Most years, the USGA sets the bar very high for major championships, and despite a controversial ruling during the final round of this year’s Men’s U.S. Open- a ruling that unanimously and passionately turned players and fans against them– this year was no different.
A complex and challenging course at Oakmont with a dearth of red numbers upheld the USGA’s reputation as the most diabolical tournament-producing power on the planet.
Now they get their turn with the elites of the LPGA, as the U.S. Women’s Open takes place this week at CordeValle Golf Club in the underrated golf haven of Central California. Not only does the USGA have to contend with the high expectations they have established from the men’s event, but that bar was set even higher than usual with the thrilling finale of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, the most recent LPGA major, at Sahalee Country Club in Sammamish, Washington.
It seems impossible to outdo a major that ended with a riveting playoff between the top two talents in the sport, but the USGA has plenty of reason to be optimistic about what they have to work with this year. CordeValle will boast unbelievable talent and delicious storylines in this year’s edition of the U.S. Women’s Open.
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 71st edition.
The first U.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 that included Betsy Rawls, Mickey Wright, and legendary female athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharias.
As the tournament has progressed it has 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 3 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 2016 event will feature golfers from 24 different countries.
Name: CordeValle Golf Club
Where: San Martin, CA
Distance: 6,762 yards
Architect: Robert Trent Jones Jr
Purse: $4.5 Million – the largest purse in Women’s golf.
Rounds 1-2: 3:00p-8:00p (Fox Sports 1)
Rounds 3-4: 3:00p-7:00p (FOX)
The defending champion is South Korea’s In-Gee Chun, better known as “Dumbo”. The then 20-year-old Chun shot a final round 66 to overcome a four-shot deficit and win her first career major. Chun came out on top of an intense battle on the back nine between herself, South Korean Amy Yang, and American Stacy Lewis. With all three tied through 14 holes, Chun birdied 15, 16, and 17 before an untimely bogey on 18. A double-bogey on 15 from Lewis essentially ended her title bid. Yang went bogey-eagle-birdie on 15, 16, and 17. Needing a par to force a playoff, Yang bogeyed 18 to hand the victory to Chun.
Other Recent Champions
2014: Michelle Wie
2013: Inbee Park
2012: Na-Yeon Choi
2011: So-Yeon Ryu
2010: Paula Creamer
1. The Dream Group
The USGA is famous for their always-intriguing U.S. Open groupings, and with at least one group, they hit them out of the park again. All eyes will be on the pairing of World #1 Lydia Ko, World #2 Brooke Henderson, and World #4 Lexi Thompson (World #3 Inbee Park is out with an injury). Ko, the 19-year-old from New Zealand who already has 13 career LPGA victories, and Thompson, the 18-year-old Canadian, comprised the instant classic playoff at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship last month at Sahalee. Ko had won the previous two majors, while Henderson was gunning for her first. After shooting a tournament-low 65 in the final round, Henderson hit her approach on the first sudden-death playoff hole to within three feet of the cup. She would then tap-in for birdie and the victory.
Ko and Henderson are widely considered to be the future of women’s golf and quite possibly the next great sports rivalry. Both are coming into the tournament in tremendous form as Ko has three victories and nine top-10s on the season, while Henderson has won two of her last four events, including last weekend in Portland.
Not to be forgotten, Thompson, the world’s highest-ranked American, has one victory on the season, in addition to eight top-10s. Thompson is best known for her driving distance, as she has an impressive 284.22 yard average, a higher average than 48 PGA Tour golfers.
In addition to the raw talent that has fans excited about this pairing, it also provides an interesting dynamic off the tees. Thompson and Henderson are among the longest hitters on tour, while Ko is more precision-focused and is below-average in distance.
In this sense, this pairing is analogous to a men’s pairing of Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, and Matt Kuchar. Kuchar is a crafty technician of the game who always seems to be in contention, but nobody would classify him as a bomber. He certainly wouldn’t embarrass himself in a group with Johnson and McIroy, but he would be hitting his second shots from much further back.
It will be interesting to see if Ko is able to stick to her game mentally, and not allow herself to be distracted by how far down the fairways Thompson and Henderson will be. It is a challenge that the brilliantly-composed Ko will likely be up to.
In her pre-tournament press conference, Henderson kept stressing that CordeValle is a ball-strikers course, so the discrepancy in distance might not even matter. At the very least, it will be exciting to follow.
One other interesting tidbit in this group: despite all the success they have had in their young career, neither Ko, Henderson, nor Thompson have won a U.S. Women’s Open. All three are hungry for their first.
2. Chun’s Defense
In-Gee Chun, ranked #6 in the world, and now in her rookie season (she won the U.S. Women’s Open last year as a non-member) has six top-10s on the season. At one point this season she finished in second place in three consecutive tournaments. She is also known for being the victim in the bizarre incident back in March, where the father of fellow LPGA golfer Ha Na Jang dropped a heavy bag down an airport escalator in Shanghai, hitting and injuring Chun. Her injuries kept her out of competition for three weeks.
With her victory last year and her sensational 2016 rookie season, Chun has shown unequivocally that she belongs. Now, we get to see how much higher she can soar as a defending champion. With all the attention that Ko and Henderson are justifiably getting, Chun also has the luxury of coming in under-the-radar.
3. Whose Open?
It might be called the U.S. Open, but the elite talent at CordeValle will be coming from all over. Despite being a tour on the rise overall, American women’s golf is down. On the 2016 LPGA Money list, only one American (Lexi Thompson at #6) ranks in the top 10, and only three Americans rank in the top 25. South Korea, on the other hand, has 10 of the top 25.
The Rolex Rankings (the women’s version of the OWGR) are equally diverse, and equally un-American. Nine different countries (New Zealand, Canada, South Korea, the U.S., Thailand, China, Australia, Sweden, and Norway) have at least one representative in the Rolex Top-20. Similar to the money list, only three of those 20 are American.
This is not to say that the globalization of women’s golf isn’t a fantastic thing. National pride brings a fun and exciting element to these tournaments. However, the Americans have set a high standard for themselves, and in recent years, very few have achieved that standard. The rise of other nations was inevitable, but the United States is at risk of being left completely in the dust.
Other Notables in the Field
Pak, the 38-year-old Hall-of-Famer from South Korea, will likely be playing in her last U.S. Women’s Open this week. Pak recently announced that she will retire at the end of the 2016 season. The 1998 U.S. Women’s Open Champion, and winner of four other LPGA majors, was given a special exemption to compete this year. Most likely, this will be the last go-around for the woman who has been an inspiration to so many young, female golfers abroad.
Wie, the 2014 winner of this tournament, is in a career tailspin. Owner of eight career top-fives in majors, she recently dropped out of the top 100 in the world rankings, and has not won since that breakthrough 2014 major. A T25 in early February is her best 2016 result by a considerable margin. Still, she undeniably has the talent to compete again, but she will have to get past the confidence issues caused by a string of injuries.
Lewis, the world #8, and second-highest ranked American, has five top-10s on the season. The 31-year-old boasts 11 career victories, including 2 in majors. She has never won the U.S. Women’s Open, but has finished in the top three on three occasions, including a T3 last year.
Back in May, Jutanugarn, the 20-year-old phenom from Thailand was the hottest golfer, if not athlete, on the planet. She won three consecutive events with the last of those being of the five-stroke beatdown variety.
The following week, she finished just one stroke out of the Henderson-Ko playoff at the KPMG PGA Championship. She also contended at the first major of the year, the ANA Inspiration, where she was tied for the lead after 71 holes. After a bogey on the par-5 18th, she had to settle for solo-fourth, but it was by far her best result in a major up to that point.
To say that Jutanugarn has struggled at the U.S. Women’s Open in the past would be an understatement: she missed the cut in all three of her appearances, but she is day and night ahead of where she was at this time last year. It will be a surprise if she does not somehow factor into the story of this tournament.
She rarely uses her driver, but still hits the ball a mile, ranking 10th on tour in driving distance. After Ko and Henderson, Jutanugarn might be the one to watch.
The ageless wonder and Hall of Famer, Webb has 41 career victories at 41 years of age. She is also attempting to make the Australian Olympic Team, but needs a very high finish here for that to become plausible. She is ranked #59 in the world, but as the third-ranked Australian, she needs to find a way to pass #39 Su-Hyun Oh. Webb might not be where she once was, but she does have four top-15s in majors over the past three years, and her experience makes her a threat anywhere.