PINEHURST, N.C. — It appears Stephanie Meadow made a smart decision in becoming a professional last Sunday.
Meadow, a Belfast, Northern Ireland, native who has called Hilton Head Island home for the past eight years, shot a pair of 69s on the weekend to finish alone in third place in the U.S. Women’s Open at 1-over 281. She finished three strokes behind winner Michelle Wie and one behind world No. 1 Stacy Lewis.
“It’s been an amazing week,” Meadow said. “I couldn’t have pictured a better way to start my professional career. It was a dream come true.”
Meadow capped her week by holing a 25-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole at Pinehurst No. 2 to collect $271,373 in her first pro paycheck.
Meadow, 22, has lived in Hilton Head Island since she moved to the U.S. at the age of 14 to attend the Hank Haney International Junior Golf Academy on the island.
She was a four-time Golfweek First-Team All-American at Alabama and helped the Crimson Tide win the 2012 NCAA Championship. She finished the 2013 and 2014 college seasons ranked No. 2 by Golfweek and Golfstat.
“I didn't really have expectations, I just wanted to go out and see where I was,” Meadow said. “I knew I was playing well. I work with Vision 54 and my coach, Nick Potter, and my dad, who is also my coach, we all talked about what I wanted to do and the main thing was just be myself and play my game and I knew that my game could be up here against the best in the world and I've proven that, obviously.
“… I've worked my whole life for this, so you've got to enjoy it.”
Meadow got into the Open as an alternate from a California sectional and has some lofty goals. “I want to win majors; I want to be No. 1 in the world some day,” she said.
Meadow had the added experience of playing Sunday alongside 53-year-old two-time U.S. Women’s Open champion Juli Inkster, who completed her 35th and final U.S. Women’s Open and was warmly greeted at every tee box and green Sunday.
Meadow has already started enjoying the spoils of playing professionally. “I learned having a caddie is really nice,” she said.
She is hoping to receive some sponsor exemptions on the LPGA Tour for the remainder of the year, and has yet to choose an agent.
A resounding success
The USGA’s experiment with holding the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens in consecutive weeks on the same golf course got positive reviews from just about everyone involved.
“My first thought is wow,” said Dan Burton, vice-president of the USGA and chairman of its championship committee. “If you let me write a script about how I would dream it to go, that's how it went. Just an absolutely wonderful two weeks, great golf. I think we achieved every objective we could have possibly set out to enumerate.”
The women were generally pleased with the course conditions despite having to follow the men, and the events ran smoothly operationally.
“It was a big gamble and they came out on top,” Morgan Pressel said. “They should go to a casino. They USGA did a good job of keeping the golf course in check with the men and I think it worked out real well.”
The USGA also got lucky with little interference from the weather, other than heat that bordered on oppressive this past Thursday and Friday and a couple minor weather delays in play, and the avoidance of a men’s Monday 18-hole playoff.
“Mother Nature gave us a big, big break. We got to control the situation,” USGA executive director Mike Davis said.
If it happens again it won’t happen until at least 2019, as the Women’s Open is scheduled through 2018 and the men’s through 2021. “It was a fabulous week,” Wie said. “I think it's a great idea. I hope they do it more often.”
Long and short of it
After Pinehurst No. 2 played no shorter than 7,350 yards for the men’s U.S. Open, it was advertised to be a 6,649-yard course for the women, but never reached 6,300 in the four U.S. Women’s Open rounds.
The layout played its shortest Sunday at just 6,153 yards, with two drivable par-4s measuring 240 or less and the par-5 10th set up at 452 yards. Michelle Wie reached it with an 8-iron to set up an eagle.
The USGA set up the course for the women with the help of data collected during the men’s event, and adjusted during the week. Some would have preferred a longer course requiring more drivers off tee boxes.
“Playing the practice round, I played the tees from all the way back, figuring it was going to be playing there, with it being a major,” said 19-year-old Lexi Thompson, who leads the LPGA Tour in driving distance with a nearly 280-yard average. “I was having a lot of mid to long irons in, which I really liked, which I'm pretty much always used to in a major, especially a Women's Open. So it did play a lot different in the actual rounds. I would have liked to have seen it play a little bit longer but it played the same for everybody.”
Gap in popularity
Having the Opens on the same course also highlighted the advanced popularity of the men’s game compared to the women’s.
Though the women’s event didn’t have bad attendance, it was dwarfed by the men’s event, and men’s tickets were much more expensive and sold out. The USGA predicted about 50,000 daily for the men and 20,000-25,000 for the women. It appeared the men hit their number, the women may have.
Wie was among several female players who saw the popularity of the men’s game firsthand last week, including Sunday’s final round when many of them were on the grounds and following some play inside the ropes.
Many of the grandstands that lined the left side of the 18th fairway near the green were broken down by workers after the men’s tournament finished.
“We're definitely on the upswing, but obviously seeing the big grandstands of the men, seeing that there are 400,000 people watching the men last week and then kind of directly comparing that to us, it really puts attention to how much more we can get better,” Wie said. “It really puts attention to kind of our goal. If we want to get up there, we want 400,000 people watching us, we want this many more sponsor tents, I think it really puts it in perspective of where we want to get to. So I think it definitely pushes us a lot harder when we see that, face-to-face. I think it motivates all of us.”
Champion bows out
Inkster was unable to create any magic Sunday in her 117th and final U.S. Open round. The two-time Open champion and winner of 31 LPGA Tour events began the final round tied for third and four shots behind Wie and Amy Kang, and played in the penultimate twosome.
But she shot a 75 to tie for 15th at 7-over 287. Inkster, who turns 54 on Tuesday, said her 35th U.S. Open is her last and she believes the time is right. She’ll play a very limited schedule this year and next.
“I still hit the ball relatively good, it just my concentration and I hit a few loose ones and miss a couple short putts, and you just can't win that way,” Inkster said. “And that's kind of what I do. So I'm just not as sharp as I used to be. But I still really, really enjoy playing golf.”
She appreciated the crowd support on each hole that began with a rousing ovation when she was announced on the first tee, and ended when several players joined the gallery at the 18th green to salute her.
“They were so pulling for me, but it's really hard to acknowledge them when you're 5-over par and struggling,” she said. “It was very nice, especially the reception on No. 1 tee and reception on 18, and all around the golf course. It was great. I’m very, very, very honored.”
Matthew gets hot
Catriona Matthew of Scotland, a 44-year-old four-time winner on the LPGA Tour, had the most impressive stretch of golf Sunday, playing the stretch of seven holes from the fifth through the 11th 6-under par without a par in the mix as part of a 4-under 66.
Matthew birdied the fifth, sixth and seventh holes, bogeyed the eighth, birdied the ninth, eagled the 10th and birdied the 11th.
“I played well every day, but I just got a few lucky breaks today, had a few shots that just ran in close on like [holes] 5 and 10,” Matthew said. “So there's so many holes you can never really go at the pins, so I just hit a few fortunate, perhaps, bounces that just ran up to the hole a little bit today.”
Matthew had a 69 in the second round, but also a pair of 75s in the first and third rounds to tie for 10th at 5-over 285. She didn’t have her sights set on the 66, which tied Inkster and Lewis for the tournament low.
“If I'm being honest, I would have taken even par today,” Matthew said.