Nichols: Here’s why the U.S. Women’s Open at Pebble Beach means so much

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – McKayla and Reagan Mayer were headed up the 18th at Pebble Beach Golf Links late Wednesday morning in search of their last item on a scavenger hunt. A day at Pebble was one of 7-year-old Reagan’s birthday gifts. The exuberant pair dressed like their favorite player, top-ranked American Nelly Korda, for the occasion, right down to their Nike shoes and the matching Goldman Sachs visors their dad had made.

McKayla will be 22 by the time the U.S. Women’s Open returns to Pebble Beach and, if her enthusiasm for the day and the game is any indication, a spot in the 156-player field might one day become a realistic goal. But if she doesn’t make it in 2035, no big deal. The women will be back in 2040 and again in 2048, when she’s 35.

The best thing about this historic week is that there’s more to come.

Reagan and McKayla Mayer pose on the 18th during Wednesday’s practice round at Pebble Beach. (Golfweek photo)

The 78th U.S. Women’s Open is, first and foremost, a celebration. Historians might look back on this championship a century from now and consider it the most consequential in Women’s Open in history.

For starters, it’s being staged on a course many consider a national treasure. The greatest to ever play the game have won here – Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Tom Watson. Even Babe Didrikson Zaharias and Patty Berg won the Weathervane Transcontinental Women’s Open at Pebble Beach in 1950 and ’51, not long after the LPGA was formed. They’d be shocked to learn it took this long to get invited back.

Players in this week’s field likely never dreamed of playing a U.S. Women’s Open at Pebble when they were McKayla’s age because it had never been done before.

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In fact, most of the top players in the women’s game had never played Pebble, even in a casual setting, prior to their preparations for this week. Lydia Ko came earlier this spring with her husband for their first peek. Nelly Korda saw every hole for the first time Monday. Michelle Wie West played nine holes for the first time at media day in May and the rest last week.

For generations, the best women in the world have operated almost on the fringes of the game, playing venues that lacked history, name recognition and gravitas. Few modern athletes are great students of the game, and it’s surprising how many don’t watch golf on television.

It’s only in recent years that the most talented female golfers in the world are finally getting a taste of the best this game has to offer.

“I don’t think you can compare this golf course to any tournament,” said Korda of previous women’s majors. “It’s Pebble. Now I understand it, playing it for the first time.”

This week at Wimbledon, the All England Club announced a total prize fund for men and women of $56,600,000, an 11 percent increase over last year. The male and female champions will each receive $2,741,726.

The USGA announced Wednesday a record $11 million purse for this week’s Women’s Open, with the winner receiving $2 million. That matches the record-setting first-place prize for last year’s CME Group Tour Championship.

While the LPGA and PGA Tour have never shared a major championship stage during the same week – an obvious advantage in tennis – playing courses fans clamor to see is the next best thing.

“The fans are the ones that are driving the media value,” said Michelle Wie West, “… and you have to increase media value to attain more money.”

Thirty-nine past champions gathered at Pebble Beach this week to take part in a past champions dinner. As the women in the room introduced themselves, they were asked to note the winner’s check that year. When Minjee Lee won $1.8 million last year at Pine Needles, her Aussie hero, Karrie Webb, noted that she’d only had two seasons in which she’d earned more, and that was winning five and seven times.

Those from previous generations told similar tales – and that’s a good thing.

“I feel like if the next generation isn’t playing for more money,” said Webb, “then we’ve failed during our time.”

Sadie Englemann, Annika Sorenstam, Rose Zhang and Kelly Xu pose on the 18th tee during a practice round ahead of the 2023 U.S. Women’s Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links in Pebble Beach, California. (Darren Carroll/USGA)

A record purse, prime-time network television (another first), a budding superstar in Rose Zhang and emotional farewells to two of the most influential figures in the women’s game adds up to what should be an unforgettable championship.

LPGA Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam, the most successful player of the modern era, will likely tee it up in her final LPGA major championship on Thursday alongside Wie West, the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open champion who announced last year that this would be her last tournament.

On Wie West’s right wrist is a handmade beaded bracelet her daughter McKenna made (with mom’s help) that spells “M-o-m-m-y.” The wrists that caused so much pain for so many years and cut short a career that was promised to be Tiger-like are now used to hold up her precious girl.

McKenna is the driving force behind Wie West’s mission to leave the game better than she found it.

Before Stanford sophomore Kelly Zu of Claremont, California, strikes the first tee shot Thursday at 7 a.m., a different kind of history was already made Wednesday afternoon over on the resort’s short course, The Hay, where Pebble Beach and its partners came together to raise $1.5 million for LPGA-USGA Girls Golf. It’s the largest single donation ever made to the organization in one location at one time.

That’s the power of Pebble Beach. A new era has begun.

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek