PINEHURST, N.C. — Being reasonable, Conway native Kristy McPherson should have a conservative outlook on her chances for a strong finish this week in the 69th U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst No. 2.
She hasn’t finished inside the top 50 in her last 10 events.
But McPherson isn’t content with being reasonable. She has been looking forward to a U.S. Open being as close to home as it may ever be since it was announced in 2009 that the women would follow the men at Pinehurst, and she plans to make the best of the opportunity.
“When you look at my year so far and look at stats and stuff, you’d probably call me crazy, but I have really high expectations here,” McPherson said. “I like this golf course. The harder the golf course the better I like it. I’m never going to be in a shootout kind of tournament. I like when par is a good score. The U.S. Open is my kind of golf.”
McPherson is finally playing pain free for the first time in about four years. Now she has to get accustomed to playing pain free.
After three consecutive winters in which she had an operation or medical procedure on a troublesome left elbow, it hasn’t been touched by a surgeon since an operation in November 2012 to repair tears in ligaments and remove scar tissue, and she played through at least mild pain through much of 2013.
“I’m better than I’ve been now in four years. It doesn’t hurt at all. It’s really good,” McPherson said. “I’m still trying to figure out how to swing a golf club with a healthy elbow. After four years where you’re protecting it, you get in such bad habits. I’ve got no excuses now. I just have to figure out how to play golf.
“I’ve been hitting it a lot better the last couple months and playing a little more consistent, so it’s going in the right direction. Then you’ve got the confidence part of it. It would help to see a few good scores posted to give you a little confidence here and there.”
Those scores have been few and far between for McPherson in 2014.
She began the year promisingly with a tie for 18th in the season-opening event in the Bahamas to earn more than $15,000. But she has made just three of 10 cuts since with a top finish of 55th, which she recorded in her last start two weeks ago in the Manulife Financial LPGA Classic in Ontario, Canada.
“I got into a little funk. A lot of it is confidence,” McPherson said. “When you’re just trying to get through and make cuts and have been struggling, you get out of trying to compete and really working the ball and hitting golf shots. It hasn’t been great mentally but it has been getting better lately.”
McPherson, 32, has shown she’s capable of being one of the top players on the LPGA Tour. Prior to the elbow issues, the South Carolina graduate finished 16th on the LPGA money list in her third year on tour in 2009 with more than $800,000 in earnings and played on the victorious 2009 U.S. Solheim Cup Team.
That year, she tied for second, fifth and seventh in major championships, and capped her season with a tie for third in the LPGA Tour Championship.
She fell to 27th on the money list in 2010 when the problems began, 56th in 2011, 82nd in 2012 and 83rd last year. She’s 108th on the 2014 money list with $25,600 earned.
McPherson has always been one of the tour’s shorter hitters and is 159th in driving distance with a 233-yard average, though she has hit the fairway 77 percent of the time to rank 36th in driving accuracy. The most glaring stat is she’s hitting only 63 percent of greens in regulation to rank 141st.
“That’s probably the most influential stat on your scoring average, and obviously I’ve been down this year,” McPherson said. “Part of that was a mental thing, standing there swinging instead of knowing what you’re doing with the golf ball. I’m feeling better about it now.”
McPherson said she has made progress on her ball-striking and her approach to it with instructor Mike Wright at Shady Oaks Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, whom she has seen about five times this year. McPherson has always worked on her swing largely independently, with minimal instruction, so that’s more instruction than she’d typically receive.
“The last few weeks I’ve finally come up with what’s my go-to shot, what’s my consistent shot,” she said. “When you’re standing over it and you’re just trying to hit the golf ball and don’t have a shot in your head, it makes the game a lot harder.”
After breaking a driver she used for seven years, McPherson went through a few before finding a TaylorMade 430 SLDR that she likes and has used in her last handful of events.
“I haven’t had a driver I’ve liked in a long time,” she said. “I tried forever. Everybody was like, ‘Hit this, you get 10 more yards,’ and ‘Hit this, you get 15 more yards.’ You know, I decided I’d rather hit it straight. I can’t find anything that can give me 10 or 15 more yards until I figure out how to swing the club 10 or 15 miles per hour faster.”
She also found a TaylorMade Spider mallet putter last week that she likes. It has a slightly longer shaft than a traditional putter. McPherson has alternated between a long putter and traditional-length putter for a few years, and is 19th on tour in putting average with 29.67 putts per round, and 61st in putts per green in regulation with an average of 1.83.
“It’s nice when you feel confident because out here it’s going to be very important to make the 6- and 8-footers and it’s going to be very important to hit fairways, so feeling better about those two for the first time in a long time helps a lot,” she said. “It takes a little pressure off your golf game.”
McPherson, one of the more popular players with her peers on tour, has made four cuts in six previous U.S. Open appearances, with a tie for 19th in 2010 at Oakmont Country Club her top finish. She was in solid position at 5 over through 54 holes last year at Sebonack Country Club in Southampton, N.Y., before shooting a final-round 6-over 78 to tie for 36th.
“It’s a tournament you have to be really patient and have a good temperament, and I feel half the girls beat themselves before we even tee it up. They’re already mentally checked out of it,” McPherson said. “I feel I have the right attitude and right mindset and I’m ready to play, and I feel like I know what I’m doing with my golf ball now.”
McPherson qualified for the Open by shooting a 36-hole total of 144 at a sectional qualifier in Virginia. “Playing here was one of my big goals. It’s going to be fun,” she said. She has arranged to have passes for about 20 people, including her parents, brother, sister and other relatives and friends.
She already possesses a trophy from Pinehurst No. 2, as she was a medalist in the stroke-play portion of the 2003 North & South Women’s Amateur in one of her two appearances in that tournament. “I do have a Putter Boy in the trophy case at home, so that’s always nice to have,” McPherson said.
But the course is now drastically different since a restoration by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore in 2011. She didn’t see much of the men’s Open coverage, but she was on the course during the final round Sunday. She played 18 holes Monday and 12 Tuesday before play was suspended for a thunderstorm, and plans up to nine more Wednesday.
“[Monday] put a little bit of fear in all of us, but that’s what you’ve got three days [of practice] for,” McPherson said. “You can’t hit every shot that you need to hit here. There’s no way you can do it.
“I’ll try to hit it in spots that I marked down in my book. You’ve got a lot of red Xs in books for where you don’t want to be on these holes. I’m going to make bogeys this week, but you have to be okay with it and keep grinding, and that’s the kind of golf I like.”