U.S. Women's Open shines light on sport

By Dan O'Neill
Published on
U.S. Women's Open shines light on sport

SAN MARTIN, Calif. -- For American audiences, it is sometimes difficult to wrap the arms around women's professional golf.

Fourteen of the top 20 players in the Rolex Rankings are Asian in descent, names that can be difficult to pronounce, language barriers difficult to overcome. Only four of the top 20 are North American, including Canada's Brooke Henderson.

Fifteen of the LPGA's 33 scheduled events take place in countries other than the U.S., places like Australia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, Taiwan and Mexico. The women's game has five majors, one more than the men's standard, maybe two or three more than most people can identify. The visual platform for the women's game is the Golf Channel, not network television.

But this week, the sport is more transparent. This week is the U.S. Women's Open, the most established championship of the genre, the richest purse, the largest stage. With the British Open happening next week, golf's spotlight shines distinctly on CordeValle Country Club, some 30 miles south of San Jose.

A prestigious USGA championship is on the line. And while 156 players tee it up Thursday, the number that truly can win the national championship is considerably more compressed. It might even be reduced to a foursome.

At the apex of the women's game right now is a Fab Four -- Lydia Ko, Henderson, Lexi Thompson and Ariya Juntanugarn -- who have two things in common. They are remarkably young and remarkably accomplished.

Thompson is just 21 years of age and playing in her 10th Women's Open. She qualified for the 2007 edition at Pine Needles as the age of 12.

"Yeah, so many memories from that first U.S. Women's Open," said Thompson, who has seven career LPGA wins. "It didn't ring a bell to me that this is my 10th one. It's always nice to remember.

"I missed the cut by a ton, but I stayed there and said, 'I'm going to sign every autograph for every person here.' But that year was the day I realized that I wanted to play out on this tour."

With the 27-year old Inbee Park missing the championship with a thumb injury, the aforementioned quartet represent the highest-ranked participants. Reigning Women's Open champ In Gee Chun checks in at No. 6 in the Rolex Rankings.

What's more, three of the four go head-to-head during the first two rounds. Ko, Thompson and Henderson tee off No. 10 at 4:03 p.m. (St. Louis time) on Thursday, then start on No. 1 at 10:28 a.m. Friday.

Jutanugarn is paired with Jenny Shin and MinJee Lee, three former U.S. Girls Junior champions who have LPGA wins this year. Jutanugarn, 20, set a record by getting her first three career wins in succession during a magical May. Chun, meanwhile, will be part of an esteemed group that includes two-time major champion Stacy Lewis and U.S. Women's Amateur champ Hannah O'Sullivan.

But all eyes will be on Nos. 1, 2 and 4 -- Ko, Henderson and Thompson. "Oh, it's a great pairing," said Thompson, who has a win and eight top-10s this season. "I think I played with Lydia every week at some point. We always make a joke of it.

"Brooke Henderson has been playing amazing golf, and I think we all saw that coming. She's just an overall great player, no weakness, really, in her game, at all. And Lydia is the same. It's great to watch them both on the golf course and their attitudes and just their demeanors."

Ko, 19, has won two of the last three majors and 13 LPGA events overall. She has made 63 starts since she turned pro and made the weekend in 62 of them, finishing in the top-10 in 48. That's an insane 77 percent rate of finishing on the top page of the leaderboard.

She is completing an online degree in psychology this summer, and she is the recognized Zen master of the short game. She leads the LPGA in scoring average (69.08), putts per greens in regulation (1.72) and putting average (28.67) and rounds under par (43).

"Lydia Ko is amazing," said Henderson, who beat Ko in a playoff to win the last major, the KPMG Women's PGA Championship. "She's an inspiration to all of us girls out here, and I think everyone in the world, basically.

"I think everybody looks up to her and thinks she's an inspiration. And we're just trying to kind of chase after her and she showed us a lot of things that are possible."

Off the tee, the chase turns around. Ko ranks 117th in on the circuit in driving distance. Thompson is No. 1 in that category, averaging more than 284 yards. Henderson is No. 12, covering more than 268 yards. They could be hitting it some 30 to 40 yards past Ko, and hitting shorter irons into the greens.

For one, Lewis believes length could be an issue. "If things stay as they are now (weather-wise), the longer hitters will definitely have an advantage," Lewis said.

But CordeValle presents a multi-faceted challenge. And as Ko is quick to suggest, there is more than one way to skin a golf course.

"I don't think that it's just one game should fit everyone," Ko said. "Everyone is different. ... I know that Brooke and Lexi are both longer than me. So I'm probably going to be first to hit for the second shots most of the time, when I'm out there.

"But I'm just going to think about my game and we're going to have fun, no matter what. We know it's a big event. It's a major championship, but we're still going to have a good time and have a laugh."

All three of Henderson's LPGA wins, which includes two in Portland and one in Seattle, have come in the Pacific Northwest. Like Ko, if she could win at CordeValle, the 18-year old Henderson would become the youngest ever Women's Open champion.

"I love tree-lined courses, and both Portland and (Sahalee Country Club in Seattle) were very much like that, where you need to hit it very accurate off the tee," Henderson said. "And I just like the view of them.

"Somebody asked me the other day what I thought about this course ... and I said it's very much like a tree-lined golf course without the trees. So I'm hoping that I'll be able to continue my streak and go for four out here."

Perhaps women's professional golf can be a little obscure for American audiences. But when it comes to focusing on contenders, most can go for four.


This article was written by Dan O'Neill from St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.