Queen of college golf: Rose Zhang captures 2023 NCAA individual title, first woman to win back-to-back NCAA championships

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Rose Zhang wanted to go for it.

She stood in the fairway on the par-5 18th hole at Grayhawk Golf Club and was prepping to go for the green in two. With water right, she even risked putting her ball in the left bunkers, which she knew would give her a good chance to get up-and-down for birdie.

That’s when Stanford coach Anne Walker stepped in, offering some advice to her sophomore sensation.

“We’re gonna go down here and you’re going to have a number that’s going to be in play,” Walker told Zhang. “And you’re going to lay up.”

Zhang questioned her coach. Why would she lay up with a tournament title on the line?

But it wasn’t just any tournament. And it wasn’t just any player. It’s the best female amateur in the world trying to win the NCAA Women’s Golf Championship for the second straight year.

That’s when Walker told Zhang she had a one-shot lead. A par or better would secure her second straight individual title.

“I was like, ‘Oh wait, maybe I should reconsider everything that just happened and my whole thought process,'”Zhang said. “So I decided to lay up with a 9-iron, wedge it in from there and two putts was good enough.”

And it’s decisions like those that have put Zhang at the top.

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Zhang won the NCAA individual title for the second straight year, becoming the first woman to do so. She shot a bogey-free 4-under 68 on Monday, finishing at 10 under and beating USC’s Catherine Park and San Jose State’s Lucia Lopez-Ortega by one shot. The victory was also a crowning achievement on an incredible season that saw Zhang win eight times, tying Lorena Ochoa’s single-season NCAA record for victories, and set a new record for lowest scoring average in a single season, breaking her record from last year by nearly a full stroke.

“I still don’t know what is going on,” Zhang said. “And it’s really hard to process because when you’re chasing from behind, you really don’t know what’s happening.

“I genuinely just… I can’t believe this is all happening. It’s just simple to say I’m super grateful.”

2023 NCAA Championship
2023 NCAA Championship

Rose Zhang of the Stanford Cardinal celebrates with teammates after winning the NCAA women’s Golf Championships at Grayhawk Golf Club on May 22, 2023 in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

in addition to her eight victory of the season, it’s also the 12th of her career, the most of any Stanford golfer in school history. Tiger Woods, Maverick McNealy and Patrick Rodgers each had 11 on the men’s side.

She also helped the Cardinal secure the top overall seed in match play, which begins Tuesday. Stanford will first face No. 8-seed Pepperdine with a chance to win its second consecutive team title.

Walker said she spoke with Zhang before Monday’s final round and challenged her to be aggressive. She wanted to Zhang play smarter, like Walker knew her star was capable of.

“Some of the shorter holes, she took herself out of the hole just by being out of position,” Walker said. “Rose is fully accountable. She’s an incredibly intelligent golfer. She decided that no matter what happened, she would be putting herself into position.”

Park led by four when Zhang teed off, but a cold putter saw Park sign for a 1-over 73 in the final round to get into the clubhouse at 9 under overall.

Zhang narrowly missed birdie putts on the first three hole. A great 3-wood on the par-5 fourth allowed her to have an easy birdie putt, then she hit a wedge to a foot from about 75 yards on the sixth for another birdie. Add one more on the par-5 seventh, Zhang turned in 3-under 33 but still a shot behind Park, her childhood friend.

Zhang birdied the par-5 11th as Park three-putted on the par-4 15th, flopping the lead. Then it was solid golf all the way in.

Zhang missed her first green on the day on the par-4 17th but scrambled for par. She bounced back with a terrific drive off the 18th tee, picking up her tee before her ball reached its apex.

2023 NCAA Championship
2023 NCAA Championship

Rose Zhang of the Stanford Cardinal poses with the trophy and teammates after winning the NCAA women’s Golf Championships at Grayhawk Golf Club on May 22, 2023 in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Then she put herself in position. It’s something she has done her entire career. It’s why she has won a U.S. Girls’ Junior, the U.S. Amateur, the Augusta National Women’s Amateur and now back-to-back NCAA individual titles. It’s why she’s arguably the greatest college golfer of all time and cemented her legacy as the best female amateur in the history of the game.

Walker seemed a bit taken aback when she realized the victory was Zhang’s eighth of the year. Yet she didn’t struggle to find words to summarize her season.

“I kind of felt like she was already solidified as the best amateur of all time, and what she did today, that’s just the period on the end of the sentence,” Walker said. “No one’s ever done this before. It’s so hard to do. And she did it in a different way. She’s Rose.”

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek