Stanford's Rose Zhang in a collegiate class with legendary Lorena Ochoa
It’s been a minute since there’s been G.O.A.T. talk in college golf, but get ready for the conversation to begin anew as Stanford sophomore Rose Zhang looks to write a new entry into the history books this week at the NCAA Division I Women’s Golf Championship.
The 19-year-old Zhang will aim to defend her individual title at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona, as well as the Cardinal’s 2022 national team title. But title defenses aside, the Southern California native is chasing a 21-year-old NCAA record: A win at Grayhawk would tie former Arizona standout and LPGA Hall of Famer Lorena Ochoa’s record for college tournament wins in a season (eight) and career (12).
In fact, Zhang has already found herself tied with another golf great – none other than Stanford alum Tiger Woods – after her record-setting win at the NCAA Pullman Regional earlier in May. Her victory tied Woods’ 11-win record, but she notably has reached the mark in just 19 starts while it took Tiger 26 events.
What’s more, Zhang heads into nationals with a 68.70 scoring average through 27 rounds this season, nearly one stroke better than her NCAA record of 69.68 from her freshman season. That brings us to another Ochoa comparison, as Zhang’s career scoring average currently sits at 69.22 through 58 rounds. That puts her on track to best another record set by Ochoa, whose 70.85 career scoring average in 60 rounds still stands.
“There are no words left to describe what Rose Zhang has accomplished in college golf,” Stanford golf head coach Anne Walker said after regionals. “It’s mesmerizing to watch and learn from her.”
“It’s very impressive,” said Ochoa regarding Zhang’s career to date during a recent appearance on Golf Channel. “I think you can tell that it’s just hard work. Starting in junior golf and then just dream about going to college and the experience that you get in college playing against the best players.
“I think getting that confidence that you’re able to win tournaments. You learn so much, not only as a player but also outside -- you mature a lot inside and outside the golf course. And I think what Rose Zhang is doing is outstanding. I want to say congratulations to her. It's been fun following her career and I wish her the best for sure.”
Ochoa on majors, Zhang comparison and golf in Mexico
Ochoa knows firsthand the pressure Zhang might be facing as she contemplates moving to the professional ranks. Ahead of the 2002 NCAA Championship, expectations were high for Ochoa in her final college tournament. But the college coaches on hand to witness Ochoa’s record-breaking collegiate career were clear they were witnessing something special.
“It’s remarkable to do what she’s done,” said longtime ASU coach Linda Vollstedt in 2002, referring to Ochoa’s remarkable record: In 20 career college stroke-play events, Ochoa finished worse than second only twice – placing T-9 in her college debut and T-3 later that same season.
“To individually win events like that is incredible.”
“When players are that good and win that much, it’s usually a sense of entitlement,” Blue Devils coach Dan Brooks told Golfweek in 2002. “She feels like she should win every time.”
Perhaps some of the highest praise came from legendary coach Dale McNamara, who coached none other than LPGA great Nancy Lopez during her two seasons at Tulsa: “Lorena is just fabulous,” McNamara said. “She has such personality and reminds me so much of Nancy in that aspect. She’s so friendly, likes people and understands that golf is people.
“But you can’t compare the two,” she continued. “It’s like comparing one mountain peak to another. They are both marvelous in their own way, in their own time. They’re individuals -- and aren’t we lucky to be exposed to both of them?!”
Ochoa never did win an NCAA title, losing to Duke’s Candy Hannemann in a playoff her freshman year and finishing T-2 behind Duke’s Jenny Chuasiriporn in 2002. But her success began almost immediately freshman year, when she won four events including the 2001 Pac-10 Championships. Then came the record-setting sophomore campaign, that included the seven-win streak. Her list of accolades included the National Golf Coach Association (NCGA) Player of the Year honors twice, 2001 Freshman of the Year honors, and two First-Team All-American honors. She also won two Golfstat Cups for nation's lowest scoring average (71.33 during 2000-01, 70.13 in 2001-02).
The Guadalajara native left the Arizona Wildcats program as the most decorated golfer in the school history, male or female. Her 12 titles place her third on an unofficial list of most individual college tournament wins by an NCAA female golfer, surpassing Lopez, who won 11 events while at Tulsa from 1975-77.
“As good as Lorena Ochoa is at golf, she is 10 times as good a person off the golf course,” former Arizona women’s golf head coach Greg Allen said at the time. “Everyone who has ever encountered Lorena loves her."
Perhaps most impressive during her time as a Wildcat was Ochoa’s NCAA record seven-tournament win streak during the 2001-02 season. The accomplishment ranks second among all recognized winning streaks in golf, with only the legendary Byron Nelson recording a longer streak (11). Ochoa won eight tournaments during that sophomore season, eclipsing the mark of six previously set by Brandie Burton (Arizona State) in 1989-90. Along with her 12 wins, Ochoa finished second five times including at the 2001 NCAA championships where she fell to Duke’s Candy Hannemann in a playoff for the individual title.
Ochoa finished her college career on a high note, leading Arizona to a second-place finish at the 2002 NCAAs. She competed in five LPGA events as an amateur while at Arizona and finished in the top 10 three times, including a T-5 at the 2002 Welch’s/Circle K Championship in Tucson.
For comparison, Zhang has made six professional starts to date, with her best finish being a T-28 at the AIG women’s Open last August.
Ochoa turned pro shortly after the 2002 NCAAs and captured her first two LPGA wins during her second year on tour in 2004. But her real breakthrough season came in 2006, when she won six times and posted 20 top-10 finishes in 25 starts. She captured the Rolex Player of the Year award, the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average and the season earnings title with $2,592,872. When she ascended to No. 1 in the world ranking the following year, she unseated former Arizona Wildcat Annika Sorenstam.
Ochoa retired from the LGPA Tour in 2010 at just 34 years old. She held the No. 1 ranking from 2007-2010, winning 25 LGPA events and earning $14.9 million. She currently lives in Mexico, where she operates a charitable foundation, is married and the mother of two children.
As for how (or when) Zhang will fare on the LPGA remains to be seen, but Walker shared some insights into Zhang’s preparedness for tour life while with her star player last month at Augusta National.
“She’s patient,” she said per GolfChannel.com. “She kind of felt like the LPGA would always be there. I think it was clear her golf game was ready to a point where she could go play, and we’d seen that, she knew that, but it goes back to being a professional golfer. She was a complete golfer, but she felt like there was more she could gain in the area of being a better professional, and she’s done that.
“She’s evolved. She’s had to do a lot of things on her own that allows her now, at this point in her career, to me, she appears twice as confident, twice as mature.”