When Jessica Korda won the Airbus LPGA Classic two weeks ago, she thanked Paul Azinger for lessons in the finer points of the short game.
The winner of the U.S. Women’s Open in two week’s time just might be thanking the men as a whole for showing the way at Pinehurst No. 2.
With the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open about to be played in back-to-back weeks on the same venue, a historic first in major championship play, the women have a chance to scout the event in ways they never have before.
With the men playing the U.S. Open first, the women and their caddies will be taking notes.
“I’ll be watching every second it’s on TV,” said Morgan Pressel, winner of the 2007 Kraft Nabisco Championship. “You’re given an early look, to see how the golf course plays. I’m sure the pins will be relatively similar, so we’ll get a good look at how shots react coming into greens. I think it will be very helpful.”
Count Michelle Wie and Inbee Park among the women who will be riveted to their television sets during the U.S. Open.
“I don’t typically watch a whole lot of golf, but I definitely will be watching a lot,” Wie said. “It’s going to be interesting, because we’ve never done this before. I’m not sure exactly what to look for, but I think the things I will be watching for are what happens with approach shots, how shots roll off greens. I think I’ll be looking to see where players are struggling from, where you don’t want to go, where you do want to go.”
Park won the U.S. Women’s Open a year ago and is eager to defend her title. She will be paying particularly close attention to what short-game choices the men make when they miss those turtle-back greens.
“I think we will be able to get a good idea of what shots to play,” Park said. “I think it’s going to be a big help seeing how they play. I’ll pay the most attention to how they chip to these greens, and to the different shots they hit around the greens.”
Park is the best putter in women’s golf, and she’s curious how much she’ll be able to use her putter from off those greens.
“I like to use my putter as many times as I can,” she said. “I think it’s the safest club in the bag around the greens. I want to putt wherever I can.”
There’s more to this than the women playing the same course. The USGA is determined to try to set up Pinehurst No. 2 so the men and women will be playing it in relatively the same conditions.
“I suppose that if I was a female playing in the U.S. Women's Open, I would be watching very, very closely that first week,” USGA executive director Mike Davis said. “Because they're going to get an idea of where a hole location is going to be, and how setup is going to be. That gets to some of the intent of having this back to back.”
The U.S. Open will be set up as a par 70 with a scorecard yardage of 7,562 yards. The women will also play it as a par 70 but from 6,649 yards.
“To the extent possible, we want these two weeks to play exactly the same, given the slightly differing ability of the men versus the women,” Davis said. “So you're going see the setup of the greens with the same speed in week one as week two. They're going to be roughly 11½ to 12 on the Stimpmeter. You're going to see us use roughly the same hole locations. You can't use the exact hole locations, for obvious reasons.”
While the aim is to set up the same green speeds, the USGA will be looking to soften the greens slightly for the women. That’s one of the reasons the women are following the men, Davis said. It’s easier to soften greens in a week’s time for the women than it would be to firm them up in a week’s time for the men, he said.
Why soften the greens for the women?
“The idea there is that if the men are hitting a wedge in, and it's kind of a bounce, stop, that’s what we’ll want for the women,” Davis said. “If the women are hitting a 6‑iron in and it's a bounce, bounce, stop. That's what we want for the men.”
Of course, so much depends on weather.
“This all sounds wonderful on paper,” Davis said. “I can assure you we have spent a lot of time thinking about this. Will we get it perfect? I can guarantee we will not get this thing perfect. I can promise you. But the idea is we're going to try to have them play the same golf course.”
The women have their concerns, and they’ve made them public. Though the USGA is trying to set it up so the men and women have different common landing areas, there will be issues with divots, especially on par 5s, where the men and women tend to lay up in the same areas.
There may be issues with the edges of the course getting beat up with the U.S. Open getting so much more foot traffic than the women will get.
Still, there’s a unique opportunity to these back-to-back tests that LPGA commissioner Mike Whan is embracing.
“Is there the potential more people will care about the U.S. Women’s Open than ever before? Absolutely,” Whan said. “Will some of that be related to who hit out of what divot? Yeah, probably. Will that be frustrating for players, yes? But when you ask me as commissioner, this is a huge upside opportunity.”
For so many of the game’s best women, there’s keen interest in the men’s game, in what they can learn from watching the best men.
Korda sought out Azinger, the 12-time PGA Tour winner and ESPN analyst, for help earlier this year. She used lessons learned to help her win the Airbus LPGA Classic last month, her second title this season.
“I was struggling a lot with my short game, in general,” Korda said. “I wanted to be a bit more creative, and who’s better to go to than Paul Azinger? He helped me a lot around the greens and on the greens as well.”
That short game work should come in handy at Pinehurst No. 2, where it’s so difficult to hit greens.
“When I first started to work with Jessica, she was putting from 30 feet, 40 feet off the green, if she could,” Azinger said. “She really couldn't pitch the ball in the air. Her bunker game wasn't sharp at all. I just worked with her on what I felt were age‑old fundamentals, just technique on how to pitch the ball in the air, and how to use the bounce, and get rid of that leading edge. The leading edge is fatal when you're trying to get the ball in the air, and I got her to understand that. She's a mega-talent, as gifted an athlete as there is on that tour.”
Wie can relate to lessons learned from the men. She plays out of the Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Fla., where she often practices with the men. She has learned a lot practicing there with Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Camilo Villegas.
“I work on the short game a lot with them,” Wie said. “We have flop-shot contests, who can hit it the closest, and we’ll see who can pull off the most ridiculous shots. I think it’s the mental part, though, the way they play, that has benefitted me the most. I don’t want to say they play carefree, but they’ll take risks, and if they don’t work out, it’s not the end of the world. I feel like I’ve learned a lot from that.”
The education promises to continue at Pinehurst No. 2.