PINEHURST, N.C. – Natalie Gulbis was the first woman to set up a basket of range balls and go to work alongside the men Sunday at the U.S. Open.
She confided she was nervous walking on to the range with Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott and a full cast of the world’s best men warming up for the final round of their championship.
Gulbis could almost feel a crackle in the air.
“This is really cool, a special part of golf history,” Gulbis said. “I could feel it when I walked out here.”
This coming week will mark the first time the U.S. Women’s Open will be played on the same venue as the U.S. Open in back-to-back weeks. The practice facility at Pinehurst No. 2 officially opened to the women at noon, with a lower tier of the range reserved specially for the women.
“It was intimidating,” Gulbis said of being the first woman out to join the men in practice. “I was nervous because we’ve been waiting for this. We’ve been asked about this for two years. I think that’s why there are extra nerves and excitement for us. This has been hyped like no other Open.”
Lydia Ko was actually the first U.S. Women’s Open participant on the range Sunday. She showed up early for a Golf Channel interview but didn’t hit balls. It might be the first time her peers have seen her look like a teenager on the range. The 17-year-old was like a giddy fan getting to see her idols.
Ko swooned when Ernie Els walked past her and said hello.
“Oh my God, I can’t even think now,” she told her mother, Tina.
After her interview, Ko marched over and sat on the grass behind Phil Mickelson, watching him hit balls. They’re both with Callaway and Mickelson befriended her at the company’s Southern California facility late last year.
Sergio Garcia was hitting balls, too, and he saw Ko, who was told Garcia wanted to meet her. So, Ko marched over there, setting up behind Garcia, who stepped away from his practice station to give Ko a hug.
Ko got her practice out of the way earlier on another Pinehurst range, because she wanted to follow Mickelson in the final round. She was given a special inside-the-ropes lanyard so she could follow him. Ko was also out on the course on Saturday, but she didn’t have the special lanyard and struggled to see her favorite players.
“She’s not tall enough,” her mom said. “She couldn’t see over everyone.”
So Ko set up where she knew she could get a good look at Adam Scott and Jordan Spieth, two of her favorite players, as they passed.
When Yani Tseng hit the range, Scott was on his way to hit balls, too. Adam said hello to her, and Yani wished him luck.
“I just about passed out,” Tseng said.
Tseng got a hug from Rory McIlroy. They met at the Masters a few years ago, when Tseng was awarded the Golf Writers Association of America Female Player of the Year award in Augusta, Ga. They reigned together for a time at No. 1.
“This is pretty incredible,” Tseng said.
There are special memories here for Tseng, 25, who won the North-South Women’s Amateur Championship on Pinehurst No. 2 nine years ago. She beat Morgan Pressel in a finals match that went 39 holes. Tseng thought it interesting when she saw Saturday that she will be paired with Pressel in the first two rounds of this U.S. Women’s Open. Tseng hasn't played Pinehurst No. 2 since that match with Pressel.
Inbee Park, Lexi Thompson and Jessica Korda joined the small contingent of women hitting balls.
“This is special,” Tseng said. “I can’t wait to get out and play this week.”