Longer Tougher Pine Needles Awaits Women

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2007 U.S. WomenSOUTHERN PINES, N.C. -- Plenty has changed since the last time the U.S. Women's Open visited the sandhills of south-central North Carolina.
 
The course is 400 yards longer than it was for the Women's Open's last visit in 2001, with the 15th hole now 125 yards longer and increased to a par 5.
 
The new Bermuda grass surface allows for bouncy fairways and treacherous rough, and it wouldn't be a Donald Ross creation without a set of challenging, topsy-turvy greens.
 
The best women's players in the world are back on the revamped track at Pine Needles, and with play set to begin Thursday, the new-look course promised to test their abilities both to strike accurate shots and remain mentally sharp.
 
'It's a little different from what you expect from a U.S. Open course,' LPGA Championship winner Suzann Pettersen said Wednesday. 'Just off the tee, it doesn't look that tight. You've still got room. You have long par-4s, but the fairways are fairly wide. And the rough is kind of patchy, so you can get lucky if you miss a shot. ... If you can hit it dead center in the fairway and dead center in the greens this week, you'll do fine.'
 
Easier said than done. The 6,644-yard course is a par 71 and is the longest championship course at sea level, the result of reverting to Ross' original design plan from the 1920s.
 
'If we don't get a few gripes during a championship ... we're not quite sure we set the championship up right,' said Mike Davis, the USGA's senior director of rules and competition. 'For what we're trying to do for their championships and really trying to test every aspect of their game for the nth degree, it is going to be a hard test. In theory, it's the hardest test they have all year.'
 
Four holes have been altered since the Women's Open was last here, with the most notable being the change of the 523-yard 15th. The par-4 No. 2 was extended to 450 yards -- 40 yards longer than before -- to prevent players from booming their drives over the hill.
 
'We've moved it back a little bit to really put what Donald Ross wanted back into play, kind of the flat drive zone,' Davis said.
 
The 10th hole is 60 yards longer and, at 518 yards, is 'a legitimate par 5,' Davis said, and there's a new tee on the par-4 12th.
 
The design seems to suit Annika Sorenstam well -- each of her three Open titles have come on Ross-designed layouts, including one at Pine Needles in 1996.
 
'I obviously love old, traditional courses,' Sorenstam said. 'When you play an Open, just like this, you have to drive the ball well. You have to hit -- you have to have such good control with your irons, and you have to have an incredible short game.'
 
For the third time in 11 years, the Women's Open has come to the golf hotbed that also hosted the men's U.S. Open twice since 1999 at nearby Pinehurst No. 2.
 
Both of the previous Women's Open winners at Pine Needles are back in the fold. Sorenstam's second title came five years before Karrie Webb claimed an eight-stroke win here.
 
'Coming back to Pine Needles is something I've been looking forward to since the last time we played here,' Webb said.
 
Pettersen could have been seeking her third straight major, had she not blown a three-shot lead on the last four holes of the Kraft Nabisco in April and losing to Morgan Pressel. She bounced back earlier this month by holding off Webb to win the LPGA.
 
'It felt like I've been very close for the last three months, two months,' Pettersen said. 'It wasn't a big surprise that my game was good enough and ready to win. Since then I've just trying to maintain and get a little better on everything. Now it's the U.S. Open, and this is the big test.'
 
It also wouldn't be a Women's Open at Pine Needles without some fresh faces.
 
This is where Pressel, then 13 years old, in 2001 became the youngest qualifier in the tournament's history. Pressel -- the youngest player to win a major -- no longer has that title, which belongs to Alexis Thompson, who at 12 has taken her place.
 
In all, 25 players younger than 20 are in the field of 156.
 
'I feel old out here, and I'm 26,' Pettersen said.
 
Related Links:
  • Full Coverage - U.S. Women's Open