SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – Just when we thought the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship was all about a certain 20-year-old, another stepped in. Rose Zhang, who is 20, made an admirable run at going two-for-two in her brief time as a pro on the LPGA. Kudos to her. But Sunday’s trophy at the KPMG Women's PGA Championship went home with Ruoning Yin, a promising 20-year-old from China.
In a final round that was interrupted for about two hours by rain and very conducive to better scoring, Yin stayed patient and turned it on late, making four birdies over her final six holes, including an uphill 12-footer at the last that carried her to her first major victory at Baltusrol Golf Club’s storied Lower Course.
Yin finished with a 4-under 67 for a 72-hole total of 8-under 276, one shot better than Japan’s Yuka Saso, who had made birdie in the group ahead of Yin to finish on 7-under 277. At 18, a 500-yard par 5 protected by water down the left, Yin bailed right off the tee, laid up out of the rough, and wedged to 12 feet below the hole. The putt wanted to move right, and turned left at the finish, and was read perfectly by Yin and her caddie. Both knew it was money as soon as it left the putter.
“I just putted a very clutch putt,” Yin said, all but shrugging her shoulders, as if she is ready to do a whole lot more of this. Yin, who lives and practices in Orlando and won her first LPGA title (DIO Implant LA Open) earlier this season, becomes only the second player from China to win a major, joining Shanshan Feng, who won this tournament – then known as the LPGA Championship – 11 years earlier.
Had becoming a major champion at 20 – something some expected Zhang might do this week – even begun to sink in?
“Not really,” Yin said. “When I was walking to this tent (to meet with the media), I just said, ‘Oh, wow, major winner.’ It's amazing. It's just unreal.
After three very challenging days on the Lower Course, Sunday turned into a bit of a shootout. Birdies started to fly. At times, there were 10 players who stood within two shots of the lead, which was held most of the day by Xiyu Lin, seeking her first LPGA victory, who played her opening nine holes in a blistering 5-under 30. Starting at No. 1, she birdied every other hole through the ninth. Then the birdies stopped coming, and she drive into water on the 72nd hole led to bogey, allowing others to enter the picture.
Saso, the 2021 U.S. Open champion, heated up on her back nine and made a run. Trying to find old form, Saso shot 66 on Sunday, her best round of the week, finishing alone in second. Five players tied for third: Spain’s Carlota Ciganda, who began Sunday tied for 26th, made a run. (Her 64 included a drive that finished in the water at the final hole, where she settled for par.) Meadow stuck around, but needed eagle at the final hole to get to 8 under, and did't pull off the approach. Sweden’s Anna Nordqvist, a three-time major champion, closed hard just two days after making the cut on the number. Megan Khang (67) also finished in that pack.
And of course, making a Sunday charge was Zhang, the phenom from Stanford who won in her debut as an LPGA pro just weeks ago in this state. She started well back, but made some noise, too, as she has a habit of doing. Zhang birdied her opening two holes, then added birdies at Nos. 7, and 8, and 10. When Zhang got to 6 under, she was within one shot of the lead. She was like a lightning bolt moving through the crowd, but the moment never seemed too big for her.
“I guess I feel like it's still golf, so I still felt the same energy as any other event except this is major week, and the golf course is a lot harder,” said Zhang, a 12-time winner in two years at Stanford, including back-to-back NCAA individual titles.
Zhang spent 136 weeks as the world’s top-ranked amateur, and now that she is a pro, it’s been more of the same. Two starts, and she has been first and T-8. She would fall back with two costly bogeys down the stretch, at the par-4 13th and at the par-3 16th, where she short-sided herself in a bunker. She finished three shots behind Yin. Next stop: U.S. Women’s Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links.
“You have to be on your toes at all times,” Zhang said. “Losing a little bit of focus causes you to have errors, and that's just something you can't afford at a major championship.”
That’s OK. The golf gods happened to have another magical 20-year-old waiting in the wings. Yin had an incredible ball-striking week – she hit 36-of-36 greens in regulation on the weekend – and it was just a matter of seeing a putt fall. Through 10 holes she had 20 putts. Finally, she found a birdie at 13, and added another on the next hole.
“She is so awesome, so determined to be the best,” said her caddie, Jon Lehman, who has been on her bag for two weeks. Call it good timing. Lehman, 39, had been caddying mostly on the Korn Ferry Tour for the last decade. He was with Noah Goodwin for about five or six tournaments. He stayed in New Jersey after Yin competed at the ShopRite to scout out Baltusrol, and got to know the Lower Course very well.
“Automatically, I could tell her ball-striking, her demeanor and everything else was so far ahead of everyone else. She’s very special," Lehman said. "She’s wise beyond her years, and she plays like a 30-year-old, or 35-year-old. I kept on telling her through 10 holes, stay patient, you’re rolling it great, the putts are going to start falling. I was trying to keep it positive. ... Even this week, she had five three-putts. It was nice to see her overcome that.”
There is no shortage of history at Baltusrol, a club that dates to 1895. The last women’s major played on the Lower was the 1961 U.S. Women’s Open, which was won by Mickey Wright, a legendary LPGA ball-striker and champion. Jack Nicklaus won two U.S. Opens on the Lower, 13 years apart. Phil Mickelson won a PGA here. Now, Yin can be added to that roll call of champions.
Yin got excited just thinking of all that history, and all those names. She becomes a permanent part of the club's great lore, her pictures to be hung up inside the majestic clubhouse that stands next to some of the most important turf in the game.
“Even I think about that right now, I've got goosebumps,” Yin said. “They're all legends. I'm glad that I can be part of it.”
It wasn’t easy. Becoming a part of history never is.