She is a golf prodigy and the number 1 amateur in the world. Your season at Stanford could be historic

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  She is a golf prodigy and the number 1 amateur in the world.  Your season at Stanford could be historic

Rose Zhang found a difficult balance between embarrassed teenage girl and confident athlete in equal parts.

She posed for photos at Stanford’s practice facility one day last week with golf balls strewn around her. A men’s team player passed by on the way to the shooting range. Zhang backed away for a moment, embarrassed.

Shortly afterwards, when she found out about a Twitter account called “Rose Zhang Tracker” that was spreading her achievements on the course, she smiled in amusement and said, “Oh, my god, this is so strange.”

Even so, Zhang confirmed that with the increasing attention, she is cool. It is a natural by-product of establishing yourself as the world’s # 1 amateur golfer – as an 18-year-old college freshman has grown accustomed to dormitory life.

Stanford freshman Rose Zhang at the Siebel Varsity Golf Training Complex. Zhang is the number 1 amateur in the world.

Brontë Wittpenn / The Chronicle

Zhang has spent the past 104 weeks or two full years at the top of the world rankings. She won the US Women’s Amateur last year and the US Girls Junior last summer. Then, in less than a month, she won her first three college tournaments at Stanford.

No previous cardinal player started his career with three wins in a row. Not Tom Watson. Not Patrick Rodgers or Maverick McNealy. Not Andrea Lee or Mariah Stackhouse.

And no, not even Tiger Woods.

“There’s not much left on Rose’s amateur résumé that she left unchecked, and that reminds us of the Big Cat,” said Stanford trainer Anne Walker, referring to Woods (who, to put it, won two of his top three ). University begins).

Hear from three-time Master Rose Zhang after today’s Stanford Intercollegiate title! #GoStanford pic.twitter.com/cHYRKMbqSh

– Stanford Women’s Golf (@StanfordWGolf) October 17, 2021

Widely regarded as one of the greatest amateurs of all time, Zhang anchors a strong Stanford team as # 1 in the nation. The Cardinal also features Rachel Heck, last season’s NCAA singles champion, Senior Aline Krauter, Junior Angelina Ye and newcomer Caroline Sturdza.

But the equation starts with Zhang, a polite and humble Irvine prodigy. She started playing golf at age 9, routinely won tournaments at 13, and soon became embroiled in predictable trials.

When does she become a pro? Why should she go to college? Doesn’t she realize that fame and fortune await in professional golf?

These are inevitable questions for teenage phenomena, on the women’s side (Lydia Ko didn’t go to college) or on the men’s side (Jordan Spieth spent a year in Texas). There’s no clear formula, as Michelle Wie West illustrated by turning pro before her 16th birthday and still enrolling at Stanford. She did not play for the cardinal, but when she went to school and graduated, a long-standing dream came true.

Stanford freshman Rose Zhang at the Siebel Varsity Golf Training Complex.  Zhang is the number 1 amateur in the world.

Stanford freshman Rose Zhang at the Siebel Varsity Golf Training Complex. Zhang is the number 1 amateur in the world.

Brontë Wittpenn / The Chronicle

Zhang also stimulated speculation about her plans, even in her junior year of high school. She remained undeterred.

“I just want to experience college,” she said. “I think college is a very important step. It’s a great experience – you meet different people, understand how to live independently, make mistakes, just learn to adapt as a whole. …

“There are millions of voices out there, but you can’t listen to them. You have to listen to yourself and the people around you. “

Like any other newcomer, Zhang plunges into campus life. She is amazed at the diversity of students on her dormitory floor: one who lives on a boat for three months every year and studies marine biology, another outstanding mathematician, countless computer science majors, a football player, track and field athlete and fencer.

Or, to briefly remind yourself that excellence on the golf course has a limited meaning, Zhang looks at her roommate Safiyah Seck: She is on a pre-med track.

Stanford freshman Rose Zhang at the Siebel Varsity Golf Training Complex.  Zhang is the number 1 amateur in the world.

Stanford freshman Rose Zhang at the Siebel Varsity Golf Training Complex. Zhang is the number 1 amateur in the world.

Brontë Wittpenn / The Chronicle

The prospect of college once made Zhang “shaky,” as she put it, but she quickly integrated into her new circle of friends. They go out to eat, go hiking, and learn together what gives Zhang a break from her fast-paced golf career.

“I was concerned about how talented and smart the other Stanford kids are, so I wondered if I would be compatible,” she said. “It was a bit overwhelming. But when I got on campus, I was greeted by my RAs in my dorm and that helped calm me down. “

Zhang picked up the game soon after her father Henry did it at the urging of a friend. She enjoyed tennis and swimming, but she didn’t like running and quickly realized that she didn’t need to run to be successful in golf. And the feeling of having firm contact with the ball was exhilarating.

Still, after several top 10 finishes but no wins at American Junior Golf Association events at the age of 12, she called her childhood coach George Pinnell in frustration. She wanted to know when she would win a trophy. Pinnell laughed at the memory of Zhang’s collection.

Stanford freshman Rose Zhang at the Siebel Varsity Golf Training Complex.  Zhang is the number 1 amateur in the world.

Stanford freshman Rose Zhang at the Siebel Varsity Golf Training Complex. Zhang is the number 1 amateur in the world.

Brontë Wittpenn / The Chronicle

Pinnell also remembered how golf helped Zhang become more mature and confident. When she was younger, Pinnell helped ease the occasional tension between her and Henry, who was difficult to satisfy. At about the age of 15, Zhang Pinnell started saying that she would talk to her father.

On the way it was consumed by the practice. She forces herself to do 100 consecutive 4-foot putts each day, and sometimes a smaller number of 6-foot and 9-foot putts. Zhang also skips rope as part of her daily routine, a habit emulated by some juniors at Oak Creek Golf Club in Irvine, where she grew up.

It was reminiscent of her influence as the world’s greatest amateur – as was the number of Asian-American viewers who came out to see her win the Stanford Invitational last weekend.

“I feel like it’s a title that I can use to inspire other people,” said Zhang. “After becoming number 1, I definitely have more influence in terms of social media and the kids around me.”

Or, as Pinnell said, “We never talk about the # 1 ranking, but she knows it’s important. She knows it will go away if she doesn’t take care of that little white ball. “

Stanford freshman Rose Zhang at the Siebel Varsity Golf Training Complex.  Zhang is the number 1 amateur in the world.

Stanford freshman Rose Zhang at the Siebel Varsity Golf Training Complex. Zhang is the number 1 amateur in the world.

Brontë Wittpenn / The Chronicle

So far this has not been a problem. Zhang shot 1 over par 73 in her opening round at Stanford, but has tied par or better in all eight rounds since then.

She flashed the field last weekend, shooting 65-65-67 for a grand total of 16-under.

Zhang’s quick start sparked talk of a potentially historic season. Lorena Ochoa set the standard in 2001-02, her sophomore year in Arizona when she won eight times and finished second on her other two starts. Then she turned pro and quickly became a dominant force on the LPGA Tour.

Twenty years later, Zhang seems more interested in connecting with her teammates. When she finished her first tournament in Seaside, Monterey County on September 28, other Stanford players flocked to the green to hug. Forgotten, she asked if they had won the team competition without realizing that this was the point of the celebration.

This week Zhang posted a short video on Instagram in which she and two teammates fooled around on the practice green. She clearly enjoys the camaraderie of college golf and says, “The team aspect is very appealing.”

Zhang leads the team with a graceful swing, which is characterized by its speed and reminiscent of Ko or Rory McIlroy. Walker described how Zhang is always in sync – hands with arms, arms with shoulders, shoulders with hips, hips with feet. The result is rhythmic, reliable action.

But her success runs deeper, to the point where Walker spoke of her “golf genius”. Zhang once locked her swing on the shooting range in 10 minutes, for example by imitating it in slow motion without hitting a ball. Or think of the Curtis Cup in August when she gave Heck a tip as to why she wasn’t hitting wedge shots with her usual precision.

Last week, on the shooting range, Walker noticed a Stanford player approaching Zhang and asking questions. Walker saw this as a great show of respect, especially for an 18-year-old newbie.

Stanford freshman Rose Zhang takes a practice swing at the Siebel Varsity Golf Training Complex.  Zhang is the number 1 amateur in the world.

Stanford freshman Rose Zhang takes a practice swing at the Siebel Varsity Golf Training Complex. Zhang is the number 1 amateur in the world.

Brontë Wittpenn / The Chronicle

“I’ve heard Tiger talk about the game a couple of times and he’s just talking about it on a different level,” said Walker. “It’s like someone is describing their masterpiece. The words are different, the passion is different – you can just see in their eyes that they are speaking on a different level.

“It’s the same with Rose. She talks about her game and you can see that she understands it differently. “

She understands enough to know that wild amateur success does not automatically lead to wild professional success.

For all her skill and poise, Zhang shot 76:80 at the Olympic Club in June to miss the cut by eight shots at the US Women’s Open. She is number 263 in the overall world rankings, including professionals.

Pinnell, Zhang’s coach since she was 11, expects her to stay at Stanford for “at least a few years.” It seems unlikely that she will stay every four years, but she’s obviously in no hurry to take to the streets.

“Rose is smart enough and mature enough to know the tour will happen when she’s ready,” said Heck. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to go to college and have that team aspect. Once you go on tour, you are pretty much on your own. “

Zhang exudes an innocent teenage vibe, but also cunningly leaves the door open when the turn-pro question arises. She insisted that she “has absolutely no idea” when to leave school and instead focuses on “whatever I have to do right now”.

Then she paused, giggled, and added, “I’m definitely going to college now. I’m here.”

Ron Kroichick covers golf for The San Francisco Chronicle. Email: rkroichick@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @ronkroichick

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