American players will look to claim a rare victory at their national championship when play begins at the U.S. Women’s Open on Thursday.
An American victory at the tournament, once all but a certainty, now is a surprise. Cristie Kerr is the only United States player to win in the last five years. Since 1995, there have been nearly as many South Korean champions (4) as U.S. winners (5).
When the 156-strong field tees off at a steamy and history-filled Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh, there will competitors from Italy, Switzerland, Venezuela, Norway, Thailand and 25 other countries. There will be Americans capable of winning, but not nearly as many as 30 or 40 years ago -- Americans won all but five Women’s Opens from 1946-1994.
Women’s golf has certainly gone more global. Of the 27 LPGA Tour tournaments this year, fewer than half (13) will be played in the United States, due in part to dwindling sponsorship dollars and the lack of big-name American golfers.
“As (LPGA Commissioner) Mike Whan says, ‘We’re going global and get over it’,” Juli Inkster said. “So that’s where we’re going.”
The last American to win the tour’s money title was Betsy King in 1993. Ten of the last 15 U.S. Open winners have been non-Americans.
That’s one reason why Kerr hopes her remarkable 12-shot victory in the LPGA Championship two weekends ago signals an emerging revival of the American women’s game. Just as South Korean youngsters crowd driving ranges, hire swing coaches and watch videos to try to become the next Eun-Hee Ji, Inbee Park or Birdie Kim, all U.S. Open winners since 2005, Kerr hopes young Americans will do the same to emulate her.
“I would see the Nancy Lopezes, and Juli Inksters, Patty Sheehan, winning these tournaments and I said, ‘I want to do that’,” Kerr said. “If we can touch a couple of them, maybe they’ll turn into great players in 20 years.”
Maybe then, she said, there won’t be a handful of Americans who are truly capable of winning on tour during a given week, compared to 45 or 50 international players. Currently, only two of the top 10- and five of the top 20-ranked women’s golfers are American. And all 20 will be at Oakmont, including LPGA money leader Ai Miyazato, a four-time winner this year.
Maybe soon that charismatic figure who spurs growth will be the No. 10-ranked Michelle Wie; when she won the Lorena Ochoa Invitational last year, the normally infinitesimal TV ratings for women’s golf spiked nearly four times.
For now, America’s best hope is Kerr, the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open champion who will be trying to build off one of the most dominating performances in any major while her game, confidence and momentum are at all-time highs.
She doesn’t rank among the LPGA’s top 10 in driving distance, accuracy or putting -- the keys to winning at Oakmont -- but she understands the implications of what she calls her “monumental win.” Give her the 36- or 54-hole lead, like she owned last year at cross-state Saucon Valley before losing out to Ji, and it may be difficult to get it back.
“I’ve got to somehow -- and I’m working on that -- keep my expectations low and just try to do my job out there,” said Kerr, who understands that the winning score won’t be anything like her 19-under total at Locust Hill last month.
The 108-year-old Oakmont course is about 600 yards shorter than it was for the men; by the USGA’s Mike Davis’ estimates, it will play at 6,613 yards from the tee signs compared to 7,230 for the men’s U.S. Open in 2007. The 477-yard No. 9 hole, a par 4 for the men, will be a par 5 for the women, but there aren’t many other changes other than slightly wider fairways.
“Listen, we’re going to have the women play three years after the men,” said Davis, who set up the course. “Let’s try to see how the women play Oakmont and virtually try to set it up in the same manner.”
With mid-90s temperatures forecast for the opening round, and a heat index of 100-plus, Oakmont’s treacherous and tabletop-slick greens may need more watering than normal. The hundreds of unforgiving bunkers, like the course’s signature Church Pews between the No. 3 and 4 fairways, will be as difficult as ever.
“It’s hot. It’s humid. It’s gross,” Creamer said. “You know, this golf course just eats you alive mentally.”