Pace Sets the Pace Early and All Eyes Are on Rose Zhang
In her first major championship start as a professional on Thursday in the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club, Rose Zhang was off to a rocky start. She needed a nifty up-and-down at the demanding opening hole to save par, and bogeys followed shortly on the second and fourth holes.
But there is a certain calmness and poise that emanates around Zhang , like some protective bubble, one that belies her 20 years. She performs as if she’s been playing for 20 years, and not just been on this earth for that long. Two-over par standing on the seventh tee, and she was just fine. No sign of panic. This was fun. No pressure. Pressure was that Computer Science final – CS 106A – she just had to pass to put a ribbon on her sophomore year at Stanford University.
Zhang would turn it around to do something few others around were able to do on a rugged opening day at Baltusrol’s famed Lower Course – she got her round back on track and into red numbers, a birdie at her final hole giving her a round of 1-under 70. She wasn’t in the lead, but not far off it, and one of the keys to success this week will be just to hang around.
The first-day KPMG leaderboard was quite the international affair. It included players from South Africa, China, Korea, Japan, Ireland, Norway, Germany, Canada and France spending time in the top 10. South Africa’s Lee-Ann Pace, who was on a bit of an American holiday when she learned her finish at ShopRite earned her a spot into this week’s KPMG PGA, is your overnight leader, a bit of a surprise, even to her. She birdied her final hole, the par-5 18th, to get to clubhouse at 8 p.m. with a 5-under 66.
“The play against the best in the world and post a score like that, is something I’ll never forget,” said Pace, who went bogey-free on Baltusrol’s Lower Course. Pace is 42, and has only nine starts in the last two seasons on the LPGA, two in 2023. She plays mostly in Europe, and has toyed with giving up the game. But she likes to visit America, came over for the ShopRite, and then spent last week prepping for the season’s second major in West Palm Beach, staying at the home of her South African friend, Ashleigh Buhai. Pace said Buhai’s recent win at ShopRite gave her a nice jolt of encouragement.
Right behind Pace are two good friends from China, Ruoning Yin and Xiyu “Janet” Lin, who serves as a mentor to her 20-year-old counterpart. They each shot 67 along with Canada’s Brooke Henderson, a former KPMG champion who has felt close over the past few weeks, and on Thursday finally did some scoring.
Henderson made five birdies against a lone bogey, finishing at 4 under with a nice birdie-2 at her final hole, the par-3 ninth. Henderson was once the new kid to watch on the LPGA, and at 25, she has fulfilled her potential quite nicely, posting 13 victories, among them two majors. Thursday at Baltusrol, there was another newcomer everyone was excited to see: young Rose Zhang, the most anticipated player to come out of Stanford since a slender 20-year-old three-time U.S. Amateur champion named Eldrick “Tiger” Woods.
So how did Zhang stay so cool in the midst of her tumultuous start early Thursday? Is her poise innate? Is it something that she developed and learned through her competitive years?
“I would say both,” Zhang said. “From a young age, I was pretty poised, and pretty steady. But I do feel like I've also been trained to just be as steady as can be. My parents, my dad, my mom have taught me to just be flexible in any situation that I'm in, and I feel like with a lot of adversity coming at me from a young age, and doing a lot of different obligations, that has allowed me to really try to be as composed as possible.
“It just comes with practice and innate self, I guess.”
As a collegian and amateur player, Zhang, California-born and of Chinese descent, won just about everything there was to win. NCAA individual titles (two), team title at Stanford, U.S. Women’s Amateur, and in April, the Augusta National Women’s Amateur at Augusta National Golf Club. She won the Mark H. McCormack Medal given to the top-ranked amateur three times, in 2020-22.
In her most recent journey to New Jersey, Zhang became the first player to win in her LPGA professional debut since 1951, capturing the inaugural Mizuho Americas Open in a playoff at Liberty National. Then she returned to California to take her college finals. A whirlwind life.
On Thursday at Baltusrol, she responded to some early adversity (three-putts at Nos. 2 and 4) with birdies at the par-5 seventh, maybe the Lower’s easiest hole, as well as the 14th and 18th. At 18, she hit driver and 3-wood and barely missed an 8-footer for eagle. Along the way, she made a couple of early par-saving putts at the fifth and sixth holes that she later would call “essential.”
“That really studied my momentum, and it allowed me to get into the head space of, okay, steady my round a little bit, let's go from here and hit shot by shot,” Zhang said. “Those two par putts were definitely essential for the rest of the round, and it gave me the confidence to just keep going.”
It was a nice way to rebound, and it showed something, if you didn’t already know the scoop on Zhang. Only 16 players would finish opening day at Baltusrol in red numbers, and that was on a day when expected heavy rains never did persist, and the wind was mostly docile.
What lies ahead for everyone these next few days at the KPMG PGA, including the LPGA’s newest rocket ship? Well, some rain, perhaps. As always, Rose Zhang keeps us tuned in to see more.