A year shy of Rose Zhang’s breakthrough victory at the Mizuho Americas Open, the 20-year-old made history again in New Jersey. Zhang’s first-round bogey-free 63 at the Cognizant Founders Cup tied the tournament record, giving her a two-stroke lead over Madelene Sagstrom. Zhang topped her career-best by two strokes.

“It was almost just auto-command kind of golf,” Zhang said. “I feel like in the last couple weeks it’s been a little bit difficult. I’ve been struggling a little bit with the golf swing and gaining confidence in my preparation. But going into this week I kind of let it all go; let the expectations go a little bit more. I was able to free myself up a little bit, which was really nice to see some shots go in, especially on the greens. I was able to get some putting momentum in, so it was really nice.”

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Zhang posted nine birdies with only 25 putts at Upper Montclair Country Club. She started her year at the Fir Hills Seri Pak Championship at the end of March, playing on the LPGA at only the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions in early January while taking classes during the Stanford winter quarter. Zhang wrapped up her finals during the start of the week at Palos Verdes Golf Club.

Since starting her season full-time, Zhang has yet to show the consistency that defined her rookie season. She has not strung together two made cuts, missing the weekend at the Ford and Chevron Championships. That’s the same number of missed cuts she had over 14 starts in 2023.

“I feel like especially, even though I’m on a leave of absence right now, the last couple weeks it’s still been a little bit of the aftermath of not sleeping and grinding in school,” Zhang said.

Zhang had only 11 putts on her front nine, birdieing Nos. 6-9 to go out in six under par. Closing out the back nine to get her round to nine under gave Zhang proof that she can go that low, her 63 topping her previous best of 65 at last year’s Toto Japan Classic and Maybank Championship.

“It’s pretty big actually,” Zhang said. “Just because I know that the number’s out there for me, and if I’m able to get dialed in and do what I need to prior to playing an event, and also even just during the event, at least the number’s out there and I can kind of let free a little bit more to play my own game.”

The career day comes at a pivotal time in the calendar for Zhang’s Olympic aspirations. The field will be finalized after the finish of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship on June 23, and she’s currently on the outside looking in. Zhang is No. 22 in the Rolex Rankings, and to qualify for Paris, she needs to be either one of the top two Americans or one of the top four and is inside the top 15 in the world rankings. The top two spots are held by American Nelly Korda and Lilia Vu. Megan Khang (No. 14) currently rounds out the trio that is qualified, and Alison Lee (16), Allisen Corpuz (19) and Angel Yin (21) are all ahead of Zhang.

With Zhang’s title defense at Liberty National coming next week, a strong New Jersey swing can be just what she needs to move into Olympic position. Zhang, however, doesn’t want to get ahead of herself.

“I think the next couple days it’s just me trying to play the best that I can, and I think you never really know what’s going to happen,” Zhang said. “You never really know what’s going to happen, especially with golf being such an up and down sport.”

This article was originally published on golfdigest.com