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There’s a lot of history to draw on ahead of the 76th edition of the U.S. Women’s Open this week at The Olympic Club near San Francisco, but it’s been just five months and 20 days since the women last contested the major championship, won by South Korea’s A Lim Kim.
However, that short span of time did nothing to squelch the major swirl of questions and storylines going into the second women’s major of the year. Can Kim, the longshot who stunned the field in her tournament debut with a one-shot victory at Champions Golf Club in Houston, pull off the repeat? Will Patty Tavatanakit, already a major winner this year, be able to capitalize on her ANA Inspiration success? Can two-time champion, seven-time major winner and betting favorite Inbee Park add another jewel in her “Queen Bee” crown? And how will Michelle Wie West perform in her major return?
Kim gave a surprising assessment of her championship win in December, telling media on Tuesday: “Well, frankly, let me be honest with you. I think I was lucky.”
For a quick refresher, let’s remember Kim began the final round in Houston tied for ninth, five strokes back of 54-hole leader Hinako Shibuno of Japan and still a +6600 longshot with one round to play. She birdied her final three holes to card a 67 to beat Amy Olson and Jin Young Ko by one in a Monday finish. The 2021 LPGA season has been a mixed bag for the 25-year-old since: She’s made just two cuts in five starts but did post a T-10 finish at the Lotte Championship in April.
Should Kim win again, she would become the eighth player to successfully defend her championship title and the first since Karrie Webb in 2001.
Fellow South Korean Park finished T-6 that week for her ninth top-10 finish at a U.S. Women’s Open. This week marks the 32-year-old’s 15th start in the championship and she’s made 12 cuts with wins in 2008 and 2013. She enters the week as a betting favorite according to oddsmakers at PointsBet Sportsbook, listed at +1100 just ahead of world No. 1 Jin Young Ko.
“I think it's just my game really suits the tough golf courses, and probably I'm pretty calm on the golf course, too,” said the current world No. 2, who won the Kia Classic earlier this year for her 21st LPGA title. Park also has five top-10s in her last six starts including a T-7 finish at the year's first major. “Whatever happens on the golf course, I kind of manage myself to stay calm no matter what happens. This golf course definitely needs some patience.”
Odds to win U.S. Women's Open (via PointsBet)
+1100: Inbee Park
+1300: Jin Young Ko
+1400: Lydia Ko, Sei Young Kim
+1500: So Yeon Ryu
+1600: Nelly Korda, Ariya Jutanugarn, Hyo Joo Kim
+1800: Jessica Korda
+2000: Danielle Kang
+2200: Brooke Henderson, Patty Tavatanakit
Patience will be key at Olympic Club, which has hosted 11 previous USGA championships including five U.S. Opens (1955, 1966, 1987, 1998, 2012) and three U.S. Amateurs (1958, 1981, 2007), but this marks the first time it has welcomed a women’s USGA championship. The Lake Course will be set at 6,457 yards, par 71 and features no water hazards – despite its name – and there is only one fairway bunker in play off the tee, which can be found at the sixth hole. The greens are creeping bentgrass, the tees and fairways are Poa annua, and the rough is perennial ryegrass – and expect it to be thick.
“We did do a fair amount of extra seeding of ryegrass in various rough areas, especially around the greens, and then any areas just outside of the fairways that we felt we wanted to supplement,” said Troy Flanagan, director of golf course maintenance “The rough is a really important part of the U.S. Open. You get in the rough, you pay a penalty.”
“The course is going to play tough,” added Park. “It's going to be windy, cold, and we're going to have to hit some fairways on this golf course. Otherwise, you don't have much shot.”
Recent U.S. Women's Open winners
2020: A Lim Kim
2019: Jong-Eun Lee6
2018: Ariya Jutanugarn
2017: S.H. Park
2016: Brittany Lang
Avoiding the thick stuff is top of mind for 21-year-old Tavatanakit, who said she’s “living the dream” following her first major win in April as she makes her fifth U.S. Women’s Open start. “It's playing tough,” she said. “You've got to execute a lot of shots, and just be prepared it's going to be tough out there mentally and physically with the roughs and the weather. It's going to be challenging. I'm up for it. …
“I've played a lot of tough ones (golf courses), and this is something different. You've obviously got to be sharp, think through your shots, and try to execute no matter which shot you're picking to hit.”
World No. 1 and last year’s runner-up Ko agrees: “Yeah, I think fairways are so narrow on this course, so first the important thing is keep (the ball in) the fairway, and greens are small, too, so if you hit drivers well and irons well, I think playing good. But if not, it's going to be tough.”
The 25-year-old Ko, a seven-time LPGA winner, arrives in San Francisco having made the cut in all four previous U.S. Women’s Open appearances and in six starts this season, she’s missed just one cut and posted four finishes inside the top seven.
The purse for the U.S. Women’s Open is $5.5 million, the largest in women’s golf, with the champion receiving $1 million (provided she is a professional).
Wie West right at home at Olympic
Michelle Wie West, the 2014 champion, will revel in the luxury of sleeping in her own bed this week while competing at Olympic Club. The 31-year-old new mother and Solheim Cup assistant captain will make her first start in a U.S. Women’s Open since 2018 as a +50000 longshot.
“It feels amazing,” said Wie West regarding her return to major action (she missed the cut in three LPGA starts this season). “USGA did it big this week. The whole setup with our locker room, player hospitality, being here at Olympic Club, it's such a big week for the ladies this week. It's truly an honor to be back, especially being a USGA champion. It always has a really special feel to it.”
But Wie West, who has battled serious wrist injuries, admits she thinks twice before attacking any shots out of the deep rough.
“I knew when I signed up to come out and play again, especially at the U.S. Open, … I wasn't expecting to come out and there to be no rough,” she said Tuesday. “Does it worry me? Yes. But the last couple of days I hit a lot of shots out of the rough, and I'm feeling pretty confident about it. It will always be what it is. I'm playing definitely on borrowed time, and I'm grateful for every second of it.”
Sister act(s) arrives to San Francisco
For the seventh consecutive year, and eighth time overall, sisters Ariya and Moriya Jutanugarn, of Thailand, are both in the field, as are sisters Jessica and Nelly Korda, who will both tee it up for the seventh time at a U.S. Women’s Open. Also of note, the Korda sisters will play together for the first two rounds in a major for the first time.
“It will be easier for my parents,” said Nelly Korda, 22, already a winner this year at the Gainbridge LPGA. “The first thing my dad was like, ‘Yes, I just get to walk 18 holes.’ It will be nice. We do feed off each other, but at the end of the day like if I'm struggling, she's right there. I can lean on her and vice versa.”
Older sister Jessica, 28, also a winner already this season at the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions, echoed Nelly’s sentiments and shed some light on some differences between the two: “It's going to be really fun, a lot of thinking. I'm probably going to have a lot of naps and a lot of 10-hour sleeps. … Nelly and I are just, you know, it is what it is. We like playing together, so there's no issue.
“I'm more of an extrovert. She's maybe more of an introvert until she gets to know you. In terms of golf, we don't talk about golf once we leave the golf course. We talk about shopping, food, shows -- honestly, just like you would talk to your friend about.”
Heck of a chance: Amateurs set to take on Olympic
The last time an amateur won the U.S. Women’s Open was 1967 when France’s Catherine Lacoste, daughter of hall-of-fame tennis player Rene Lacoste and 1927 British Ladies Amateur champion Simone Thion de la Chaume, became the first and only amateur to win the championship.
But 19-year-old Rachel Heck is up for the challenge. The Stanford Cardinal player, who lives Memphis, Tenn., recently won the individual title in the NCAA Division I Women's Championship at Grayhawk Golf Club for her fifth consecutive individual victory this season, and sixth total. Her victories this past season include the NCAA Stanford Regional, the Pac-12 Championships and the U.S. Open Collegiate Invitational… which was held at The Olympic Club. Heck is making her second U.S. Women’s Open start after tying for 33rd in 2017 and is listed at +10000 to follow in Lacoste's footsteps.
Also worth keeping an eye on are 17-year-old Tsubasa Kajitani (+50000) of Japan, who will make her first U.S. Women's Open start after edging Wake Forest All-American Emilia Migliaccio in a sudden-death playoff to claim the Augusta National Women's Amateur, and California native Rose Zhang, 17 and currently No. 1 in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking, who defeated defending champion Gabriela Ruffels to win the 2020 U.S. Women’s Amateur last August.
Thirty amateurs are in the field this week, with the youngest player being 14-year-old Chloe Kovelesky (born Jan. 25, 2007). Kovelesky is the youngest U.S. Women’s Open competitor since Lucy Li played in the 2014 tournament at age 11.
Sponsor exemptions Kerr, Creamer bring experience
Thanks to special exemptions from the USGA, 2010 champion Paula Creamer (+50000) and 2007 champion Cristie Kerr (+30000) will compete this week, looking to make more history. Prior to this year’s exemptions, the last player to receive a special exemption into the U.S. Women’s Open was two-time champion Karrie Webb in 2018 at Shoal Creek in Alabama. The two women will play the first two rounds together in a decorated group that also includes another former winner, Wie West.
Creamer, 34 and competing in her 18th U.S. Women’s Open, didn’t play in Houston last year, missed the cut the three previous years and hasn’t had a top-15 finish since 2014, the year of the most recent of her 10 LPGA victories. Her 10-year exemption for winning in 2010 ended last year. She missed the cut in her only LPGA start at the Pure Silk Championship two weeks ago, but is keen to compete following a slow comeback from a season-ending wrist surgery in 2017.
“Growing up in Northern California, one of my fondest golf memories is attending the 1998 U.S. Open at The Olympic Club with my father, which truly sparked my love for USGA championships and the complete test they present to the players,” said Creamer, who also has five top-10 and 11 top-20 finishes over her 17 career U.S. Women’s Open appearances.
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The 43-year-old Kerr, who won the 2007 championship at Pine Needles, will be making her 24th consecutive start in the U.S. Women’s Open. A 20-time winner on the LPGA Tour, she has finished in the top 10 eight times, most recently in the 2016 U.S. Women’s Open at CordeValle in San Martin, Calif.
“Winning the U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles was a career- and life-changing moment,” said Kerr, who grew up in Miami, Fla. “I’m grateful to everyone at the USGA for this special exemption and the opportunity to continue to play in what I consider our sport’s greatest championship. I can’t wait.”
How to watch:
You can watch the 2021 U.S. Women’s Open on Golf Channel and NBC. Golf Channel will air the first two rounds on Thursday and Friday (7-11 p.m. ET), as well as late coverage of Saturday’s third round (5-10 p.m. ET). NBC will air three hours of coverage on Saturday afternoon (2-5 p.m. ET) and the final four hours of coverage on Sunday (3-7 p.m. ET). Additionally, online streaming is available via uswomensopen.org and Peacock. Peacock will provide two hours of exclusive early-round coverage on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. In addition, fans will be able to watch featured group coverage all four rounds on uswomensopen.org and Peacock.
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