Longtime California swing coach George Pinnell has seen the look on Rose Zhang‘s face many times over the past nine years.
Pinnell would give Zhang instructions before beginning a drill, and she’d stare into space for about 30 seconds. While it might have seemed the golf phenom was contemplating the nature of time or another of life’s great mysteries, Pinnell would learn there was much more to his pupil’s indecisiveness.
“When she’s in a lesson, she’s very intuitive,” Pinnell said. “I know what she’s doing. She’s thinking about how she’s going to make her body do what I ask her to do. And then when she gets back to it, within probably 30 seconds or so, she will perform. She’s really deep in what she does and how she does it. She’s just a different type of person. It is just Rose being Rose.”
Whatever Pinnell is trying to teach Zhang, her routine is nearly always the same.
“Before trying to do it, she’d stop and think, ‘OK, what am I going to have to do in the downswing to get my weight into my left side or my pressure into the left side of my hip and down into my left foot and off of my right foot, off of my right toe? How am I going to do that?'” Pinnell said. “She would just think about it for less than a minute, and I’d just let her do what she was doing, and then she’d come out and she would get after it.”
Zhang’s ability to understand the mechanics of her golf swing –and how to fix a flaw on the fly — is one of her greatest strengths, according to Pinnell. It’s part of what made the former world No. 1 amateur’s transition from junior golf to college and now the LPGA Tour so seamless.
Zhang, 20, is competing in her rookie season on the LPGA Tour, but she has already appeared in 12 major championships, finishing in the top 10 in three of them. This week, she’ll perform on arguably her biggest stage when she competes for the U.S. against Europe at the Solheim Cup, starting Friday at Finca Cortesin in Andalusia, Spain.
After turning pro on May 26, Zhang became the first woman since Beverly Hanson in 1951 to win in her professional debut at the Mizuho American Open in Jersey City, New Jersey, on June 4. That earned her an LPGA Tour card, which made her eligible for the Solheim Cup.
“It’s going to be incredible,” Zhang said. “I mean, even at the start of the professional career that I’ve had, I never thought that I would be able to have a position on the team because you have to be a member of the LPGA Tour. So the fact that I was able to become a member in my first event, that really just gave me a glimmer of hope to make the Solheim Cup.”
Zhang qualified for the U.S. squad by being the highest-ranked American player in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Ranking not otherwise eligible for the team. She is currently ranked 32nd in the world.
“I knew Rose’s game was good,” U.S. team captain Stacy Lewis said. “That was not a surprise to me. The fact that she won as quickly as she did and handled the emotions of it and then bounced back in top 10s in majors right after that really impressed me. I mean, there was really none of that, ‘Oh my gosh, I just won. Now what do I do?’ Most rookies and first-time winners have that. She rolled right back into it and had top 10s to follow. So just the consistency and the ability to handle everything that’s come at her has been impressive.”
Winning is nothing new for Zhang. She won the 2020 U.S. Women’s Amateur, 2021 U.S. Girls’ Junior and the Augusta National Women’s Amateur in April. She held the No. 1 ranking in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking for a record 141 consecutive weeks.
In two seasons at Stanford, Zhang won 12 times in 20 starts, including eight times in 10 events last season. Tiger Woods won 11 times in 26 starts during his Cardinal career. She is the only woman to win back-to-back NCAA Division I individual national championships, in 2022-23.
About six weeks after Zhang joined Stanford’s powerhouse women’s golf team in 2021, Cardinal coach Anne Walker called Pinnell, the owner and lead instructor at the George Pinnell Golf Academy in Rowland Heights, California. He has been working with Zhang since she was 11.
“George, I got something I want to share with you,” Walker told him. “We’ve had many players, many girls come through these doors and they come from very famous coaches. I have never seen anybody come through these doors understanding the whys of the golf swing like that girl you sent up here this fall.”
After another player and her mother introduced Pinnell to Zhang in 2014, he started working with her full time. At the beginning of their partnership, he couldn’t understand why she wasn’t calling him for advice during tournaments. Pinnell knew that Zhang’s father, Haibin, didn’t know much about the mechanics of a swing and mostly worked with his daughter on the mental side of the sport.
“I thought, ‘Well, does she have another coach out there with her? What’s going on here?'” Pinnell said.
After Zhang won the 2020 Ping Invitational at Karsten Creek Golf Club in Stillwater, Oklahoma, Pinnell figured out why she wasn’t calling. After struggling in the rain and wind and posting a 75 in the second round, she noticed a flaw in her swing. Instead of calling Pinnell for help, she went to the driving range for about 10 minutes. She swung a 9-iron a few times and corrected her swing. Zhang never hit a ball. She shot 5-under 67 the next day and joined Jordan Spieth as the only two-time winners of the tournament.
“I about fell off my damn chair because that was the reason that she never calls me when she is out on the road,” Pinnell said. “She knew her fundamentals so well of what I was teaching her that she was able to go through them one by one to find out any swing issues that she might’ve been having.”
Pinnell worked with PGA Tour players Kevin Na and Anthony Kim in the past. He’s never had another player do what Zhang can do in terms of breaking down the mechanics of her swing: club path, having the club parallel to the ground on the takeaway, club position at the top of the swing, where her hand and arm positions are at the top, where the club is in relation to her hand, and getting on plane on the downswing.
When Pinnell is working with Zhang on a TrackMan launch monitor, she aims for her swing to be two or less on the path (the direction the club head is moving at the moment of collision), and plus or minus a half-degree on swing direction. To hit a ball straight, the club path should be zero.
One of the reasons Zhang knows her swing so well is because she has replicated it so many times. While growing up in Irvine, California, she often hit bottle caps off a thin mat. Her father collected hundreds of them and kept them in a bucket in the backyard. He didn’t want her hitting golf balls into neighboring houses.
“I mean, there’s nothing for me to do except do my homework ,” Zhang said. “I was a very energetic kid, so I liked doing a lot of different things outdoors. It made sense for me to be in my backyard hitting bottle caps while my parents were working.”
Because bottle caps are so light, hitting them helped Zhang learn how to shape shots. It was also a good way to continue swinging a club when practice facilities and golf courses were closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You have to be pretty precise at the bottom of your swing to catch the bottle cap,” Stanford coach Anne Walker said.
The drills also helped Zhang continue to develop another skill: feel.
“She has good mechanics, obviously, but just an immense amount of feel,” Walker said. “I think where I saw that show up a lot was some of the shots she chose to hit, especially around the greens. It’s not something someone taught you. It’s not like because you understand the mechanics you’re going to be able to hit that shot. It’s purely because there’s something inside of you that created that shot.”
One of the biggest changes for Zhang over the past few months on the LPGA Tour has been finding the time on the range to continue to dial in her swing. There are increasing requests from the media and sponsors. Callaway, Delta, Rolex, AT&T and Uswing, the golf sunglasses that Phil Mickelson wears, are among her biggest sponsors.
“It’s been pretty hectic,” Zhang said. “Definitely have a lot more on my plate than I ever have before. I have a great team around me that can navigate it for me. At the same time, there’s people on tour who are really experienced with doing this for a living, they’re veterans in the game and they’ve really helped me in managing what I need to do, what I need to prioritize.”
More than anything else, according to Walker, Zhang loves the journey and isn’t as focused on results.
“I think one of the things that gets lost in this is, I’ve said this before, it wouldn’t have mattered what sport Rose was playing,” Walker said. “She would’ve been good at it because she has a work ethic that is pretty unmatched. Rose Zhang loves the journey. She loves the grind and because of that, she’s never going to be that far off, right? The kids that end up far off in any sport, it’s because they get attached to the outcomes or they live and die on the wins and losses or the score. No way. She loves the grind. The harder the grind, the more she flourishes.”
Along with Lewis, Solheim Cup veterans Lexi Thompson and Danielle Kang will be helping Zhang find her way in Spain this week. She hasn’t been overwhelmed on any stage in her career so far, and Walker isn’t expecting anything different.
“I think this is a new stage for her,” Walker said. “I think the difference is that Rose for the last decade has been a big fish in a small pond and now she’s just one of many fish, right? All those women are exceptional. They’re all world-class. They’ve all been world number one-ish [in the world], give or take. They’ve all won on tour. Many of them have won majors.
“I think knowing Rose, she’s not going into this week expecting herself to be the star or to even be a huge part of it. She’s going to do whatever she can, but I know Rose well enough to know that she’s going into this week thinking, ‘I need to soak up as much as I can, learn as much as I can from those around me, make sure I’m as prepared as I can be for Captain Stacy. Do whatever I can for this team.'”
That’s Rose being Rose.