried to stay in the moment,” Zhang said. “I figured out a little trigger point in my golf swing, and from then on, it was kind of smooth sailing, grinding from there.”
Things nearly fell apart on the par-5 15th hole. After hitting a drive to the middle of the fairway, Zhang still had 226 yards to the hole. Her father, Haibin Zhang, was her caddie during the first two rounds, and she opted to stick with him in the final round at Augusta National, instead of using one of the club’s caddies. Zhang’s decision was heavily criticized by some as being a mistake.
Zhang and her father couldn’t seem to decide what to do with her approach shot on No. 15. Zhang said she wanted to lay up, which would have left her a short chip shot over a pond to the green. She is regarded as one of the best wedge players in the world. Her father seemed to overrule her, however, and she went for the green in two. Her shot was about 25 yards short and ended up wet. She couldn’t get up and down and made bogey.
Bae tied her at 9 under with a birdie on 17. Both players made par on 18 to force a playoff.
“On 15 it was definitely a very difficult decision,” Zhang said. “I really did want to layup, but my dad and I were talking through the shot. Yesterday [in a practice round] I went for it. I was hitting it well, and I found a little bit of a grip change. So I felt confident for the most part. I really just hit it thin and it didn’t even come close to the green. From then on, I was kind of mad at myself for kind of opening that doorway so wide.”
Stanford coach Anne Walker, who could only watch from outside the ropes, said she didn’t like the decision to go for the green. She had also worried about whether Zhang would be at a disadvantage playing at Augusta National, which has some of the fastest greens in the world, with her father on her bag.
“There’s professionals in my estimation and there are caddies,” Walker said. “This is their job and they work to know exact numbers. They know exact numbers in these conditions, exact start lines. You’re just praying that [Haibin] and Rose, the experience they have, which is a fair amount of experience certainly, but you’re hoping that experience is enough to shine through and let Rose’s game shine through.”
In the end, it didn’t matter. Both players made pars on the 18th, forcing a playoff. After both players made par on No. 18 again in the first hole of the playoff, Bae made a mistake when her approach shot was way left of the green on No. 10. Her third shot rocketed across the green and into the bunker. Zhang two-putted to win.
Remarkably, Zhang has won in six of her seven starts this season. She’ll probably play two more regular-season tournaments for the Cardinal before the postseason begins with the Pac-12 championships and an NCAA regional. Stanford is a heavy favorite to win a national title again.
Zhang is expected to announce that she’s turning pro sometime in June.
While there have been more celebrated amateurs, like Lydia Ko, who won two LPGA tournaments as an amateur, and Michelle Wie, who was the youngest to ever qualify for an LPGA event, perhaps no one has accomplished more as an amateur and college player than Zhang.
“I liken her to Tiger,” Walker said. “Tiger and Rose. They’re the only two I know with emojis. Find me any other players with emojis, you’re not going to find them.”