The practice rounds have been played, the North Carolina Sandhills ecology has been tested, the greens have been assessed, and playing strategies have been crafted. Cristie Kerr, 2007 Open champion, has decided that she’ll take a conservatively aggressive approach to a course that’s going to get progressively dryer and faster over the next four days. Five-time USGA Champion Juli Inkster, at 50 the oldest player in the field, will be making her 35th and, she announced yesterday, her final US Women’s Open appearance and a charming 11-year old Lucy Li will be making her first. Defending champion Inbee Park has been watching YouTube videos of her putting, looking for the key that will unlock last year’s success. Lydia Ko has collected autographs and plans to go short rather than long in her approaches to the greens. Paula Creamer, the 2010 Open champion, has her hybrids and her 5-wood limbered up. Creamer predicts that “the best lag putter” will win on Pinehurst No. 2 and she plans to be that person! Every one of the 156 golfers who will tee off tomorrow — 11 US Women’s Open champions, 8 US Women’s Amateur champions, 7 US Women’s Amateur Public Links champions, 6 US Girls champions, 25 USA and GB&I Curtis Cup team members, collectively representing 26 countries — has a plan. It’s time now to get down to the business of playing for the Championship.
The first round is a testing round. How are the approaches to the greens working? Will irons be more effective than hybrids or woods? How will the greens receive shots sent with less loft and spin? Whose putter is working? Will the women follow Martin Kaymer’s model and simply sidestep chipping?
I’m going to pay special attention to four groups during the first round. They represent a variety of playing styles that will figure in the successful management of Pinehurst’s No. 2 and perhaps give a sense of how this historic 69th edition of the US Women’s Open will unfold
Jessica Korda, Se Ri Pak, Caroline Hedwall, 7:51am, Tee #1
Korda’s coming to the Open with 3 top-10 finishes this season, two of them victories (Pure Silk-Bahamas LPGA Classic and Airbus LPGA Classic), but she also missed three cuts. Ranked 16 by Rolex, Korda’s in her third year on the Tour and I don’t think her game’s sufficiently matured to manage this Open.
Hedwall, who knocked the socks off everybody with her 2013 Solheim Cup performance, hasn’t delivered a winning game this year. Like Korda, she’s playing her third year on the Tour and although I could be surprised, I don’t think this is Hedwall’s year to make a strong showing at the Open.
Se Ri Pak will dominate this group. The 1998 Open champion, Pak’s a steady, consistent competitor. She knows how to pace herself, how to manage the course and make smart decisions. She’s not going to get rattled by a stray shot into the grunge. The sixteen year Tour veteran will grind it out, one shot at a time.
Lexi Thompson, Karrie Webb, So Yeon Ryu, 8:02am, Tee #1
The contest in this group will be between Thompson and Webb. Ryu, Rolex Ranked 8th, plays a steady, upper-tier game. She has six top-10s this year out of 11 starts, but her short drive and fairly high putting average — she’s ranked 73rd on Tour — will put her at a disadvantage on a course that will demand skilled putting.
Watch Thompson closely. Out of 11 starts she has six top-10s, including her victory at the Kraft Nabisco Championship. She has the longest drive on the Tour, 275+ yards. Her challenge is going to come on the greens. That’s where Webb, who’s averaging 29 putts per round and ranked 16th on the Tour, is likely to shine.
Webb’s advantage deepens with her experience. She’s won the Open twice (2000 & 2001) and she knows how to handle and manage the pressure cooker environment. Coming in with wins at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open and the JTBC Founders Cup, Webb’s game is hot.
I look for Karrie Webb to take the measure of No. 2, adjust and shape her game, and play to win.
Inbee Park, Stacy Lewis, Emma Talley, 8:02am, Tee #10
Coming to Pinehurst fresh from her 2014 Curtis Cup victory, 2013 US Women’s Amateur champion Emma Talley should have a wonderful time paired with Inbee Park and Stacy Lewis, but the real battle in this group will be a face-off between Park and Lewis.
With 11 top-10 finishes out of thirteen starts, two of them victories (North Texas LPGA Shootout and ShopRite LPGA Classic), Lewis looks to have the edge over Park, but not by much. Park has eight 2014 top-10s that includes a win at Manulife Financial LPGA Classic. Park’s ranked first on the Tour in putting average (28.76) and second in putts per greens in regulation (1.745). Lewis, averaging 29.69 putts per round, ranks 20th, but is ranked first in putts per greens in regulation (1.739), so it may boil down to who spends less time in the grunge and who gets to the green fastest.
Although Lewis’s game is sparkling right now, I think defending US Women’s Open champion Park may have the stronger mental game and be better able to endure the inevitable rough spots all the players will encounter.
Lizette Salas, Na Yeon Choi, Paula Creamer, 1:36pm, Tee #10
This could be a breakthrough year for Lizette Salas. After a couple of near misses she’s nailed her first Tour win, the Kingsmill Championship, and she’s playing with renewed energy and determination. But Salas isn’t quite ready to take charge at Pinehurst. Neither is Choi.
Creamer will dominate this group. The 2010 Open champion is climbing up out of a long winless streak. She has a revamped swing, a sharp putter, and a can-do pragmatism that’s going to serve her very well over the next four days. This could be Paula Creamer’s opportunity to triumph, although she might have to play her way past Inbee Park and Karrie Webb to get to the top of the board.
Thursday, June 19 and Friday, June 20, ESPN2 will begin coverage of the round in progress at 3pm and conclude coverage at 7pm. Saturday, June 21 and Sunday, Jun2 22, NBC will begin coverage of the round in progress at 3pm and conclude coverage at 6pm. All times are ET. ProGolfNow will also provide daily updates of the US Women’s Open.