Nichols: The LPGA doesn’t have a player whose name transcends golf in the U.S. Historic winner Rose Zhang is in position to change that

The LPGA has been desperate for a moment like this. There hasn’t been a player on the LPGA with the potential to move the needle in the United States like Rose Zhang since a prodigious Michelle Wie West.

Several players have risen to the level of “household name” on the LPGA in the past two decades, but those were households outside of the U.S. Ariya Jutanugarn, for example, became the first Thai player to win a major and ascend to No. 1 in the world. Her face was on a Gatorade bottle in Thailand, but her name never resonated here in the U.S.

Ai Miyazato rivaled Tiger Woods in popularity in her native Japan. No one on the LPGA did more media than Miyazato during her time on tour, but that daily attention came almost exclusively from Japan. Yani Tseng had the same security detail as Lady Gaga when the LPGA came to Taiwan for the first time. Lydia Ko’s youngest-to-ever resume was significant, but it didn’t revolutionize the tour.

Not even Inbee Park’s attempt at winning a fourth consecutive major in a calendar season could capture the attention of golf media in the U.S., let alone the greater sports landscape.

Annika Sorenstam, the greatest player in the modern era, won 46 times in 124 LPGA starts from 2001 to 2006. But not even her sustained dominance could break out of Tiger’s shadow.

There isn’t a player on the LPGA right now who can be considered a household name in the United States. To become a household name, one must be well-known among those who aren’t golf fans. For example, people who don’t watch a single hockey game any given year know of Wayne Gretzky. Plenty of people don’t read Stephen King but know of his work. Sports fans might not watch tennis all season but would tune in to watch Serena Williams at Wimbledon.

These are household names.

Wie West became a household name because she contended at LPGA majors as a kid, competed in PGA Tour events and tried to qualify for men’s majors. Sharing a stage with men ­– as Annika did at Colonial – skyrocketed Wie West’s global appeal. She was magnetic.

2023 Mizuho Americas Open
2023 Mizuho Americas Open

Rose Zhang speaks during a press conference after a playoff win against Jennifer Kupcho of the United States (not pictured) in the final round of the Mizuho Americas Open at Liberty National Golf Club on June 4, 2023 in Jersey City, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Zhang, 20, put together the greatest amateur golf resume in the modern era and then won on the LPGA in her first start as a professional, something that hasn’t been done since 1951. It was, by all accounts, a surreal week.

Of course, there’s more to it than winning. Female athletes have to put in more time outside the ropes than their male counterparts to move the needle even a fraction of the way. There are American stars on the LPGA right now who don’t want to put in this time. They frequently turn down the requests of the national media and their own organization, even at majors, and sometimes shut it down after big victories rather than take advantage of the moment. This, of course, hurts not only their brand, but the overall growth of the tour.

That’s why the arrival of Zhang is such a breath of fresh air. There’s a perspective from Zhang and a joy in the process that already sets her apart.

The LPGA can’t afford to have a reluctant star in today’s media landscape. The tour needs someone who’s willing, within reason, to take on the responsibility of growing the sport. Someone who says yes more than she says no and does it with a smile.

The LPGA needs a star who connects with fans, so that even when the winning slows down, interest remains high.

Zhang first recognized that she had a platform at age 17, when younger players in the field at the AJGA Tournament Champions began asking for her autograph.

“That’s when I really realized that, hey, like people know me,” said Zhang during Sunday’s winner’s press conference at the Mizuho Americas Open.

“It’s important to, I guess, be a good presence to them, be a good role model. They are kind of watching your every move to gain inspiration. From there, going into college I really realized that I do have a platform of people and they’re all rooting for me, but also trying to gain inspiration from what I do from my practice, work ethic, to what I do off the golf course, to relax, recover, etc.

“It’s just been ongoing from there.”

The LPGA talent pool is deeper than ever, which means it’s more difficult to dominate like Nancy Lopez did as a rookie when she won nine tournaments, including five consecutive, in 1978.

Still, Zhang’s rookie summer has already become appointment viewing among golf fans. At Liberty National, a group of men who referred to themselves as the “Rose Buds” went nuts practically every time she hit a shot. A smiling Zhang called it both hilarious and low-key embarrassing.

Many thought Mizuho host Wie West would have a Tiger-like effect on the LPGA, but she didn’t win enough (five career victories) to make that happen.

Zhang wrapped up media obligations on Sunday night in time to make the 10 p.m. ferry and then woke up early for an appearance on NBC’s “Today Show.” She began last week in the rundown on ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption” and likely would’ve ended her media tour on one of the late-night shows were it not for the writers’ strike.

Now, it’s back to Palo Alto to take final exams at Stanford and move out before heading full steam into major championship season. With girls’ golf now one of the fastest-growing segments of the sport and the tour experiencing an explosion of global talent, Zhang is the joy-filled player who can change the game.

All of golf should root for her success.

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Story originally appeared on GolfWeek