Handicapping the Field at Pine Needles

By Brian HewittJune 27, 2007, 4:00 pm
2007 U.S. WomenSOUTHERN PINES, N.C. -- At least one of the beautiful aspects of this U.S. Womens Open'the venue, Pine Needles, is certainly another'is the number of players in the field that are in with a legitimate chance to win this thing.
 
Its like a Kentucky Derby with a large handful of entrants ranging in betting range from 3-1 to 5-1. There is no clear favorite.
 
I know I can win, yes, says Lorena Ochoa, the No. 1 ranked female player in the world. I think Im ready to get a major. It will be amazing to get the U.S. Open. So now that were here this week, why not win on Sunday?
 
One reason why not is the fact that Ochoa has yet to win her first major championship. Worse, shes had a couple of major meltdowns. Ochoa won in a playoff last week at the Wegmans LPGA in New York. It was her third victory of the year.
 
But ...
 
Put it this way, if Ochoa had won before in a major, she would be the clear cut favorite in this field on a course where the longer hitters will have a big advantage. The reason for the advantage: Designer Donald Ross put a lot of saddles (ridges that cross the fairways) in his landing areas. The bombers will clear the saddles and find themselves with wedges into a lot of the par-4s. The shorter hitters will watch their tee balls get repelled by the saddles and be left with a lot of blind, long iron shots.
 
The sneaky favorite here is Annika Sorenstam. Sneaky because she is recovering from back and neck injuries and has played just twice since late March. She is, however, the defending champion in this event. And she won the U.S. Womens Open in 1996 right here at Pine Needles.
 
I have confidence to go ahead and play again, Sorenstam said earlier this week. Just knowing that Im healthy and knowing that my game is coming all around.
 
In her two starts since returning, Sorenstam has finished T36 and T15, respectively. In horse racing, thats called running into form.
 
The last time they played a U.S. Womens Open here was 2001 and the winner was Australian Karrie Webb. Webb recently passed Sorenstam on the womens world rankings and sits at the No. 2 spot behind Ochoa.
 
Webb finished second to Suzann Pettersen at the McDonalds LPGA Championship earlier this month. And she has the requisite length to take on Pine Needles, which is playing 400 yards longer than it did in 2001.
 
Theres a premium on good ball-striking obviously, Webb said, sizing up Pine Needles. And good ball-striking will be rewarded with where you dont have to try to get up-and-down from some difficult areas.
 
Webb does not need to remind anybody that she remains one of the best half-dozen ball-strikers in womens golf.
 
Pettersen, meanwhile, is arguably the hottest player in golf. She basically gave away the Kraft Nabisco after blowing up on the final nine holes. Then she got with Lynn Marriott and Pia Nilsson (who helped develop Sorenstams on-course mental strength) and repaired the emotional damage in world record time. Before anybody knew she was marching resolutely up the 72nd hole at Bulle Rock on her way to the McDonalds LPGA.
 
When shes on, Pettersen is a birdie machine.
 
And when Morgan Pressel is putting well, get out of the way.
 
Others?
 
If Brittany Lincicome wins, nobody will be surprised.
 
If Natalie Gulbis, recovering from a bad back, wins, it will be a great story. On Tuesday a source said Gulbis was 50-50 to make her tee time Thursday. But she played 18 holes Wednesday with Sorenstam and was, according to the source, pain free.
 
The same source said this about Sorenstams final tune-up. Its crazy how good she hit the ball. I dont think she missed a shot all day.
 
If Michelle Wie wins, it will be a surprise.
 
And if 12-year-old Alexis Thompson makes the cut, it will be the biggest thing since Tadd Fujikawa.
 
Finally, if you want a real dark horse, consider Maria Kostina. Kostina, 24 and a recent academic all-American at Washington State, is the first Russian national to play in a U.S. Womens Open.
 
Wednesday she did a phone interview with Russia Today. According to her sister and caddie, Anastasia, there are only two-and-a-half golf courses in their homeland. Both sisters aspire to play on the LPGA Tour.
 
And maybe some day a Solheim Cup. Heres the kicker on that: Only Americans and Europeans can play in the Solheim Cup. Part of Russia is in Asia. Part of Russia is in Europe.
 
We come from the part thats in Europe, Ana said.
 
Case closed.
 
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    Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

    By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

    Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

    While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

    He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

    "A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

    Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

    "If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

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    Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

    By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

    When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

    Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

    "I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"


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    The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

    Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

    "It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

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    DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

    By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

    World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

    Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

    "It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

    Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

    Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

    "I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

    Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

    "If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

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    LPGA lists April date for new LA event

    By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

    The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

    When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

    The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

    The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.