Rose Zhang's rapid rise through amateur golf turns to Girls Junior PGA Championship

Rose Zhang's rapid rise through amateur golf turns to Girls Junior PGA Championship

Amateur

Rose Zhang's rapid rise through amateur golf turns to Girls Junior PGA Championship

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As George Pinnell received more and more text messages from Rose Zhang, full of advanced questions about golf, he grew more and more confused.

Yes, the messages were from Zhang’s number, the 12-year-old golfer Pinnell was coaching. But were these questions really from a middle schooler, when they read more like something a 20-year-old would ask?

So he asked her who was writing the messages during their next lesson. It was Zhang’s turn to be confused.

“Well, I am,” she told him.

“You’re kidding me,” Pinnell replied. “No way.”

That’s when Pinnell realized there was more to Zhang than the athletic teenager he first met whose swing still needed some tweaking. She was curious and dedicated, willing to put in the time needed to improve her game, asking the sort of questions that proved to the longtime coach his pupil was impressive beyond just driving distance and a knack for reading greens.

“She had an old head on young shoulders,” Pinnell said. “She was different.”

Since then, Zhang’s diligence toward golf has paid off in wins. Now 16, she’s soared up the amateur rankings, featured on the LPGA and verbally committed to Stanford in the class of 2021. She’s competing in her third Girls Junior PGA Championship — an event she won in 2017 and finished as runner-up last year — which gets underway Tuesday at Keney Park Golf Course in Hartford, Conn.

It’s a far cry from where Zhang’s competitive golf career began, as a 10-year-old on the Southern California PGA Junior Development Tour. She had picked up her father’s club a few months earlier and happened to make contact with a ball. And after some lessons, she entered a nine-hole tournament to test her game.

She showed up to the course in jeans and a T-shirt and looked around at the other players wearing more traditional attire.

“I was just like, ‘Oh well, I’ll just act natural,’” Zhang said.

She acted so naturally, in fact, she ended up winning the one-day event, setting in motion the start of a promising career that soon crossed paths with Pinnell, who began coaching her about five years ago.

Zhang is No. 6 in Golfweek’s girls junior rankings and No. 16 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. She’ll be competing for the U.S. in the Pan American Games in August, Pinnell said. It’s a rapid rise Pinnell wishes he could credit to his own coaching.

“But that’s not the answer,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve always told Rose, if you can take care of the golf ball, everything else will take care of itself. … She’s an extremely humble youngster. She feels she has a tremendous amount of learning to do, even though she’s way ahead. But she doesn’t like to hear that. If she heard me say that, she’d be furious at me.”

Zhang said she watched how LPGA players went about their business at the ANA Inspiration in 2018, a tournament Zhang qualified for when she won the ANA Junior Inspiration tournament as a 14-year-old. She played with Bronte Law, Atthaya Thitikul and Angel Yin. Zhang finished 1-over 289, making the cut in her first LPGA start.

“I got to test my game against them,” Zhang said, “so that was certainly a special experience.”

Not only did the Irvine, Calif., native learn the importance of flushing a bad shot, she discovered how important it is to remain composed when television cameras are around.

But composure has hardly been a struggle for Zhang. At the 2019 U.S. Women’s Open, Pinnell saw Lydia Ko in the clubhouse and reintroduced himself to the 15-time LPGA winner. He asked Ko if he could introduce Zhang to her and snap a few photos of the pair.

While Zhang had fun meeting the 22-year-old star, she didn’t seem overwhelmed by the experience like other amateurs who Pinnell has introduced to pros in the past.

“Rose just kind of takes it in stride,” Pinnell said. “I think her mentality is, ‘I can beat you.’ Now, she would never say that, and she would kill me for saying that, but yeah. I think inside of her, she’s got a lot of confidence.”

Zhang decided to compete at the Thunderbird International Junior tournament in Arizona the week before the U.S. Women’s Open. She finished as the runner-up and arrived on a red-eye flight to South Carolina on Tuesday, two days before the major began.

Pinnell was uncertain how Zhang would handle the Country Club of Charleston course on short rest. And when she shot 3 over on the first two holes Thursday, Pinnell thought, “This is going to be really hard.”

“But on the other hand, I know Rose,” Pinnell said. “And when Rose makes a mistake when she’s playing, you don’t get too nervous, because she has a way of rectifying and really coming back strong.”

Zhang made the cut, finishing T-55 at 7-over 291 at age 16.

“That event was definitely very hard,” Zhang said. “Coming from that week, I learned a lot, and could gain more improvement on my game. And it helped me gain confidence in what I really want to do in the future.”

Since receiving those text messages full of advanced golf questions, Pinnell has had an idea of Zhang’s potential. Seeing her hang around on LPGA starts only further cemented the idea.

While her coach said any number of things can sidetrack a burgeoning career — be it injuries, other hobbies or a burnout — he doesn’t expect it to happen to Zhang.

“She can be as good as she wants to be,” Pinnell said. “And I think she knows that. And I think she has that in the back of her mind, but again, would never say it. She’s never said that to me.”

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