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.
“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.
“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.