OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. – More of the grand doors in golf are opening to women.
The KPMG Women’s PGA Championship is making sure of that.
Olympia Fields Country Club’s North Course is hosting the event this week in suburban Chicago. It’s the first time the club will be home to a professional women’s major. Sahalee hosted its first women’s major last year, and the PGA just announced Hazeltine will host in 2019.
The nature of these iconic courses, with the history they have built hosting men’s majors, matters immensely to the best female players in the world.
“It gives us validation, playing these great courses,” seven time major championship winner Juli Inkster said. “It’s important to the women’s game, the recognition that comes playing great courses.”
Walter Hagen won the seventh of his 11 major championships at Olympia Fields. The course was designed by Willie Park Jr., the two-time Open champion. Olympia Fields has hosted two U.S. Opens, two PGA Championships, five Western Opens, the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Senior Open.
“The history is important,” Inkster said. “You walk on to these major championship sites and you want to know who won there. You want to put your name with theirs. There’s validation being among the great players who have won on the great courses.”
The women played the U.S. Open at Oakmont in 2010, with Paula Creamer winning. They also played it there in 1992, with Patty Sheehan winning. They’ll play the U.S. Women’s Open at The Olympic Club in 2021.
“It’s important to play these great courses, not only for the women to test their games, but for the fans who tune in to watch,” Hall of Famer Beth Daniel said. “People tune in not just to see the LPGA, but because they know the course. It makes the telecasts more interesting for everyone.
“And as a player, I know I was super inspired playing a great golf course.”
The women hope the PGA’s determination to go to iconic venues will lead the USGA to take the U.S. Women’s Open to more of the traditional sites in its men’s rotation.
Why not Pebble Beach?
“It’s frustrating, at times,” said two-time major champion Stacy Lewis, who won the Ricoh Women’s British Open at the Old Course at St. Andrews four years ago. “Why can’t we have a U.S. Women’s Open at Pebble Beach? Why aren’t we playing some of these other great courses? It’s not about ability. We can play these courses.”
The Ricoh Women’s British Open is showing that with regularity.
No major championship has swung the doors to iconic venues more open to women than the Brits. The Women’s British Open has been going regularly to the courses in men’s Open rotation since it became a major in 2001.
Lorena Ochoa won at the Old Course at St. Andrews the first time the Women’s British Open was played there in ’07.
Inbee Park won at Turnberry in 2015.
Mo Martin won at Royal Birkdale in 2014.
Yani Tseng won at Carnoustie in 2011.
Lewis beamed walking across the Swilcan Bridge after making birdie at the Road Hole on her way to winning at St. Andrews on that magical Sunday of hers four years ago.
“I love history,” Lewis said. “I was on cloud nine being there that whole week, taking in the town. I don’t know how you top winning at the Home of Golf. Only a few players have won majors there, even in the men’s game, and to be one of those is a huge honor I’ll never forget.”
Lewis was an important player’s voice in the LPGA Championship morphing into the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. The major has elevated tenfold, thanks to the PGA’s cache and its resolve to find traditional venues to host the championship.
KPMG was a corporate sponsor to Lewis when the company decided to become title sponsor of this championship. KPMG global chairman John Veihmeyer said his company probably wouldn’t be involved if not for Lewis. Her fingerprints are on this event.
“One of the things we told KPMG and the PGA is that we wanted to play on courses we haven’t traditionally been on,” Lewis said.
While Sahalee’s history is relatively new as a major championship course, there was a majestic quality to the venue that added grandeur that the LPGA Championship was severely lacking. Westchester added that, too, in the championship’s start in 2015.
Lewis relished getting chances at St. Andrews and Oakmont and is eager to see what else opens up for the women.
“You step on the property at these great courses, and you can feel the history,” Lewis said. “You can feel what kind of golf you’re going to get to play. These are the kind of places we should be playing.”
Paula Creamer was bold enough to call out Augusta National two years ago, wondering aloud why they can’t host a Women’s Masters.
“There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to,” Creamer said.
Why aren’t women playing majors on more of the greatest American courses?
Is it as simple as the fact that men's events are more lucrative than women's? Or is it that some of theses venues just don't want the women? Or maybe it's that they fear losing their place in the U.S. Open or PGA Championship rotations if they host the women?
“I think it is probably more about their spot in the men’s rotation, but maybe a little bit about just not wanting the women,” Inkster said. “That’s maybe still the thinking of the old school.”
Inkster believes the women deserve a harder look from the men who are guarding the gates to so many of golf’s historic venues.
“The women’s game has changed so much,” Inkster said. “If you haven’t watched the women’s game lately, you would be surprised by the play, how powerful women are today.”
Cristie Kerr, a two-time major champion, likes how the women have gained more opportunities on iconic venues since she joined the LPGA in 1997.
“The world’s evolving to be more inclusive at these great courses,” Kerr said. “It shows we’re in a modern era where we can showcase the women’s games on these famous courses.
“It was a huge deal playing Oakmont. The men have more history than us, but playing Oakmont, Olympia Fields and courses like that help us build our own history.”
Inkster is encouraged where women’s golf is headed. While serving as a course reporter for Fox’s coverage of the U.S. Open at Erin Hills two weeks ago, Inkster was approached by USGA executive director Mike Davis.
“Mike said ‘What would you think about having a U.S. Women’s Open at Erin Hills?’” Inkster said. “If that would ever happen, I don’t know, but I told him any course we can play that the guys have played adds to the recognition and validation.
“I’d love to play Pebble Beach as a U.S. Women’s Open. Merion would set up great for a U.S. Women’s Open. It’s not long, it’s not beasty. You have to play smart. You have to keep it in the fairway.”
Hollis Stacy, the four-time major championship winner and world Golf Hall of Famer, says there’s progress in how these elite venues are seeing opportunities for the larger game by hosting women.
“The LPGA, the USGA and the PGA see how much the women’s game has evolved globally,” Stacy said. “They’re seeing the opportunity to drive numbers up even more globally, to make money. It see it as a coming of age for the LPGA as a brand that’s viable globally.”
Lewis believes LPGA pros can pave the way for improving the comfort level of women at clubs around the world.
“I think when we play at these great courses, it changes the norm, what everyone thinks is the norm,” Lewis said. “It’s like the way only guys get to play golf on Saturdays at some places. Why can’t women play golf on Saturdays?
“We can change the perception about women playing at these prestigious clubs. We need to be the ones who start that change. It’s gotten better, with women becoming members of clubs, but it’s still about making women more comfortable playing there. That’s what we’re trying to change.”