The opening act for the big show, the 2018 U.S. Women’s Open, is named Alberto.
As in Subtropical Storm Alberto, predicted to be a big rainmaker as it comes in from the Gulf of Mexico and aims right at central Alabama and Shoal Creek, the course on the outskirts of Birmingham that will become the first Alabama site for a U.S. Women’s Open.
Best-case scenarios had Shoal Creek shutting down for practice rounds and to spectators for part of the day on Tuesday of tournament week. With the course having already received close to three inches of rain in the week prior to Alberto, conditions could become a long-term problem extending into the competition schedule if Alberto brings the worst of its wind and rain to town.
Shoal Creek is a long and heavily forested course, measuring in at 6,689 yards for this week. It was always going to favor longer hitters, as U.S. Women’s Opens often do, but a truly saturated golf course could present problems both for competition and logistics.
This comes as the women of the LPGA Tour, who make up most of the 156-player field, have already experienced rain-shortened events twice already in May, while last week’s Volvik Championship managed four full rounds, but experienced weather delays.
Defending champ Sung Hyun Park, the current No. 4-ranked player in the Rolex World Rankings, won the U.S. Women’s Open in her first try as a rookie last year. She also won one of the rain-shortened events earlier this month, the Volunteers of America LPGA Texas Classic. She’s one of the field’s longest drivers, currently ranking third in distance on the LPGA tour at 274.8 yards off the tee.
Three other players who are in the world top 10 and also in the top 10 in LPGA driving distance are world No. 3 Lexi Thompson, world No. 5 Ariya Jutanugarn and world No. 10 Jessica Korda. Each of them come to Birmingham looking for their first Open titles.
In all, there are 10 previous U.S. Women’s Open champions in the 2018 field. Among those players, only two besides Sung Hyun Park are in the current world’s top 10 — world No. 1 Inbee Park, who won titles in 2008 and 2013, and world No. 6 So Yeon Ryu, the 2011 champion.
The USGA, which runs the U.S. Women’s Open, has never implemented lift, clean and place rulings at any previous U.S. Open, be it men’s or women’s. Their commitment to that principle could be tested to the utmost degree this week, and if we have an Open that will be decided by a bunch of mudballs, winning could become as much a matter of survival as skill.
Tournament: U.S. Women’s Open
Dates: May 31-June 3, 2018
Where: Shoal Creek, Ala.
Course: Shoal Creek
Distance: Par 72, 6,689 yards
Architect: Jack Nicklaus
Format: 72-holes, stroke play, 36-hole cut
Winning Share: $900,000
Defending Champion: Sung Hyun Park
Marquee Players: Sung Hyun Park, Inbee Park, Shanshan Feng, Lexi Thompson, Ariya Jutanugarn, So Yeon Ryu, I.K. Kim, Minjee Lee, Moriya Jutanugarn, Jessica Korda, Hye-Jin Choi, Cristie Kerr, In Gee Chun, Anna Nordqvist, Lydia Ko, Brooke M. Henderson, Jin Young Ko, Michelle Wie, Eun-Hee Ji, Ai Suzuki
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Not surprisingly, the U.S. Women’s Open was conceived well after the men’s event, but it is still rich in tradition, with this year’s Open being the 73rd edition.
The first U.S. Women’s Open was held in 1946 and won by Patty Berg, who to this day holds the LPGA record for major championship victories with 15. The first two decades of the U.S. Women’s Open were largely dominated by a small group of elite golfers which included Betsy Rawls, Mickey Wright and legendary all-around athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharias.
As the tournament has progressed it’s gained popularity for being the richest, and arguably most prestigious, event in women’s golf.
More recent Opens have brought winners like Hall-of-Famers Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb, Julie Inkster and Inbee Park into the spotlight.
The early winners were almost exclusively American, as only three of the first 40 Opens were won by non-Americans. However, as women’s golf has become more global that number as precipitously increased. The 2018 event will feature golfers from 27 different countries.
2017: Sung Hyun Park (-11)
2016: Brittany Lang (-6)
2015: In Gee Chun (-8)
2014: Michelle Wie (-2)
2013: Inbee Park (-8)
2012: Na Yeon Choi (-7)
2011: So Yeon Ryu (-3)
272 Annika Sorenstam (1996), Juli Inkster (1999), In Gee Chun (2015); (-16) Juli Inkster (1999)
4 – Betsy Rawls (1951, 1953, 1957, 1960), Mickey Wright (1958-59, 1961, 1964)
3 – Babe Zaharias (1958, 1950, 1954),
South Korean rookie Sung Hyun Park posted a final-round 5-under 67 at Trump National Golf Club to capture the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open Championship.
On the strength of matching weekend rounds of 67, the 23-year-old star finished at 11-under for the tournament, two strokes ahead of amateur Hye-Jin Choi (71), also of South Korea.
“I did not have the best first and second rounds,” Park said. “I wanted to believe in myself again for the final two rounds and I did.”
The win was Park’s first career LPGA title, and it gave her a huge edge in the Rolex Rookie of the Year race, an award she won at season’s end.
Mi Jung Hur (68) and So Yeon Ryu (70) tied for third at 7-under 281, making it an all South Korean final four.
China’s Shanshan Feng, who had led after each of the first three rounds, fell to fifth after a final-round 75.
Spain’s Carlota Ciganda (70) and Jeongeun6 Lee (71), from, you guessed it, South Korea, tied Feng at 6-under.
Three more South Koreans rounded out the top 10, tied at 5-under: Sei Young Kim (69), Mirim Lee (72), and Amy Yang (75).
FINAL TOP 10
1 Sung Hyun Park -11
2 Hye Jin Choi -9
3 Mi Jung Hur -7
3 So Yeon Ryu -7
5 Carlota Ciganda -6
5 Jeongeun Lee -6
5 Shanshan Feng -6
8 Sei Young Kim -5
8 Mirim Lee -5
8 Amy Yang -5
The biggest prize of the year has brought out all of the best players, with everyone in the current world top 20 on hand at Shoal Creek.
It would be unwise to discount the chances of world No. 1 Inbee Park. Despite her deliberate tempo and only ranking 92nd on the LPGA Tour in driving distance, she has found her way back to the top of the women’s golf world this season.
She’s already a two-time U.S. Women’s Open champion, and this year, she won an LPGA event at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, made it to a playoff in the year’s first major before finishing tied for second at the ANA Inspiration, has added two other top three finishes in the past month and, to top it off, went back to her native South Korea last week and took home the title at the 2018 Doosan Match Play Championship on the Korean LPGA Tour, an event that drew a number of other Korean LPGA stars.
Neither world No. 2 Shanshan Feng nor No. 3 Lexi Thompson comes to Shoal Creek on any kind of tear, although Thompson’s struggles in 2018 have been more pronounced than Feng’s. Thompson has yet to record a top 10 this year in any event since the LPGA Tour started the U.S. portion of its schedule.
How will defending champion Sung Hyun Park deal with the expectations game of trying to repeat? That’s hard to say. As mentioned above, she certainly has the length to take on Shoal Creek with as much success as any player in the field.
She also won in the mud at the beginning of May in the Volunteers of America LPGA Texas Classic, which was shortened to 36 holes. But in the two events bracketing that win, she posted missed cuts.
Many are looking at world No. 5 Ariya Jutanugarn as one of the favorites for the week. Last year’s winner of the CME Group Tour Championship already has a major to her name with the 2016 RICOH Women’s British Open, and just won two weeks ago at the (yes, again rain-shortened) Kingsmill Championship presented by GEICO.
With a tie for 7th at last week’s Volvik Championship, Jutanugarn is on a remarkable run of top 10 finishes in six of her last seven starts.
Two other players likely to come in this week with extra motivation are world No. 11 Hye-Jin Choi and world No. 14 Anna Nordqvist. They have been the runners-up, respectively, in the last two U.S. Women’s Opens, with Choi managing to get that close last year when she was still an amateur.
Brooke M. Henderson and Michelle Wie, who rank 16th and 18th in the world, respectively, are players who have the length to deal with Shoal Creek and each have won a major previously and also have victories in 2018.
Henderson won the 2016 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and two months ago added her sixth LPGA career victory, winning the LOTTE Championship presented by Hershey.
Wie’s five LPGA Tour victories include her memorable triumph at Pinehurst No. 2 to earn the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open crown, while earlier this year, she added to her career victory list with her first victory since that Open title, winning the HSBC Women’s World Championship.
Finally, if there’s one dark horse to keep an eye out for, it could be LPGA rookie Emma Talley. She not only has shown her potential by already posting a pair of top 10 finishes this year, but the four-time All-American at the University of Alabama plays out of Shoal Creek as her home course.
Credits: LPGA Tour Media, USGA Media, Getty Images