At Pebble, it’s The Women’s No-Name U.S. Open

Bailey Tardy, U.S. Women's Open, Pebble Beach,Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
Bailey Tardy, U.S. Women's Open, Pebble Beach,Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports /

Here’s the problem the Women’s U.S. Open is having. Imagine a men’s Major championship being led entering the final round by Emiliano Grillo with his closest pursuers being Tyrrell Hatton, Austin Smotherman, Russell Henley, Nick Taylor, and some guy who retired four years ago.

No Jon Rahm, no Scottie Scheffler, no Rory McIlroy. They’re all out of it.

That’s the equivalent of what’s unfolded through three rounds this weekend at Pebble Beach. All you have to do is substitute the names on the current FedEx Cup leaderboard for those on the current Race to the CME Globe and the parallel is complete.

The leader is Nasa Hataoka. She’s No. 23 on the Race to the CME Globe points list, making her the LPGA equivalent of Grillo, no. 23 in the FedEx Cup standings.

The challengers are Allisen Corpuz (Henley) one stroke back, followed by Hyo Joo Kim (Taylor), Bailey Tardy (Smotherman), Hae Ran Ryu (Hatton), and Jiyai Shin. The latter basically retired from competitive golf in 2019.

Where are the stars at the Women’s U.S. Open?

They’ve either gone home or are out of contention. J.Y. Ko, Lilia Vu, Georgia Hall, and Atthaya Thitikul – respectively the Nos. 1, 3, 8, and 11 players on the women’s tour, all missed the cut. So did Lexi Thompson, the Tour’s most recognizable American. Nelly Korda stands t29, Brooke Henderson is t14, and even young phenom Rose Zhang sits back in a four-way tie for ninth, eight strokes off the lead.

Kim is the only member of the current CME Globe top 10 in legitimate contention.

This issue of name recognition – you could think of it as the big players coming through in the big events – has become a legitimate ‘thing’ in this year’s LPGA major season. Considering the performances of the seven top players on last season’s final CME Globe standings, the Major contentions this season have been next-to-non-existent.

Only one of those seven players has contended in even one of the first three Majors. Thitikul, runner-up last year to Lydia Ko in the final standings, tied for fourth at the Chevron, two strokes behind champion Lilia Vu.

For the Tour’s top players entering 2023, the rest of this Major season has been a throwaway. Jennifer Kupcho, sixth in the final CME Globe list last year, has missed the cut in all three events. Thitikul followed her Chevron finish with missed cuts at the Women’s PGA and this weekend’s U.S. Open. Thompson missed the cut at the Chevron and the U.S. Open, and tied for 47th at the Women’s PGA.

Lydia Ko, the 2022 champion, missed the cut at the Chevron and was t57 at the Women’s PGA. Through three rounds at Pebble Beach, she’s tied for 29th.

The only three Tour stars who have shown any measure of consistency – and it has fallen short of excellence – have been Brooke Henderson, Minjee Lee, and H.J. Choi. Henderson was t23 and t15 at the first two Majors, and she enters Sunday’s final round at Pebble Beach tied for 14th.

For Lee, the comparables have been T41, t20, and t9. For Choi, they’re 17th, t52, and t19.

That means the top seven players at the end of last season are well on their way to combining for one Major Top 10 placing with four finishes outside the top 40 and eight missed cuts.

The Women’s PGA Championship Goes Fully International. dark. Next

In real-world terms, the problem for the LPGA is how this translates to eyeballs. If Ko, Thompson, Kupcho, Nelly Korda, or one of the other names aren’t playing well enough to get TV time, people stop watching.

Sunday may represent a defining opportunity for Bailey Tardy, the women’s tour’s Austin Smotherman. It could be a breakthrough for Allisen Corpuz (whose equivalent is Henley). It could even be a resuscitation scenario for Shin. But absent names people recognize, it is likely to be an opportunity lost for NBC and especially for the LPGA Tour.