PINEHURST, N.C. – The stage belongs to the women now.
In this historic experiment with the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open being played in back-to-back weeks for the first time on the same venue, the men have exited, leaving Pinehurst No. 2 to the women in Monday’s practice rounds.
Sunday’s transition was highly visible with the women’s arrival.
Lexi Thompson, Cristie Kerr, Lydia Ko, Sandra Gal, Brittany Lincicome and Katherine Kirk were among dozens of women who walked inside the ropes following the men in Sunday’s U.S. Open final round.
While there was some scattered grumbling among men and their caddies over the timing of the women’s arrival, with the most important moments of the U.S. Open unfolding, the scene was heartwarming for fans of the women’s game. The images brought home the historic nature of the championships.
“I thought the women’s arrival was awesome,” USGA executive director Mike Davis said. “It was terrific.”
Davis knows he wasn’t alone thinking that. He was walking with Martin Kaymer and Rickie Fowler in the final pairing with a handful of LPGA pros following inside the ropes.
“Martin and Rickie both told me they thought it was the neatest thing,” Davis said. “It was funny, because Rickie knew some of the women pros, and he’s chit-chatting with them. I said, `Hey Rickie, this is the final round of the U.S. Open. You need to focus.’”
Davis was joking, but Kaymer and Fowler both applauded the women’s high-profile arrivals.
“I did like it,” Kaymer said after his eight-shot runaway victory. “Some of them are very pretty. I’m sure a lot of guys out here enjoyed the view as much as we did.”
Rory McIlroy gave Yani Tseng a hug when she arrived on the range Sunday. Their reigns as world No. 1s overlapped. Sergio Garcia gave Ko a hug.
“It's cool to run into the girls,” McIlroy said. “I would like to see it happen more often. I think it's a good thing for women's golf to give them a little bit more exposure. Even though they get to play some of the best courses in the world, I'm going to tune in on and watch next week just to see how they get on around here and see how they fare.”
Danielle Kang, the two-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champion, got some extra help from Dustin Johnson. Kang is friends with Johnson’s fiancée, Paulina Gretzky, daughter of hockey great Wayne Gretzky. Kang had dinner with Dustin and Paulina Saturday night in Pinehurst.
“Dustin gave me a hole-by-hole breakdown, where to miss and where not to miss at the different holes,” Kang said. “He told me it would probably be easier after I saw the course and then talked to him. So I’m probably going to talk to him later today.”
Johnson did more than give Kang advice. He gave her his yardage book.
“I like to play as aggressively as he likes to play with my ball-striking, but he told me how you can save shots and that you really need to let the birdies come to you here.”
The women got their first chance to play Pinehurst No. 2 in practice rounds on Monday. While Sunday’s setup for the men’s finish was severe, any women concerned they would be greeted with a harsh, burned-up test were pleasantly surprised.
The USGA had Pinehurst’s grounds staff water the greens for 12 minutes on Sunday night, in cycles of three to four minutes spread over two hours.
“We came back this morning, and we were very happy with the where the course is,” said Ben Kimball, championship director of the U.S. Women’s Open. “We are thrilled where we are going into the rest of the week. We don’t think we were at any point on the edge during the U.S. Open to where we didn’t think we could get the course ready for the U.S. Women’s Open.”
Kimball said women can expect consistent conditions through the week with the possibility the weekend gets firmer and faster.
“It was soft today,” Azahara Munoz said. “We were stopping balls.”
Kang played 18 holes Monday with Johnson’s yardage book.
“I actually thought the course was in tremendous shape,” Kang said. “I’m not saying that just to say that.”
Rolex world No. 1 Stacy Lewis played nine holes on Monday.
“It was playing harder when I came here three weeks ago to play the course,” Lewis said. “The greens are definitely softer than they were then.”
Lewis said the fairways are still firm and fast and could be an issue if they get any quicker.
The U.S. Open was played at 7,562 yards on the scorecard. The U.S. Women’s Open will be played more than 900 yards shorter, at 6,649 yards on the scorecard. The course was set up almost all the way back in Monday’s practice.
“It’s a long golf course,” said Scott Thompson, Lexi Thompson’s father.
Lexi is the LPGA’s biggest hitter, leading the tour in driving distance at over 275 yards per drive, and yet Scott said she hit 4-iron Monday into the 16th green, a 458-yard par 4.
“It wasn’t the only 4-iron she hit today,” Scott said.
Julieta Granada hit a 3-wood into the 11th hole, a 447-yard par 4. With the turtle-back greens here, it’s a lot to ask to hold fairway woods into them.
“It’s going to favor a high ball into these greens,” Lewis said.
Munoz played 15 holes Monday.
“Visually, it’s very open off the tee, I really, really like that,” Munoz said. “Obviously, the shots to the green are really, really tough, but I like that, too. You have to hit your targets. It’s the same for everyone.”
It’s going to be the same historic test for all the women.