If you thought the trials and tribulations of Dustin Johnson last month at Pebble Beach made for great entertainment, then don’t miss this week’s U.S. Women’s Open. The best players in the world have converged on storied Oakmont Country Club in suburban Pittsburgh, where we’ll learn just how far the women’s game has evolved.
Hard to believe, given golf’s rich history, but the major open championships for the fairer sex, the U.S. Women’s Open and the Ricoh Women’s British Open, are only 57 and 34 years old, respectively. The men’s British Open Championship, by contrast, will celebrate its 150th anniversary at venerable St. Andrews beginning July 15 and thus draw the lion’s share of the golfing world’s attention. That’s a shame, because the slugfest in the Steel City figures to be a classic. Rarely do the women get to test their skills over layouts of such stature. Only nine venues have held both the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens (although they were played on different courses at Winged Foot and the Atlanta Athletic Club). Oakmont is the most storied, and surely the most difficult.
“Without a doubt, this will be the hardest golf course the women have ever seen,” says Mike Davis, who as Senior Director/Rules and Competitions for the U.S. Golf Association is responsible for championship course setup.
Oakmont has played host to more major championships than any other American venue, with the exception of Augusta National, including eight men’s U.S. Opens, three PGA Championships, five U.S Amateur Championships and the U.S. Women’s Open in 1992. Its champions include Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Tommy Armour, Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller and Ernie Els.
Patty Sheehan won the ’92 Women’s Open, beating Julie Inkster in an 18-hole playoff (72 to 74) after both had negotiated four rounds in 4-under-par 280. (Sheehan trailed Inkster by two shots after 70 holes and birdied the last two.) The championship suffered so many fits and starts because of persistent thunderstorms that the press dubbed the club “Soakmont.”
“It played like a sponge,” recalls Bob Ford, head professional at Oakmont since 1979. “That’s when it plays easy. When the course is hard and fast, it is very, very difficult.”
What makes Oakmont so challenging? In a word, nuance.
“You have to be exact with every shot you play,” says Davis. “You have to have great imagination to play to the greens and to putt on them.”
Oakmont’s greens are notorious for their slickness, a source of pride for club members who must content with speeds approaching 16 on the Stimpmeter in the fall, after the Poa annua grass has baked all summer. Even the best wielders of the flat stick struggle to reckon correct fall points on the sloping putting surfaces, precise spots where a putt must die in order for the ball to trickle anywhere close to the hole. After his runner-up finish at the 2007 U.S. Open, Tiger Woods unequivocally pronounced Oakmont’s greens tougher than those at Augusta National, themselves a renown collection of three-putts waiting to happen.
Davis agrees, further suggesting the women may have an especially difficult time with short and mid-range approach shots because they generally don’t spin the ball as much as their male counterparts do. Moreover, most of the competitors haven’t seen the likes of Oakmont before.
“You can’t learn Oakmont in two or three practice rounds,” says Davis. “You have to develop local knowledge. Otherwise, there’s just too much nuance.”
In a testament to the rising skill level, if not popularity, of women’s golf, this year’s championship attracted a record 1,278 entries, compared to 842 for Oakmont in 1992. Like last week’s Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic, won by Na Yeon Choi of South Korea in a playoff against three women with the surname Kim, the Women’s Open will have a distinctly Asian flavor. But that’s nothing new on the LPGA.
Back in ’92, Americans won 32 of 35 tournaments on the women’s circuit; the lone victor from Asia was Japan’s Ayako Okamoto at the McDonalds Championship. Only three Japanese finished among the top 20 at the ’92 Mazda Japan Classic, the LPGA’s lone annual foray to Asia until 2002. Of the 66 players who survived the cut at Oakmont, 57 were Americans and two came from Asia.
Fast forward 18 years and four Koreans have won the U.S. Women’s Open, including defending champion Eun-Hee Ji. Asians or Asian-born residents of the U.S. will comprise more than a third of the 156-player field at Oakmont.
Oakmont has changed, too. During a decade of preparation for the 2007 U.S. Open, more than 5,000 trees were removed from the property, restoring the imitation links look favored by architect H.C. Fownes when he designed the course in 1903. Bunkers were deepened and the iconic Church Pew bunkers between the third and fourth fairways were lengthened at each end by two rows. (For the record, the hazard is 102 yards long, 42 yards across, and features 12 grass ridges.)
Oakmont will play to par 71 for the Women’s Open as opposed to 70 for the men three years ago, when Angel Cabrera held off Woods and Jim Furyk down the stretch, winning with a 5-over-par total of 285. Rain marginally softened the course on the eve of Round 1, but wind and sun rendered it progressively firmer through Sunday, producing a cumulative scoring average of 75.72. (Nineteen players scored 20-over-par or higher for 72 holes.)
“Our mindset is to set up the course like we did for the men,” says Davis. In other words, it will be unforgiving.
The uphill ninth hole, with its deepest tee backed up against the Pennsylvania Turnpike, was a 477-yard par 4 for the men and will play as a par 5 for the women. New tees were built for the Women’s Open at the 2nd and 17th holes, giving the USGA the option to make them driveable par 4s, both roughly 245 yards. Playing 313 yards, the tantalizing 17th was a pivotal hole in ’07, yielding two eagles, 85 birdies and 105 bogeys or worse – including a costly 5 by Furyk on Sunday.
The par 3 No. 8 – which was 288 yards for two rounds in ’07 – also will feature two tees, at 225 and 252 yards. From the back box, players must fly the ball 225 to 230 yards in order to clear a cross bunker and hit an area that pitches down toward an immense, flat green.
“They’re going to play the same golf course (as the men in 2007), other than length and rough,” says Ford, who can’t resist noting “we’re the only course in America that plays U.S. Open lines day in and day out,” meaning fairway width and rough lines are the same for Oakmont members as they are for US Open contestants.
Ford says the rough will be considerably lower than for the men in ’07 and the course will measure in the neighborhood of 6,500 yards. (It was officially listed at 6,312 for Sheehan’s victory.) “Mike Davis is going to say 6,750, but they won’t play it that way,” he jokes.
Speaking in mid-June, Davis said the green speeds for the Women’s Open were “the one unknown.” In 2007, they measured in the mid- to upper-14s on the Stimpmeter. “Can we do that for the women?” Davis asked rhetorically. “How fast is too fast? We haven’t answered that yet.”
The USGA Championship Committee solicited input from a number of players, past and present, as it tried to determine how much of a leap the field can handle from week-to-week green speeds on the LPGA, which typically are slower than 11. In ’07, the men had to transition from greens that on average measure 11 to 12 for PGA Tour events. If Oakmont’s greens were to approach 14, Davis says, “it would be a bigger learning curve for the women.”
The USGA is expected to announce green speeds during a press conference on the eve of Round 1. Don’t look for it to err too far on the side of caution. “The green speeds were significantly slower in ’92 than they will be this year,” says Davis. “And I mean significantly.”
Will carnage result? “Nobody will break 290 if it’s dry and fast. No chance,” says Ford. “But I can see somebody under par if it’s wet.”
It’s been hot and sunny all week, with rain forecast only for Friday. Either way, it’s a show not to be missed. “We’re ready for them,” says Ford. “I hope they’re ready for us.”
• U.S. WOMEN’S OPEN ON TV: Thursday-Friday, ESPN2, 3-7 p.m. EDT; Saturday-Sunday, NBC, 3-6 p.m. EDT.