It’s back to the Enchanted Forest for women’s golf.
That is what Blackwolf Run feels like as host to the U.S. Women’s Open.
With the championship just nine weeks away, the U.S. Golf Association is busy with the Kohler Co. in a bid to once more make Blackwolf Run the most bewitching and beautiful challenge in the women’s game.
Fourteen years ago, Herb Kohler introduced the sport to his beguiling design carved through the woods of Wisconsin. Blackwolf Run was as picturesque as it was wicked in its debut as host of the U.S. Women’s Open in 1998. With players sparring with golf goblins all week, Blackwolf Run delivered a fairytale ending. It delivered amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn’s 72nd-hole dramatics to force a playoff with South Korean sensation Se Ri Pak ultimately winning.
“I was afraid of the golf course,” Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez remembers from her adventure there in ‘98. “I had won a lot of golf tournaments, and it intimidated me quite a bit.”
So much so that Lopez, Meg Mallon and Jane Geddes stuck towels on the end of their golf clubs and waved them like white flags as they walked the 18th hole at the end of the second round. They were cumulatively 44 over par and all headed home with missed cuts.
“The great surrender,” Kohler remembers today.
Those white flags remain a defining image from the championship.
Mallon took a 9 on the championship’s opening hole of the opening round.
“I’ll never forget that,” Kohler said. “I admire Meg a lot, and it was sort of ghastly watching her start like that. I think it impacted the psychology of all the players.”
At one point early in the first round, Lopez said her caddie sensed her uneasiness.
“Can I get you something?” he asked her.
“Two valiums,” Lopez answered.
Pak ultimately won in a playoff despite shooting 75-76 on the weekend. She and Chuasiriporn finished at 6 over for 72 holes. You have to go back 36 years to find a higher 72-hole score by a winner in a U.S. Women’s Open. You have to go back to Winged Foot (+7) in 1974 to find a higher 72-hole score by a winner in any major.
A word of caution for the women headed to Blackwolf Run for the July 5-8 championship. The early word is it will be just as bedeviling as it was in ’98.
The course will play to 6,984 yards, more than 500 yards longer than it played in ’98.
While it won’t be the longest U.S. Women’s Open venue in history, it will feel like the longest. The Broadmoor in Colorado played to a record 7,047 yards last year, but the high altitude didn’t make it feel that long.
The USGA is cutting the women a break this time around Blackwolf Run. It will play as a par 72 instead of a par 71. The seventh hole will play as it was naturally designed, as a par 5 instead of a par 4.
That doesn’t mean the test won’t still be fierce. Kohler ordered a renovation of Blackwolf Run’s grasses in 2009 and ‘10. With new A4 bentgrass on the greens and Memorial bentgrass on the fairways, the course can play a lot firmer and faster, given Mother Nature’s cooperation.
“This will definitely be the toughest test of the women’s year, and rightfully so,” said the USGA’s Ben Kimball, director of the U.S. Women’s Open.
Kimball wasn’t there to see how Blackwolf Run played in ’98 – he was a freshman in college – but he has studied recordings of NBC-TV’s telecast.
“It looked like it played the way we expect and want for a national open championship,” Kimball said. “It was a physical and mental grind all the way to the end. I expect we will get another grind out of Blackwolf Run in 2012.”
Blackwolf Run made a powerful first impression and launched Kohler’s emergence as a force in major championship golf. Whistling Straits, already home to two PGA Championships, was officially opened on the Monday that Pak beat Chuasiriporn in a playoff. In a test of his improvisational skills, Kohler managed to shuttle major golf dignitaries to Whistling Straits in the morning and then back to see Pak win.
“It was such a dramatic impact, this whole thing, on me, on the company, on our opening at Whistling Straits,” Kohler said. “And then to have a conclusion like we had with these players, it was a fairytale that you couldn't write. You couldn't make up. It was our first major, and it was absolutely remarkable.”
Blackwolf Run’s strong first impression paved the way for more majors on Kohler’s courses.
“I didn’t see it coming back then,” said Michael Lee, superintendent of the Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits courses. “I don’t think anyone did, except maybe Mr. Kohler, and I won’t speak for him. When we hosted the Andersen Consulting Championship three years prior to the U.S. Women’s Open, I told the staff to enjoy the week, because I thought that would be the largest event we would ever host. I was wrong. Mr. Kohler had a vision I didn’t see.”
That vision plays out some more at Blackwolf Run this summer.