After Monday’s final stroke play qualifying round at the NCAA championships, the Stanford women’s golf team and rookie Rose Zhang found themselves in a familiar position: on top.

Stanford finished the event with a total of nine over par, three strokes ahead of No. 2 Oregon, to secure the No. 1 seed for match play. Zhang also posted a six-under par to win college golf’s biggest individual tournament.

While the victories come as no surprise to many – Stanford are the No. 1 ranked team in the country and Zhang the No. 1 ranked amateur in the world – they are the culmination of a season-long battle to stay at the top.

Head coach Anne Walker saw her team get off to a dream start in the fall, when they won all four of their tournaments. Meanwhile, Zhang began her college career setting records, earning medalist honors in each of her first three starts.

But then came a difficult period for the Cardinal. During a team practice in December, Zhang fractured her toe when someone dropped a 15-pound weight on it. Later in the spring, sophomore Rachel Heck, defending Annika Award winner and NCAA champion, dealt with a non-COVID-19 illness that sidelined her for multiple tournaments.

Through it all, the Cardinal maintained the top ranking in the nation and won the Gunrock Invitational. Then the team suffered a series of narrow defeats.

Stanford finished second at the Juli Inkster Invitational before placing third at the Ping ASU Invitational and second at the Pac-12 Championships and NCAA Regional Championships. There’s no doubt that those are great tournament results, but it wasn’t the same kind of dominance the team displayed in the fall.

This week’s victories in the NCAA’s stroke play competition made a statement: if a team is to have a shot at winning the national title, they’ll have to go through Stanford first.

In Round 1 of the NCAA Championships, the Cardinal not only faced the best competition in the nation, but also battled the elements. With winds blowing up to 30 miles per hour, no team on the ground could beat par.

“We were prepared for this…we knew this was going to happen,” Walker said. GoStanford. “We talked about having to take advantage of opportunities when we had them because we knew we were going to be really challenged by the wind. It was even harder than I thought, but I’m very proud of the team. … throughout this incredible day.

Indeed, with an above-par team total in the first round, Stanford recorded the best score of seven strokes. Behind the Cardinal, No. 10 Florida State, No. 14 LSU and No. 17 Auburn all tied for second place.

Zhang took the individual lead with a four-under 68, one stroke ahead of Texas A&M’s Zoe Slaughter.

“I feel like I played the best I could given the conditions,” Zhang said after the round. “It was definitely a chore there.”

Englemann followed Zhang with a 71-under, bouncing back from a two-over-par start.

“Being in the national championship was a lot more pressure, a lot more nerves,” Englemann said. “But finishing two out of the front nine was honestly solid and kept me going.”

Seay and Krauter had matching scores of 75 to round out Stanford’s day one score.

Difficult course conditions persisted through round two and Stanford maintained their lead with a four-over-par score.

“It was so tough out there… I certainly know for our team it was tough, but they kept fighting until the very end,” Walker said after the round. “I think just seeing how they got home shows how much heart they have.”

During the second round, Zhang extended his lead to four shots with a two-under 70. After missing two of her first three holes, she bounced back and posted a four-under 32 on her closing nine.

If Stanford had survived the harsh conditions of the first two rounds, they thrived there during the third. The Cardinal recorded the lowest round of the four-day tournament, a five-under par 283, to extend his lead. Zhang shot his third consecutive under-par score to take a seven-shot lead.

“Being able to go out there and hold on to everything I had, I tried to play the first two holes as best I could,” Zhang said. GoStanford, after his tour. “It was obviously a really big grind there. I felt that just by being able to come in and stay committed to my game plan and stay committed to myself, I was hitting shot after shot and executing the way I wanted.

Just behind Zhang, Heck and Englemann posted scores of 70 to help the Cardinal cause in the third round.

Going into the fourth and final round of move play, Stanford held a nine-move lead. With the top eight teams advancing to match play, Stanford was all but guaranteed to make the cut. So the drama of the final round would come from the individual side.

Starting in the final group, Zhang pared the first hole and birdied the second to reach 10 under for the tournament. His lead was up to nine.

Then, uncharacteristically, Zhang faltered in the middle of his game. She made a double bogey on the fifth hole before back-to-back bogeys on the ninth and 10th.

As she entered the heart of the back nine, her lead was just three over Texas A&M’s Jennie Park, who was soaring after a four-under performance up front. What had once seemed like a sure thing to Zhang was starting to look uncertain; she would need to turn things around to retain Park and claim the national title.

But as Zhang has shown time and time again this season, there’s a reason she’s the best amateur in the world. On the par three 13th, she fired an iron shot less than a yard from the cup, birdieing a stress-free birdie to give her a four-stroke lead.

After this decisive blow, everything went well for Zhang. She bugged 15th but still enjoyed a three-stroke advantage. As she strode down the 18th fairway, victory was in plain sight – putting the ball in the hole was just a formality.

When she finally hit par at 18, she was able to breathe a sigh of relief and celebrate. Coach Walker was the first to greet her after the win, wrapping her in a hug and lifting her off her feet. Then her teammates stormed the green, spraying it with water.

In an interview with golf chain after the celebration, Zhang acknowledged that she had her “C game” in the final round, but managed to persevere to win the national title.

“It was really, really tough,” Zhang said of his final 75 lap. “I saw every inch of this golf course that I didn’t see the first three days.”

“I can’t even explain how important it is to me,” she said at the awards ceremony. “Just being able to be a national champion representing Stanford – that’s a lifetime goal.”

Zhang’s victory is the latest chapter in his already busy amateur career. Before entering college, she had already risen to No. 1 in the world rankings and won two United States Golf Association (USGA) titles.

With extremely high expectations heading into her first season, she met or exceeded them all, taking four wins and finishing four more runners-up. Now, by winning the NCAA individual title, she becomes only the 10th rookie to do so and the second champion in Stanford history. Last season, Heck became Stanford’s first individual champion.

Additionally, Zhang broke Heck’s NCAA scoring record from last year with his season average of 69.68. Zhang is also the first golfer to win both the U.S. Amateur Championship and the NCAA Championship since Emma Talley of Alabama in 2015.

Behind Zhang, the other four Stanford golfers finished in the top 40 of the ultra-competitive tournament. Tied for 27th, Krauter and Englemann were Stanford’s next top finishers.

Zhang wasn’t the only Stanford golfer to collect gear at the tournament. On Sunday, Seay received the Elite 90 award, which is given to the student-athlete with the highest cumulative grade point average at the venue of each NCAA championship. Seay, a human biology major, has a 4.0.

“Think of all the days of travel and commitment we have as a team. We’re a year-round sport; we’re not a seasonal sport. So for Brooke to do this – it’s absolutely amazing,” Walker said.

To end the week, Seay made an ace on the 16th, drilling a 129-yard pitching wedge.

Although all the accolades, including Zhang’s individual title and team victory in stroke play, are worthy of recognition, the tournament is far from over. Tomorrow morning, Stanford will face eighth-seeded Georgia in the quarterfinals.

The winner of the best-of-five match play competition will advance to face the winner of No. 4 UCLA and No. 5 Auburn in the afternoon. The first match, Heck vs. Georgia’s Jenny Bae, is scheduled for 7:10 a.m. PT.