A brutal New England winter, with long stretches of record subzero days, contributed to the course being in shoddy condition for much of the spring. But the course made a stunning recovery over the last month, which Tom Meeks of the USGA attributed to superintendent Matt Manzi and his crew.
'I called him a magician, because he's done magic to get this course in the condition it's in,' said Meeks, senior director of rules and competition who sets up the course. 'We've tried to fill in some top dressing where there were some weak areas, and it's amazing how the greens are looking better every day.'
Greens will be challenging, but not rock-hard. Meeks said he thinks 2 or 3 under par might win.
But the USGA does not want a repeat of the U.S. Open, where Shinnecock Hills served up crusty conditions and the grass wilted before the final round.
'The golf course didn't play the way we wanted it,' USGA executive director David Fay said. 'In hindsight, we would have put water down on the golf course before play began.'
When asked whether Orchards would resemble anything like Shinnecock, Fay didn't hesitate.
'I think we can all answer with one word,' he said. 'No.'
Juli Inkster was among several players who experimented with hitting driver on the first hole, which requires a carry of about 265 yards over a creek that meanders across the fairway.
Her first two tee shots barely cleared the water, although caddie Greg Johnston had to borrow binoculars to make sure. The third faded slightly and everyone could see it splash. The fourth also found dry land.
Is it worth it? 'I've got to have wind and feel good with the driver,' Inkster said.
Inkster could hit a 7-wood off the tee and have about a 5-iron into the elevated green. If she takes a gamble and hits driver, she would have only a 9-iron or wedge left for her second shot.
Catriona Matthew also gave it a shot. With one mighty swing, the ball tailed off to the right and never had a chance. The Scot said she would have to hit a perfect drive with a slight draw, because the creek angles to the right.
Would she try it? 'Certainly not if it's the first shot of the day,' Matthew said, noting that play starts of the 1st and 10th tee.
Michelle Wie was not the only golfer to receiver a special exemption this week, but her free pass created the biggest stir because of her age (14) and amateur status.
Exemptions usually go to players who previously have won a Women's Open, or at least a major.
'It seems as if a number of people are fixated on the numbers on her birth certificate rather than the numbers that she's put up in competition,' USGA Executive Director David Fay said. 'The fact is had she been a professional she would be exempt by virtue of her performance in three professional events.'
On the LPGA Tour, she has made the cut in nine of her last 10 tournaments and would have earned enough money in three events this year to be 28th on the money list when the exemption was awarded.
Betsy King and Dottie Pepper also received special exemptions this week, but Pepper withdrew Monday for health reasons.
Wie is the first amateur handed an exemption and her precedent-setting entry could open the door for others.
'If any amateur in the future were to amass the type of record she did ... we'd be delighted to give those players an exemption, too,' Fay said.
The USGA has a bad habit of having fun with pairings at its top championships, one time grouping together the best players to have never won a major.
A year ago, it grouped three Women's Amateur Public Links winners, leading to a nasty confrontation with Danielle Ammaccapane and Michelle Wie.
This year might have been the cruelest of them all. Playing the first two rounds together are defending champion Hilary Lunke and the two women she beat in last year's playoff - Kelly Robbins and Angela Stanford.
For the third consecutive year at the U.S. Women's Open, players will start their first or second round on a par 3.
The 10th hole at Prairie Dunes, Pumpkin Ridge and Orchards are all par 3s.
This one might be the toughest of them all. It played about 180 yards in the practice round, with a creek in front of the green. Several players hit fairway metals to a putting surface that falls off short and to the left.
MOTHER KNOWS BEST
Penny Homeyer watched her daughter, Hilary Lunke, make her way to the tee at No. 1 on Wednesday. It took her a while to get there. The defending champion stopped along the ropes signing autographs to the dozens of fans lining the way.
It's been quite a year for the Lunkes and Homeyers since the victory at Pumpkin Ridge.
'Just surreal for all of us,' Homeyer explained. 'It was interesting to see how her life changed and it's probably taken a toll a little bit.'
Lunke's game suffered while she tried to accommodate all the new demands on her schedule. She became mentally and physically exhausted, never taking time out to savor the win, her mother said.
On the eve of Lunke's defense, Homeyer offered a little motherly advice.
'I just told her to try to stay with the same focus that she had last year and just treat it as whatever happens, happens,' Homeyer said. 'She always tries her best and that's all you can ever ask for.'
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