U.S. Women’s Open: Coming Full Circle

The 2012 U.S. Women’s Open begins Thursday at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wisconson, about fifty miles north of Milwaukee. This is significant because this is the tournament and this is the course that fired young Korean girls’ interest in golf when Se Ri Pak won the championship fourteen years ago in 1998.

It is hard to overstate what Pak’s playoff victory over Duke’s Jenny Chuasiriporn meant to Korea and the world of women’s golf. It is largely self-evident and the gist of it is this: no other international country has placed more women into the elite circle of the LPGA Tour than Korea.

Last year’s Open champion was So Yeon Ryu who was an 8-year-old student of the violin when she saw Pak’s inspiring victory. She put down her violin and picked up her golf clubs, “Actually, yes, that’s true. At the moment just golf is my hobby and violin is my dream. But now violin is my hobby, golf is my dream, my job. So totally changed.”

“So that’s why the last year when I won the U.S. Women’s Open, Se Ri following the playoff, it was huge for me, because she’s my hero. I’m pretty inspired with the 1998 U.S. Open. And then I [win] U.S. Women’s Open. So that moment is pretty really, really special thing for me.”

And it wasn’t just Ryu who was inspired. Of the top 100 players in the Rolex World Rankings, Korea has the most with 35. The United States has 16.

2007 Winner, Christie Kerr talks about why the U.S. Open is such a demanding tournament:

This event is different because it demands everything of every aspect of your game. You need to plan out there. You need to say if the pin is on the right side, I need to hit it here. I can’t miss it over here. I can hit it here. You need to have a strategy for every pin on every day on every hole.

You need to really — your short game really has to be on. The rough is really, really thick around the greens here. So you really got to make those tough up-and-downs.

You have to lag it close from long distance to keep the stress off the rest of your game. You need to make great two-putts from long distance.

You need to play smart and not get greedy. It really is a test of the mind more than any other event that we play on tour. You have to have patience of a saint.

And she talked about how much harder it has become to win:

When I first came out on tour 15, 16 years ago, there were only really 10 or 20 players on any given week who could win. Now we have three quarters of the field, especially this week, that can win a tournament. So it is getting harder and harder to win.

Then she talked about why the depth of the fields has grown so deep:

When I first came out on tour 16 years ago, I came right out of high school. That was really an unusual thing. But now it seems to be the norm. It seems like kids at a very young age — I played a lot of golf growing up in South Florida with Lexi [Thompson]. Lexi is 17 now. I asked her how many opens is this for you? She said 5. She’s been playing since she was 12 and she’s seasoned veteran at 17.

When I came out and I was 16, 17, 18, it was a really scary thing. They are just grooming these kids so early now that it’s a business. There’s a lot of money in women’s professional golf now. I think that’s really why we’re seeing so many young players be so good.

At 17, you have a coach, you have a mental coach, you have a trainer. When I was 17, I was lucky to have my parents traveling with me. It’s a different world we live in now. And I think that the golf has just become such an international sport, especially with the Olympics going to be in Rio in 2016.

It will be interesting to watch last year’s champion, Ryu, to see how see does. There is always the pressure to defend your title, but she got some sage advice from Se Ri Pak that is starkly different than how most players approach a big-deal tournament like this one:

She said don’t take too much practice at the golf course, because sometimes too much information make you crazy. And I totally understand it, because when I came here first time at media day, almost one month ago, the first time I played the course, I felt like not bad. But after that, the course feels like getting more tough and tough.

So even this week I just decided to practice 9 hole and 9 holes, and that’s it. And then especially Se Ri said the putting is really important. So I focused on the speed at the putting green. Anyway, Se Ri said keep the low expectation. No more practice at the golf course. Just trust yourself.

So I will.

Michelle Wie got her own advice from her coach, David Leadbetter:

I think it’s just my nature to be impatient and to try to do everything fast. This week is the U.S. Open week. David has always told me walk slower, do everything slower. It’s a long — it’s not a race. It’s a marathon here. It’s going to take a long time, and just got to take your time, be patient. Also, because it is a long golf course, it takes a lot of energy out of you. You kind of have to conserve that and be aware of that as well.

She will be very interesting to watch this week because for all of her notoriety and talent, she hasn’t had a very good year. Which is counterintuitive because her long awaited graduation from Stanford was supposed to free her up to really flower:

It’s been one of those tough kind of years. But I see it as an opportunity. When you’re playing this bad, it can really define who you are. I want to become someone that gets through it and becomes a stronger person because of it. And I’m trying really hard. I’m practicing really hard. And the more — I feel like the longer this has become, the more I want it. So I think this is a good week to turn things around, and I’m just going to prove to myself that I can do it.

World No. 1, Yani Tseng, has also taken a recent turn for the worse. After winning eleven tournaments last year and three at the beginning of this one. After her 3rd place finish at the Kraft Nabisco and two immediate top 10s after that, she went T12, T59 and missed the cut last week in Arkansas.

Like the last two months, couple of months I’ve been a little struggling. I try to not think too much. I had a missed cut last week. I think it’s good for me. Give me a little break and take a rest. And ready for the U.S. Open, because this week is a long week. Just gotta be very patient and I just try not to think about it much. When I get here I’m very exciting. I can’t wait to start on Thursday.

But even with all her greatness, everything she’s accomplished, in explaining her slump, she reveals that she’s afflicted with doubt just like the rest of us:

It’s more about the mental things. Because my coach Gary was here with me like these couple of weeks. He said even my swing now can win in the tournament. So it must be my mental. Because sometimes when I start on tee I still worry about if my ball is going to hit right or left.

Finally, there are two newcomers to the Open that bear watching, Tiger Woods’ niece, Cheyenne Woods, and 18-year-old, Lindsey Weaver.

Woods just graduated from Wake Forest where she played on the golf team all four years. Although she gets unlimited moral support from Tiger, she lives in Phoenix and her coach is Mike Labauve, one of the top teachers in the country.

Weaver, who plays out of the Desert Mountain Club in Scottsdale, became the second female golfer in history to shoot 59 in competition. Playing in the Ping Junior Interclub event on Desert Mountain’s Apache course, she birdied 15, 16, 17 and eagled the par-5 18th to get the job done. Five weeks later, she came from six shots back after two rounds at Longbow Golf Club in the Winn Grips Heather Farr Classic to shoot a final round 7-under 64. That got her into a one-hole playoff which she won.

As Christie Kerr said, they’re getting younger and younger.

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