SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — Rose Zhang, already a history-making player at the tender age of 20, hit a 1-iron for the first time last year during a team-building exercise at Merion with the Curtis Cup team. She did not get closest to the hole. Didn’t even reach the green, in fact. One of the few times she’s lost at anything in the past year.
From the Ben Hogan plaque on the 18th at Merion to the one celebrating Jack Nicklaus’ famous 1-iron here at Baltusrol’s Lower Course, Zhang finds herself immersed in big moments these days.
Zhang struck her best drive of the day up the 18th at the Lower Course in the opening round of the KPMG Women’s PGA, and though she was far from the Nicklaus plaque, nestled a 3-wood up to 8 feet for eagle on the closing par 5. The ensuing putt was a touch short on pace.
“I’m not dismayed with that attempt,” said a smiling Zhang after the round. “It was a very solid birdie.”
Ben Hogan famously used a 1-iron to force a playoff and win the 1950 #USOpen at Merion.
— The Curtis Cup (@CurtisCup) June 9, 2022
Every birdie at the Lower Course on a drizzly and gusty Thursday was a solid one, as only six players broke par in the morning wave. Zhang’s 1-under 70 put her one back of a trio of players with the clubhouse lead early on, though by day’s end she trailed leader Lee-Anne Pace by four.
Leona Maguire, winner of last week’s Meijer LPGA Classic, made a birdie of her own on the 18th to finish at 2 under in a share of sixth. The steely Irishwoman hit every green and missed one fairway in an opening 69.
“It’s a completely different test,” said Maguire of last week to this week. “I think you had to drive the ball equally well last week I would say, but you were going gung-ho at a lot of pins. Today you had to be really disciplined.”
Not long before Zhang turned professional, she broke Maguire’s record of 135 consecutive weeks at No. 1 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. Maguire, 28, was a prodigy in her own right own right long before she arrived at Duke.
“We knew even before she went to college, she started winning everything,” said Boutier, a former Blue Devil teammate, “so it was kind of obvious that she would make it.”
Maguire, who took off a year of high school to concentrate on golf as a junior, won 10 times as a Blue Devil and worked her way to the LPGA via the Epson Tour. She became the first player from Ireland to win on the LPGA last year and now seeks to become the first female from Ireland to win a major.
Maguire’s swing coach since age 10, Shane O’Grady, was at Baltusrol earlier in the week. Coming straight off her second win, however, there admittedly wasn’t much to work on.
“It was nice for him,” said Maguire. “He hadn’t been at a major in quite a few years I would say, so nice for him to sort of see how the golf course is set up, the shots that we need.”
What a finish from @rosezhang 👏
— LPGA (@LPGA) June 22, 2023
Zhang, who like Maguire was a two-time national player of the year in college, won a dozen times at Stanford, including her second NCAA title, and then clinched her first LPGA title in her pro debut at the Mizuho Americas Open.
She went back to Palo Alto after that remarkable victory and a New York media tour to finish her final exams. After two weeks away from the tour, she’s back in the spotlight at Baltusrol, the most sought-after player in the field.
Zhang started grinding early on Thursday with bogeys on two of the first four holes, an especially taxing stretch on the newly renovated A.W. Tillinghast design. She held on to play the last 12 holes in 3 under, putting herself in fine position at the first women’s major on the Lower Course in more than 50 years.
“There’s so many obligations as a professional,” said Zhang, “but I’m really taking it in my stride. I feel very thankful to be in this position.”