OAKMONT, Pa. – Cristie Kerr isn’t trying to improve on perfection. She’s only trying to maintain it.
Difficult? No doubt. But difficult is a word that will be tossed around frequently at Oakmont Country Club during the U.S. Women’s Open that Kerr is favored to win, if only because it’s difficult right now to pick anyone else.
Kerr was so in control, so dominating, so far out in front for most of the LPGA Championship that she won by 12 shots two weeks ago at Locust Valley, she brought back memories of Tiger Woods’ 15-shot win in the 2000 U.S. Open and his 12-shot victory in the 1997 Masters.
But while there’s always a month between majors in men’s golf, the even-bigger Women’s Open is occurring only two weeks after the LPGA. The 156-golfer field will start play Thursday on one of America’s signature – and most sinister – courses.
For Kerr, it means there’s been little time to lose her game, her immense confidence or her momentum. However, any U.S. Open course, especially one as historically challenging as Oakmont, can be an effective equalizer.
That’s one of Kerr’s goals as she tries to win the major that eluded her at Saucon Valley a year ago, when she led the U.S. Women’s Open after 36 and 54 holes but couldn’t hold off South Korea’s Eun-Hee Ji to win. And that’s to make the biggest tournament of the year like the LPGA Championship, when Kerr was challenged more by the course than she was by the rest of the field.
“I feel great,” she said. “I feel like I’ve worked for this my whole life. I feel like I’ve worked for it and it’s coming true. It’s so great that I got there, but now it’s time to just keep doing the things that got me there.”
Kerr, 2009 Kraft Nabisco winner Brittany Lincicome and LPGA driving distance leader Michelle Wie might be the American golfers best positioned to win the Women’s Open, a tournament that’s been won four of the last five years by an international golfer. Only two of the top 10- and five of the top 20-ranked women’s golfers are American.
Everyone in the Top 20 is at Oakmont, including LPGA money leader Ai Miyazato, a four-time winner this year.
To American golf icon Arnold Palmer, who attended Wednesday’s practice rounds, Kerr is exactly what U.S. golf needs to stand up to the ever-increasing domination by international golfers. Three South Korean golfers have won the Women’s Open since 2005, including Ji.
“It is important that the American girls make a point, and Cristie has helped do that by being No. 1,” Palmer said.
Kerr’s No. 1 world ranking is the first by an American golfer since the rankings begin.
“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 at Oakmont won’t be anything like her 19-under last month.
Five over? Seven over? Even par? There are widely varying estimates what it will take to win at Oakmont.
However, the USGA’s Mike Davis said that, other than shaving 600 yards off the course, Oakmont is playing about the same as it did for the men’s 2007 U.S. Open won by Angel Cabrera at 5-over.
“Some of the players that maybe don’t see championship golf on a regular basis, you may see scores up in the 90s,” Davis said.
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 and not-as-thick rough.
Everything else is the same: The greens that drop precipitously and seem as fast as billiard tables, with even well-placed shots capable of skipping off them. The more than 200 shot-swallowing bunkers, including the famous Church Pews that stretch for more than 100 yards between the No. 3 and 4 fairways.
“Listen, we’re going to have the women play three years after the men,” Davis said. “Let’s try to see how the women play Oakmont and virtually try to set it up in the same manner.”