Not long before Rose Zhang clutched a microphone on Tuesday, Michelle Wie West laughingly made an observation: Zhang might have logged more weeks as the world’s No. 1 amateur women’s golfer than Wie West spent as an amateur, period.
It was an exaggeration — even though Wie West became a professional at 15 years old and Zhang spent more than 140 weeks in the top spot — but it also wryly underscored how Zhang’s rise in women’s golf is playing out differently from how other ascending stars built their careers.
In Zhang, who will make her professional debut this week at the Americas Open in Jersey City, N.J., women’s golf is getting the rare prodigy who has played for an American college. And Zhang’s career, however long it lasts and whatever victories it yields, is essentially certain to become a case study in athletic development, long-range planning and skillful marketing, especially now that college athletes are allowed to make money in ways that were forbidden as recently as two years ago.
“I believe that if you’re not able to conquer one stage, then you won’t be able to go on to the next one and say it’s time for the next step,” Zhang, 20, said on Tuesday. “So I wanted to see how I fared in college golf, and it turned out well.”
To put it mildly.
Zhang’s victory in April at the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, where she posted a tournament-record score one day and broke it the next, let her complete women’s amateur golf’s version of the career Grand Slam since she had already won the U.S. Women’s Amateur, the U.S. Girls’ Junior and an individual N.C.A.A. title for Stanford.
Another Stanford golfer, Tiger Woods, achieved a similar feat in the 1990s. But this month, Zhang added a second individual championship in N.C.A.A. play.
Woods competed for Stanford in a wholly different time for college sports, a time when N.C.A.A. athletes were barred from selling their autographs or cutting endorsement deals. When Woods turned pro in 1996, the sponsorships promptly rained down on him. Zhang’s timeline has moved even faster: Wednesday is the first anniversary of the announcement that Adidas had signed her.
The economic possibilities in college sports have lately enticed top athletes to pursue degrees and cultivate their talents while earning money and curbing the immediate allures of turning pro. Those possibilities had less of an effect on Zhang, who is from Irvine, Calif., and who chose to attend college before a wave of state laws pressured the N.C.A.A. to loosen its rules in 2021.
But they could help shape women’s golf going forward, particularly if Zhang proves that the American college game is far from an athletic dead-end and that pre-prom professionalism is not the surest path to stardom. For some time, it has often seemed that way: Of the women ranked in the top 10 on Tuesday, only one, Lilia Vu, played N.C.A.A. golf (at U.C.L.A.).
Zhang, who plans to continue her Stanford studies but will no longer be eligible to play N.C.A.A. golf, believes that her stint on campus has hardly been time wasted. She said in April that her tenure as a college athlete had been “such an important stage for me” because she craved figuring “out who I really was and my independence.”
She added: “It really allowed me to get my own space and really understand what I’m about, and that allows me to improve on my golf game because I realize that a profession is a profession but yourself is also something that you need to work on.”
Her professional prospects had not been far from mind, though. She recalled Tuesday that she told her Stanford coach from the beginning that she was aiming to become a professional, even if her schedule for doing so was hazy.
In her first season at Stanford, she said, she did not consider professional golf at all. As her sophomore year progressed, she said, it “felt like it was time for the next stage.”
“I feel like right now the mind-set is also very simple: try to adjust as much as possible to tour life and figure out what it means to be a professional, what I want to do out here,” said Zhang, already adorned with the logos of Adidas, Callaway, Delta Air Lines and East West Bank. “I feel like I have a lot of time to experiment what I want to do, so that’s kind of the mind-set that I have going throughout my career and even going forward.”
Zhang is entering the professional ranks while women’s golf has no shortage of elite players. Nelly Korda, the Olympic gold medalist from the Tokyo Games, has routinely lurked around the top of leaderboards. Lydia Ko, who in 2015 became the youngest person to reach the world’s No. 1 ranking in professional golf, remains such a dependable power and brilliant player that she was the L.P.G.A.’s money leader in 2022. Minjee Lee has won a major in each of the last two years, and Jin Young Ko returned to the top of the women’s golf ranking this month when she edged Lee in a playoff at the Founders Cup.
Zhang, though, may be the player facing the greatest public pressure since Wie West became a professional almost two decades ago. (Wie West will step back from competitive golf after this summer’s U.S. Women’s Open.) Zhang insisted Tuesday that she did not feel particularly vulnerable to expectations, which she tries to perceive as more of a compliment — “They think I have the ability to go out there and win every single time” — than a demand.
“Growing up, my family and the people around me have given me high expectations for what I should do as a person, not just as a competitor or a golf player, so I kind of fall back toward those morals and who I am as an individual,” she said. “That allows me to go out there on the golf course and think: ‘OK, today is another round of golf. I’m going to need to do what I need to do on the golf course. If it doesn’t work out, I still have a lot of things going for me in life.’”
After the inaugural Americas Open, which will be contested at Liberty National Golf Club, Zhang is expected to compete in the events that make up the rest of the year’s majors circuit for women’s golf. The Women’s P.G.A. Championship will be played at Baltusrol in June, followed by the U.S. Women’s Open at Pebble Beach in July, when the Evian Championship will also be held. The Women’s British Open, scheduled for August at Walton Heath, rounds out the majors.
Zhang played in three majors last year, with her best finish a tie for 28th at the Women’s British Open. (She did not enter this year’s Chevron Championship, where she tied for 11th in 2020, and instead played for, and won, the Pac-12 Conference’s individual championship.)
She does not, she said, have any short-term expectations for performance. This year is about finding her way — and then letting the world watch to see if her way can work.
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