Sports

Zhang wins NCAA title, women’s golf claims top seed

May 23, 2022, 11:41 p.m.

After the final round of stroke play qualifying at the NCAA Championships on Monday, the Stanford women’s golf team and freshman Rose Zhang found themselves in a familiar position: on top.

Stanford finished the event with a nine-over-par total, three shots ahead of No. 2 Oregon, to secure the No. 1 overall seed for match play. Zhang also posted a six-under-par score to win college golf’s biggest individual tournament.

While the victories come as no surprise to many — Stanford is the No. 1 ranked team in the country and Zhang the No. 1 ranked amateur in the world — they are the culmination of a season-long battle to remain on top.

Head Coach Anne Walker saw her team get off to a dream start in the fall, when it won all four of its tournaments. Meanwhile, Zhang began her college career in record-setting fashion, claiming medalist honors in each of her first three starts.

But then came a tough stretch for the Cardinal. During a team workout in December, Zhang suffered a fractured toe when someone dropped a 15-pound weight on it. Later, in the spring, sophomore Rachel Heck, reigning Annika Award winner and NCAA champion, dealt with a non-COVID-19 illness which sidelined her for multiple tournaments.

Through all this strife, the Cardinal maintained the top ranking in the country and won the Gunrock Invitational. Then, the team suffered a string of close losses.

Stanford finished second at the Juli Inkster Invitational before tying for third at the Ping ASU Invitational and second at both the Pac-12 Championships and the NCAA Regionals. No doubt, these were great tournament results — but it wasn’t the same type of dominance that the team had displayed in the fall season.

This week’s wins in the NCAA stroke-play competition marked a statement: if any team wants a chance at the national title, they will have to get through Stanford first.

In the opening round of the NCAA Championships, the Cardinal not only faced off against the nation’s best competition, but also battled the elements. With winds gusting up to 30 miles per hour, no teams in the field were able to break par.

“We were prepared for that … we knew it was coming in,” Walker told GoStanford. “We talked about having to take advantage of the opportunities when we had them because we knew we were going to be really challenged by the wind. It was even more challenging than I think we thought, but I’m very proud of the team … all around amazing day.”

Indeed, with a one-over-par team total in the first round, Stanford registered the best score by seven strokes. Behind the Cardinal, No. 10 Florida State, No. 14 LSU and No. 17 Auburn all shared second place.

Zhang took the individual lead with a four-under-par 68, one stroke ahead of Texas A&M’s Zoe Slaughter.

“I feel that I played the best that I could given the conditions,” Zhang said after the round. “It was definitely a grind out there.”

Englemann followed Zhang with a one-under-par 71, bouncing back from a two-over-par start.

“Being in the national championship, it was a lot more pressure, a lot more nerves,” Englemann said. “But finishing two-over on the front nine was honestly solid and kept me in it.”

Seay and Krauter chipped in matching scores of 75 to round out Stanford’s day one scoring.

The difficult course conditions persisted into the second round, and Stanford maintained its lead with a four-over-par score.

“It was so hard out there … I certainly know that, for our team, it was hard, but they just kept fighting to the very end,” Walker said after the round. “I think just seeing the way they came home shows how much heart they have.”

During the second round, Zhang expanded her lead to four strokes with a two-under-par 70. After bogeying two of her first three holes, she bounced back and posted a four-under-par 32 on her closing nine.

If Stanford had survived the tough conditions in the first two rounds, they thrived in them during the third. The Cardinal recorded the lowest round of the four-day tournament, a five-under-par 283, to stretch their lead. Zhang fired her third consecutive under-par score to take a commanding seven-shot advantage.

“Being able to go out there and hold on to whatever I had, I tried to play the best I could the first couple of holes,” Zhang told GoStanford, after her round. “It was obviously a very big grind out there. I felt that, just being able to come in and stay committed to my game plan and stay committed to myself, I hit shot after shot and executed the way I wanted.”

Just behind Zhang, Heck and Englemann posted scores of 70 to help the Cardinal cause in the third round.

Entering the fourth and final round of stroke play, Stanford held a nine-shot lead. With the top eight teams making it to match play, Stanford was all but guaranteed to make the cut. Thus, the drama of the final round would come on the individual side.

Teeing off in the final group, Zhang made par on the first hole and birdie on the second to reach 10-under for the tournament. Her lead was up to nine.

Then, in uncharacteristic fashion, Zhang faltered during the middle stretch of her round. She made double bogey on the fifth hole before back-to-back bogeys on the ninth and 10th.

As she entered the heart of the back nine, her lead was just three over Texas A&M’s Jennie Park, who was surging after a four-under-par performance on the front. What had once seemed like a sure thing for Zhang was starting to look uncertain; she would need to turn things around to hold off Park and claim the national title.

But as Zhang has shown time and time again this season, there’s a reason she’s the top-ranked amateur in the world. On the par-three 13th, she stuck an iron shot within three feet of the cup, setting up a stress-free birdie to give her a four-shot lead.

After that defining shot, it was smooth sailing for Zhang. She bogeyed the 15th but still enjoyed a three-stroke advantage. As she strode down the 18th fairway, the victory was well within her sights — getting the ball in the hole was just a formality.

When she finally tapped in for par on 18, she could take a sigh of relief and celebrate. Coach Walker was the first to greet her after the victory, wrapping her in a hug and lifting her off her feet. Then, her teammates stormed the green, dousing her in water.

In an interview with Golf Channel after the celebration, Zhang recognized that she had her “C game” in the final round but was able to persevere to take home the national title.

“It was definitely very difficult,” Zhang said of her final-round 75. “I saw every single inch of that golf course that I didn’t see the first three days.”

“I can’t even explain how important this is to me,” she said at her trophy ceremony. “Just being able to be a national champion representing Stanford — it’s a lifetime goal.”

Zhang’s victory is the latest chapter in her already storied amateur career. Before entering college, she had already risen to No. 1 in the world rankings and won two United States Golf Association (USGA) titles.

With exceedingly high expectations coming into her freshman season, she met or exceeded them all, winning four times and finishing in second four more. Now, by winning the NCAA individual title, she becomes only the 10th freshman to do so and the second champion in Stanford’s history. Last season, Heck became Stanford’s first individual champion.

Further, Zhang broke Heck’s NCAA scoring record from last year with her season average of 69.68. Zhang is also the first golfer to win both the US Amateur Championship and NCAA Championship since Alabama’s Emma Talley in 2015.

Behind Zhang, all four other Stanford golfers finished in the top 40 in the ultra-competitive tournament. Tied for 27th, Krauter and Englemann were Stanford’s next highest finishers.

Zhang was not the only Stanford golfer to collect hardware at the tournament. On Sunday, Seay was honored with the Elite 90 award, which is presented to the student-athlete with the highest grade point average at the site of each NCAA championship. Seay, a human biology major, has a 4.0.

“Think of all the days of travel and commitment we have as a team. We are a year-round sport; we aren’t a seasonal sport. So for Brooke to do that — it’s absolutely unbelievable,” Walker said.

To round out the week, Seay made an ace on the 16th, holing a pitching wedge from 129 yards.

While all the accolades, including Zhang’s individual title and the team’s stroke-play victory, are worthy of recognition, the tournament is far from over. Tomorrow morning, Stanford will take on No. 8 seed Georgia in the quarterfinals.

The winner of the best-of-five match play competition will advance to face the winner of No. 4 UCLA and No. 5 Auburn in the afternoon. The first match, Heck versus Georgia’s Jenny Bae, is scheduled for 7:10 a.m. PT.

Gavin McDonell is the managing editor of the sports section. He is a sophomore from San Francisco, California who is studying Economics and Mathematics. His rooting interests include the San Francisco Giants, the Golden State Warriors, Max Homa and of course, the Stanford Cardinal. Contact him at gmcdonell 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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