At Champions Retreat Golf Club, during the first two rounds of this past week’s Augusta National Women’s Amateur, Rose Zhang appeared to be on autopilot.
In the final round at Augusta National Golf Club, she looked uncomfortable, unsure of herself.
Zhang shot 66 on Wednesday (tied for the second-best round of the week) and 65 on Thursday (the best round of the week) at Champions Retreat.
On Saturday, she posted a 76, one stroke above the field average on a blustery but manageable day at Augusta National.
Zhang has now played in four editions of the ANWA. At Champions Retreat, she has averaged a stroke and a half under par; at Augusta National, three strokes over.
It’s not that Champions Retreat is the easier golf course. As Tod Leonard noted for Golf Digest, it produced a higher scoring average than the Masters venue in the first three years of the tournament. (This year—with lift, clean, and place in effect on Wednesday and Thursday—the field scored a little more than a stroke lower at Champions Retreat than they did at Augusta National. For Zhang, that differential was 10 and a half strokes.)
The evidence, while limited, suggests that Rose Zhang struggles to be her usual self at Augusta National.
“I feel like I played pretty well on Champions Retreat, but I feel like I faltered when it came to the final round at Augusta National,” she said on Tuesday, discussing her previous ANWA appearances. “All three years, actually. So I think that’s kind of where I didn’t capitalize on my positions.”
At her winner’s press conference on Saturday evening, she acknowledged that she still hadn’t quite cracked the ANGC code. “I really, really do love this golf course,” she said. “Sometimes it’s just interesting that I never really get my ‘A’ game when I’m out here. When I was out at Champions, it felt so easy to me. Everything just came to me. I was making putts. I was hitting greens. But when you’re out here, one mistake… is magnified.”
Rose Zhang (courtesy of Augusta National)
On Saturday morning, Zhang missed her line off the first tee and wound up in the deep bunker on the right side of the fairway. About 10 minutes later, she wrote down a double-bogey 6. Mistake, magnified.
She over-clubbed on the par-3 fourth hole, hitting hybrid well over the green. Her next shot was a chip from a downhill lie to a putting surface that ran away from her. She had almost no chance of stopping the ball near the back-left pin. That was her second magnified mistake, a bogey.
So it went until a weather delay allowed her to mark her ball in the eighth fairway and head for shelter. She was four over on the day, her total score a vulnerable-looking -9.
There’s something incomplete, however, about the idea that Augusta National rattles Zhang because it magnifies mistakes. When she’s playing well, she doesn’t miss lines or overshoot greens. Her directional control with driver and distance control with irons and wedges are astonishing, potentially historic. A course that magnifies mistakes shouldn’t bother a player who doesn’t make them.
It’s possible that Zhang was thrown off by the morning winds, which gusted unpredictably as the midday thunderstorms arrived. Or maybe the scene outside the ropes got to her. “The entire atmosphere of Augusta National is just a whole ‘nother level of prestige,” she said afterwards. “I realize that, and I think I keep that in the back of my mind.”
The version of Champions Retreat we saw on Wednesday and Thursday, on the other hand, was right in the middle of her comfort zone. The course simply demanded that players hit fairways and greens, and no one beats Rose Zhang at that game. She finds her windows and numbers as well as any amateur I’ve seen.
This is not to say she’s a “driving-range golfer.” To achieve her level of precision takes enormous talent, dedication, and sophistication. She has all the shots. For instance, although she prefers a slight draw with her driver, she’s able, when necessary, to hit a fade. She did so twice under intense pressure on Augusta’s 18th hole, which all but requires a left-to-right shape off the tee.
Rose Zhang after winning the ANWA (Courtesy of Augusta National)
At this point in her career, though, Zhang appears to find her groove more easily when a course asks true-false questions. Augusta National—where you can hit a fairway and be screwed, hit a green and have a slim chance of two-putting—is an essay exam with vague grading criteria.
Zhang will be a professional golfer soon—maybe in two years, maybe in two months. Her life and career will likely become more complicated, less comfortable. How she deals with that challenge will determine the percentage of her massive potential that she reaches.
Here’s an early indication: after the weather delay on Saturday, Rose Zhang returned to the eighth fairway, made five pars in a row, hit a beautiful wedge into No. 13, parred out after an error on No. 15 to force a playoff, waited for her opponent to make a mistake, and won.
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