U.S. Women's Open: Grand experiment set to begin

By Randall MellJune 18, 2014, 9:15 pm

PINEHURST, N.C. – History is thick in the heavy, humid air here at Pinehurst No. 2 with the U.S. Women’s Open poised to begin.

Morgan Pressel felt it as she walked off the 18th green during a practice round at week’s start.

That’s where she passed the bronze statue of Donald Ross, the famed architect who built this classic course more than a hundred years ago.

It’s also where she passed the statue of Payne Stewart, his image frozen as he punched the air after making the putt that won the first U.S. Open here in 1999.

Pressel would love to see another statue here someday, something that would mark just how historic this week really was, with the U.S. Women’s Open being played the week after the U.S. Open for the first time on the same venue.

“Everyone knows that image, Payne making that famous putt to win here,” Pressel said. “Maybe something crazy happens here this week. Maybe something happens that forever makes us a part of the history here.”

Pressel would love to see a statue of some woman winning the U.S. Women’s Open erected with Ross and Stewart behind the Pinehurst No. 2 clubhouse someday.

It’s a dreamy thought that perfectly captures the grand possibility of these historic back-to-back championships.

Too often, it’s a losing proposition for the women when their game is compared to the men’s. They play for less prize money, for fewer sponsorship dollars, for fewer headlines and in front of smaller galleries and TV audiences. And yet that is what this week is all about, the unprecedented chance to compare how the women’s game plays out when it’s staged within a week’s time on the same championship course the men play.

While the USGA is aiming to set up this course in relatively the same conditions the men played it, the real intent goes beyond comparing the men’s game to the women’s. When former USGA executive director David Fay came up with the plan, his idea was bigger than that for the women.

“It’s really all about a celebration of women’s golf,” current executive director Mike Davis said.

That’s how the USGA planned it, with the women’s arrival on Sunday, with many of the top women in the game walking inside the ropes in the final round of the U.S Open. For long-time fans of the women’s game, the images were heartwarming, with Sandra Gal on the 18th green congratulating fellow German Martin Kaymer for his victory, with Michelle Wie, Lexi Thompson, Lydia Ko, Cristie Kerr and others walking alongside the men.

While there was muted grumbling among some players and caddies over the timing of the women’s arrival Sunday, with the most important final scenes of the men’s championship unfolding, the transition was embraced by some of the men’s biggest stars.

Kaymer, Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy applauded the women’s arrival.

“It’s a great opportunity,” said Rolex world No. 1 Stacy Lewis. “Any time Rickie and Phil and those guys are talking about women's golf, it's a great thing. That's really what we accomplished last week. For them to say they're going to watch us play, I mean, that's huge. It was cool.”

Lewis ran into Hall of Famer Pat Bradley here earlier in the week. She won the U.S. Women’s Open in 1981 and was in town for the champions dinner. Lewis got a dose of how special this week is listening to Bradley talk about it.

“Pat just had the biggest grin on her face,” Lewis said. “She's like, `Is this not the coolest thing ever?’ She says, `During my generation, this would have never happened.’ I think that's what a lot of the young girls don't realize is what an opportunity this is, and what a great thing this is.”

Juli Inkster, 53, is playing in her 35th U.S. Women’s Open, more than any woman in history. She says this historic one just might be her last.

“I think the publicity we've gotten, it’s all positive,” Inkster said. “Everybody is talking about it. Everybody wants to see how this whole thing turns out. Right now, I'd give it an A. It's going well.”

There is a danger in this grand experiment, if the golf course becomes such a beastly test that it embarrasses the women. On the Sunday after the men finished, the USGA had every green watered for 12 minutes in three- to four-minute cycles over two hours. When the course opened to the women for practice rounds Monday, they mostly raved about it.

U.S. Women’s Open: Articles, videos and photos

“I think that the USGA have got it spot on,” Laura Davies, who is playing in her 26th U.S. Women’s Open, said Tuesday. “They turned the course around in a day, incredibly, and have gone from a Sunday of a U.S. Open to having it play really fair at the moment. I'm sure by next Sunday it will be hard and bouncy and we are all going to be complaining, like we always do. But I think for the logistics of the whole thing, I think they got it spot on.”

The USGA’s plan is to play similar hole locations that the men played in each round, just a pace or two paces from where the men’s holes were cut. The greens, with Mother Nature’s cooperation, will have the same 12.5 or so setting on the Stimpmeter that the men played but will be less firm, a function created by putting more moisture in them. To get a 7-iron struck by a woman to react the same way that it does when struck by a man – skip, bounce, bounce – the greens must be less firm for women. That’s because, on average, they hit the ball lower with less spin.

The USGA officials use a co-efficient of restitution device to measure bounce on the greens, but they’re also using visual evidence. They’ve been stationing members on the course to watch and record how shots react. They’ve paid caddies to keep track of what clubs were hit into each green.

The USGA is trying to set it up so women hit the same irons into greens as the men did, but it’s not possible on every hole, because the course design pinches some fairways, where the men and women will lay up to the same spots, meaning the men might have hit 8-irons there where the women will be hitting 6-irons or so.

“We want to showcase women’s golf, and we want to show the world that they are the very best,” said Ben Kimball, director of the U.S. Women’s Open. “We want to put them on the same stage, have the same shots, the same amount of pressure that the men had in the previous week.”

It’s a grand experiment, really, because the USGA isn’t sure they will do this again.

“There’s no way this could be done on an annual basis,” Davis said. “If we did that, we would lose some of our most favored venues. But we will look at it when it’s over and say, 'How did it go?’ And, one day, `Should we do it again?’”

Pressel would love it if, someday, a return to Pinehurst with the men came with a women’s statue behind the green. That’s one of the dream scenarios this week.

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Lexi looks to shine as LPGA season begins next week

By Randall MellJanuary 17, 2018, 6:06 pm

Lexi Thompson may be No. 4 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, but in so many ways she became the new face of the women’s game last year.

That makes her the headliner in a fairly star-studded season opener at the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic next week.

Three of the top four players in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings are scheduled to tee it up on Paradise Island, including world No. 1 Shanshan Feng and co-Rolex Player of the Year So Yeon Ryu.

From the heartache at year’s start with the controversial loss at the ANA Inspiration, through the angst in the middle of the year with her mother’s cancer diagnosis, to the stunning disappointment at year’s end, Thompson emerged as the story of the year because of all she achieved in spite of those ordeals.

Next week’s event will mark the first time Thompson tees it up in an LPGA tournament since her season ended in stunning fashion last November with a missed 2-foot putt that cost her a chance to win the CME Group Tour Championship and the Rolex Player of the Year Award, and become the world No. 1.

She still walked away with the CME Globe’s $1 million jackpot and the Vare Trophy for the season’s low scoring average.

She also walked away sounding determined to show she will bounce back from that last disappointment the same way she bounced back from her gut-wrenching loss at the year’s first major, the ANA, where a four-shot Sunday penalty cost her a chance to win her second major.

“Just going through what I have this whole year, and seeing how strong I am, and how I got through it all and still won two tournaments, got six seconds ... it didn’t stop me,” Thompson said leaving the CME Group Tour Championship. “This won’t either.”

Thompson was named the Golf Writers Association of America’s Player of the Year in a vote of GWAA membership. Ryu and Sung Hyun Park won the tour’s points-based Rolex Player of the Year Award.

With those two victories and six second-place finishes, three of those coming after playoff losses, Thompson was close to fashioning a spectacular year in 2017, to dominating the tour.

The new season opens with Thompson the center of attention again. Consistently one of the tour’s best ball strikers and longest hitters, she enjoyed her best year on tour last season by making dramatic improvements in her wedge play, short game and, most notably, her putting.

She doesn’t have a swing coach. She fashioned a better all-around game on her own, or under the watchful eye of her father, Scott. All the work she put in showed up in her winning the Vare Trophy.

The Pure Silk Bahamas Classic will also feature defending champion Brittany Lincicome, as well as Ariya Jutanugarn, Stacy Lewis, Michelle Wie, Brooke Henderson, I.K. Kim, Danielle Kang and Charley Hull.

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One & Done: 2018 CareerBuilder Challenge

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 5:55 pm

Beginning in 2018, Golf Channel is offering a "One & Done" fantasy game alternative. Choose a golfer and add the salary they earn at the event to your season-long total - but know that once chosen, a player cannot be used again for the rest of the year.

Log on to www.playfantasygolf.com to start your own league and make picks for this week's event.

Here are some players to consider for One & Done picks this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, where Hudson Swafford returns as the defending champion:

Zach Johnson. The two-time major champ has missed the cut here three years in a row. So why include him in One & Done consideration? Because the three years before that (2012-14) included three top-25s highlighted by a third-place finish, and his T-14 at the Sony Open last week was his fifth straight top-25 dating back to September.

Bud Cauley. Cauley has yet to win on Tour, but that could very well change this year - even this week. Cauley ended up only two shots behind Swafford last year and tied for 14th the year prior, as four of his five career appearances have netted at least a top-40 finish. He opened the new season with a T-7 in Napa and closed out the fall with a T-8 at Sea Island.

Adam Hadwin. Swafford left last year with the trophy, but it looked for much of the weekend like it would be Hadwin's tournament as he finished second despite shooting a 59 in the third round. Hadwin was also T-6 at this event in 2016 and now with a win under his belt last March he returns with some unfinished business.

Charles Howell III. If you didn't use him last week at the Sony Open, this could be another good spot for the veteran who has four top-15 finishes over the last seven years at this event, highlighted by a playoff loss in 2013. His T-32 finish last week in Honolulu, while not spectacular, did include four sub-70 scores.

David Lingmerth. Lingmerth was in that 2013 playoff with Howell (eventually won by Brian Gay), and he also lost here in overtimei to Jason Dufner in 2016. The Swede also cracked the top 25 here in 2015 and is making his first start since his wife, Megan, gave birth to the couple's first child in December. Beware the sleep-deprived golfer.

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DJ: Kapalua win means nothing for Abu Dhabi

By Associated PressJanuary 17, 2018, 2:55 pm

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Dustin Johnson's recent victory in Hawaii doesn't mean much when it comes to this week's tournament.

The top-ranked American will play at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship for the second straight year. But this time he is coming off a victory at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, which he won by eight shots.

''That was two weeks ago. So it really doesn't matter what I did there,'' said Johnson, who finished runner-up to Tommy Fleetwood in Abu Dhabi last year. ''This is a completely new week and everybody starts at even par and so I've got to start over again.''

In 2017, the long-hitting Johnson put himself in contention despite only making one eagle and no birdies on the four par-5s over the first three rounds.

''The par 5s here, they are not real easy because they are fairly long, but dependent on the wind, I can reach them if I hit good tee balls,'' the 2016 U.S. Open champion said. ''Obviously, I'd like to play them a little better this year.''

The tournament will see the return of Paul Casey as a full member of the European Tour after being away for three years.

''It's really cool to be back. What do they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder? Quite cheesy, but no, really, really cool,'' said the 40-year-old Englishman, who is now ranked 14th in the world. ''When I was back at the Open Championship at Birkdale, just the reception there, playing in front of a home crowd, I knew this is something I just miss.''

The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship starts Thursday and also features former No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who is making a comeback after more than three months off.

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Kuchar joins European Tour as affiliate member

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 2:52 pm

Months after he nearly captured the claret jug, Matt Kuchar has made plans to play a bit more golf in Europe in 2018.

Kuchar is in the field this week at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told reporters in advance of the opening round that he has opted to join the European Tour as an affiliate member:

As an affiliate member, Kuchar will not have a required minimum number of starts to make. It's the same membership status claimed last year by Kevin Na and Jon Rahm, the latter of whom then became a full member and won two European Tour events in 2017.

Kuchar made six European Tour starts last year, including his runner-up performance at The Open. He finished T-4 at the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open in his lone European Tour start that wasn't co-sanctioned by the PGA Tour.