PINEHURST, N.C. — As the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open tees off Thursday, women’s golf has the timing, venue and intrigue to create the most interest in the game in recent memory, and perhaps ever.
The Women’s Open is immediately following the men’s U.S. Open on the same course for the first time in its 69-year history.
The venue is legendary Donald Ross design Pinehurt No. 2, which was dramatically restored by designers Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore in 2011 and has hosted the men’s U.S. Open three times in the past 15 years.
And a resurgence of American female players in the past couple years to battle the continued presence of Asian stars including Inbee Park of South Korea and Yani Tseng of Taiwan for supremacy on the LPGA Tour has created a buzz the tour has lacked for several years.
“First of all, it’s a great opportunity,” said Texas native Stacy Lewis, the top-ranked woman in the world. “I think any time Rickie [Fowler] and Phil [Mickelson] and those guys are talking about women’s golf, I think it’s a great thing, and that’s really what we accomplished last week.
“… I saw [Hall of Famer] Pat Bradley and she just had the biggest grin on her face, and she’s like, ‘Is this not the coolest thing ever? During my generation this would have never happened.’”
Lewis, 29, has led the American charge, taking over the No. 1 spot in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings from Park earlier this month following a pair of wins this year. All of her 10 wins, which include two major championships, have come in the past 3½ seasons and she has 11 top-10 finishes in 13 events this season.
At this time last year, Lewis was the only American in the top 10 in the world, and there were three in the top 15 and five in the top 20.
Today, there are three in the top 10 in Lewis, Lexi Thompson at No. 6 and Cristie Kerr at No. 10, six in the top 15 and eight in the top 20.
“It's not coming, it's here,” Kerr said of the American resurgence. “I think it's huge for us. We're a global tour, but still we're based in the U.S. Even when a lot of the Korean players were winning and Americans didn't seem to get a lot of wins under their belt, we knew we were close and we all collectively were like just supporting each other. We're really good. So, we weren't going to stay down for very long.
“… It's very big for our tour that we do that, so it's great to see.”
Americans who have won on tour this year include Lewis twice; 21-year-old Jessica Korda twice; Paula Creamer, 27; Thompson, 19; and Michelle Wie, 24.
Kerr, 36, who has a 6-month-old son, hasn’t won this season but has seven top-10s in 11 starts and finished second two weeks ago in the Manulife Financial LPGA Classic with a closing 63.
She has 16 LPGA Tour wins and has had success in Pinehurst. In Women’s Opens at nearby Pine Needles, she finished as the low amateur in 1996, tied for fourth in 2001 and won in 2007, claiming a two-shot win over Lorena Ochoa and Angela Park. “I have a lot of great memories in this area,” Kerr said.
Wie has made one of the biggest moves in the past year, from No. 79 to No. 11 with her win in April, a runner-up, two thirds and a fourth. Wie hasn’t finished outside the top 25 in her 12 events this year, and is the closest thing the women’s game has to Tiger Woods.
“I can see a little passion in her of wanting to play,” two-time U.S. Women’s Open winner Juli Inkster said. “… She's got great skills. I think it's great for our game because the media, fan base, they know Michelle Wie, and when she's in contention, our ratings go up. That kind of says it all.”
Americans still have plenty of competition on the LPGA Tour. Australian Hall of Famer Karrie Webb and Swede Anna Nordqvist have each won twice this season, and South Korea-born Lydia Ko, who now resides in New Zealand, won for the third consecutive season despite being just 17.
Tseng, 25, is a winner of 15 LPGA Tour events, including five majors, the last two in 2011 when she won seven times. She hasn’t won since 2012, but may have found her game with a runner-up five weeks ago in the Kingsmill Championship.
Though Lewis is No. 1, Park, 25, is the defending champion and is probably still the player to beat this week.
She won the first three majors of the year in 2013 capped by the Women’s Open, won a total of six times last year, and is coming off her first win of 2014 two weeks ago.
Park is one of the game’s great putters, and looked at film of her four-shot win in the Women’s Open last year over I.K. Kim at Sebonack Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y., to recently regain her putting touch. “I just really tried to go back to my old stroke,” Park said.
Putting and short game will play a huge role this week around Pinehurst’s turtle-back greens and tightly-mown collection areas.
“I think at Pinehurst No. 2, the game is around the greens,” Park said. “First, you have to try to hit the greens, but obviously it's really tough to hit the greens around this golf course. I think it's a matter of getting up and down and having different strategies around the greens, different clubs around the greens.”
The official yardage listed is 6,649 for the women, which is about 900 yards shorter than last week. But if the men are any indication, it’s doubtful the USGA will play it at that distance and will move tees around daily.
The USGA has also been softening the greens because the women as a group don’t hit it as high or with as much spin as the men. “Green firmness is the biggest change you'll see from week one to week two,” said Ben Kimball, director of the Women’s Open. “We feel confident with that plan. We intend to put down water on all putting green surfaces on a nightly basis, that way we can manage firmness properly throughout the course of the week.”
Because of the uniqueness of Pinehurst as a Women’s Open site with fairways lined by native areas containing sand, hard pan, wire grass and weeds, and the demands that will be put on players’ games this week, many believe a past Open champion will earn another victory. “I don't think it's going to be a first timer for some reason,” Inkster said. “I think it's going to be someone that's won before. I think there are just a lot of intangibles out there that you've got to really know what you're doing.”
The trophy presentation will cap a potentially huge week for women’s golf.
“I really didn't know what to expect, us playing after the men,” said Inkster, playing in her 35th Women’s Open. “… And it has turned out great. There's are some spots, but you can't even tell that the men were here the week before, except for the huge tents and everything.
“I have to say I haven't heard one bad thing. I've heard nothing but positives.”