A New Drive

Photos courtesy of Augusta National Golf Club

Epic final round buoys young careers of 2023 Augusta National Women’s Amateur playoff competitors

As patrons rushed to find the perfect vantage point for the first playoff hole of the 2023 Augusta National Women’s Amateur (ANWA), Jenny Bae and Rose Zhang couldn’t have imagined the impact the final round would make on their careers.

At the time, both golfers were rounding out their collegiate careers: Zhang, a Stanford University sophomore whose amateur achievements and acknowledgements outnumber the number of clubs in her bag, and Bae, a fifth-year senior at the University of Georgia who would receive the Juli Inkster Award, given to the top female collegiate golfer in her final season of eligibility. 

After dueling for 20 holes on a blustery Saturday, both would advance to rapid success in their respective tours, and the two will compete together in 2024 as Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour members. Their paths to the professional ranks were different, but both can be retraced to the tournament and an iconic finish.

Photo courtesy of Augusta National Golf Club.
Erica Shepherd

An Iconic Finish

Just hours before the playoff, a tie between the competitors looked all but impossible.

Zhang was the favorite heading into the tournament, a golfer who had held the No. 1 ranking for 133 straight weeks and had captured the 2020 U.S. Women’s Amateur, the 2021 U.S. Girls’ Junior and the 2022 individual National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) title. She broke the tournament record for 36 holes, shooting a two-day total of 131 heading into the final day, to take a 6-stroke lead over Bae.

“It’s always difficult to have such a big lead, especially on such a prestigious stage,” Zhang said. “When things matter the most and you have a big lead but the job’s not done, it definitely puts a lot of things into perspective. I tried to stay as composed as possible, but I felt a little tight on those first couple holes.”

And the first nine gave Zhang fits in the final round. She double bogeyed No. 1 before finishing 1-over-par on No. 4, No. 6 and No. 7. In the meantime, Bae was quietly doing enough to stay in the contest. The Suwanee, Ga. native played even par golf on the first nine, posting birdies on No. 3 and No. 9.

An approaching storm caused the horn to sound and play to cease for more than three hours; players rested as the rains continued. When the horn sounded again to resume play, competitors returned to the course and Bae looked to continue a comeback. The crowds stuck around to see a finish, and the gallery of patrons left an impression on Bae’s rounds from the start.

“I couldn’t even see my own family members because there were 10,000 or 15,000 or 20,000 people just right there staring at me,” Bae said. “I honestly froze a little bit. That feeling, back then, was on another level.”

After the break, both golfers claimed a birdie on No. 13, but Zhang’s bogey on No. 15 shrunk her lead to a single stroke. She changed grips to get out of her slump, but her thin approach shot on No. 15 opened the door for Bae.

“It wasn’t the smartest decision, but at that time I felt like any sort of lead needs to kind of be maintained,” Zhang said. “And I really trusted in the shot that I was going to hit. Unfortunately, it did not happen that way. And I really made things more interesting in terms of the leaderboard.”

Bae shot a birdie on No. 17, tying Zhang on the leaderboard with a hole to go. Both players parred to finish the round, but there would be more golf on the agenda.

In sudden death, both players parred No. 18 for the second time of the day, sending the match to another hole. On No. 10, Bae was the first to blink after her approach found the bushes and subsequent chip shot found the bunker. Zhang’s par would win the playoff and tournament.

Despite the loss, Bae nearly accomplished an improbable comeback. Zhang’s victory proved she was worth the pre-tournament hype.

“With everyone watching, with all the expectations, it was a little difficult to do so,” Zhang said, “but I’m really proud of how I handled everything.”

Photo courtesy of Augusta National Golf Club.
Carolina Melgrati and Ingrid Lindblad

A Path Diverged

As successful as her amateur career ended — back-to-back NCAA Individual Championships, back-to-back ANNIKA Awards and the 2023 ANWA title — Zhang’s professional career began with the same rhythm.

She made her LPGA debut in June 2023, competing in the Mizuho Americas Open in Jersey City, N.J. Similar to her ANWA title, she played below-par golf leading up to the final round, where she shot 2-over-par and found herself in a playoff over fellow American Jennifer Kupcho.

But again, in a playoff, she prevailed.

The 20-year-old became the first player to win while making their professional debut since Beverly Hanson in 1951, capturing the title on a second playoff hole. The victory would be her only of the 2023 LPGA tour, but it doesn’t cast doubt on the success of her rookie campaign. Zhang made the cut in 12 of the 13 tournaments in which she competed, totaling $1,389,794 in prize money and cracking the top 10 on six occasions. She went on to represent the United States during the 2023 Solheim Cup.

While Zhang’s ANWA victory might have overshadowed Bae’s comeback, the Bulldog alumna took a different route. Bae joined the Epson Tour, a developmental tour for the LPGA Tour, taking advantage of the opportunity that came with her Juli Inkster Award.

After being cut in her debut, Bae played three stellar rounds in the Hartford HealthCare Women’s Championship but found herself tied for the lead with Minji Kang and Ssu-Chia Cheng. What followed was a 7-hole playoff, but this time, she was able to draw from the memories and moments from ANWA to guide her through the biggest point of her career to that point.

“Obviously there’s not as many spectators on tour compared to the Augusta National Amateur,” Bae said. “But the feeling was so surreal it stuck with me for quite a while.”

The feeling must have been enough, as Bae equaled her peers in the first half-dozen playoff holes before hitting an approach shot on the seventh that would lead to a birdie and a title. 

A week later, Bae claimed the Twin Bridges Championship in Guilderland, N.Y., although it wouldn’t come without its own fair share of drama. Once again she found herself in a playoff, this time beating out Natasha Andrea Oon in five holes of free golf. The two tour victories capped a successful season, one that saw two additional top-10 finishes and 9 of 11 cuts made.

A New Outlook

In 2024, Bae will make the jump to the LPGA ranks. Her year with the Epson Tour and interactions with future LPGA players have given her a new awareness of the industry. It’s not mere points on the line, but instead rankings, money and making a career of the game.

“In college, everything is planned,” Bae said. “All you have to do is get a cart, get another player and go out and play the best you can. In your professional career, you have to follow everything up, make sure everything goes perfectly, and I think that is one of the most stressful things that I’ve had to deal with out here.”

But as Zhang and Bae compete and deal with the troubles of professional play, they both can trace their careers back to the 2023 ANWA and a final round that gives them perspective. While not every stage is as grand as Augusta National Golf Club, Bae still remembers the roars of the crowd from that pivotal point in her young career.

“I would put it in a way that it’s like a once-in-a-lifetime feeling that you’ll ever have,” Bae said. “To me on 17, when I stopped my perfect shot with about two feet and all I saw and heard was people screaming and roaring from left and right, I was happy, I guess for them to scream and yell that loud. I got chills down my back.”

Seen in the 2024 April issue of Augusta magazine and the Augusta magazine Tournament Guide

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