SAN FRANCISCO – When Shanshan Feng conceded her consolation match to Ariya Jutanugarn on Sunday at the Bank of Hope Match Play, in order to get some rest before the U.S. Women’s Open, it begged the question about how players prepare for the biggest events of the year.
“If I play 18 more, I don't know how I will do. I might fall over on the course. I don't think I should push myself that bad,” Feng, who played 41 holes the day before to advance to the semifinals, said after conceding her match.
The practice of skipping the tournament the week prior to a major championship has been commonplace on the PGA Tour. And it avoids situations like the one Feng found herself in. Jack Nicklaus famously wouldn’t compete the week prior to a major championship and instead would head to the major site early in order to scout the course. On the other hand, Inbee Park, a seven-time major champion, played last week’s event in Las Vegas where she was defeated in the Round of 16.
“I always kind of like to play something before the major tournament to just kind of get myself ready,” Park said Tuesday. “Sometimes I take a week off. Sometimes I don't. Most likely, I would like to play one before.”
On the LPGA Tour, the ability for players to cherry pick their schedule hasn’t always been a luxury. For years, tour opportunities were limited and players relished every chance they had to compete. But as the Tour continues to add more events, and purses continue to increase, more players can strategize a schedule that allows them to peak for the year’s biggest events.
Feng played 112 holes of golf in four and a half days. She said she’s never played so much and admittedly was tired. She felt her best option, having failed to advance to the finals, was to cut her losses and try and set herself up for success at the season’s second major. Feng found the rest well worth the sacrifice of $23,308.41, which was the amount she gave up by settling for fourth place instead of vying for third place in Las Vegas.
“Next week is the U.S. Open,” Feng said on Sunday. “It's a very hilly and challenging course, so, yeah, I just want to be well-rested and protect myself.”
Kay Cockerill, who is a member at The Olympic Club, was on the call for Golf Channel at the LPGA Match Play. Ahead of the event, Cockerill said in an interview on “The Amy and Adam Show” podcast that while she loves the match-play format, she believed players would need to make some major adjustments before heading to Northern California.
“Physically speaking, it’s not probably the best preparation,” Cockerill said on the podcast. “You’ve got Vegas, which is going to be 90 degrees. You’ve got altitude, warm air, thin air. They’re going to be hitting it two clubs further than they normally do. Then, they’re going to come down to sea level, with overcast [skies]. It's going to be in the 50s, low-60s, and you hit it one club less than you normally do.”
As a member at The Olympic Club, Cockerill shepherded multiple players around the course who wanted to get familiar with the venue, including Sei Young Kim, Lydia Ko, In Gee Chun and Austin Ernst. Ko visited the venue multiple times, which Cockerill says gives her a major advantage.
Ko, along with top-ranked Americans Nelly Korda, Jessica Korda and Lexi Thompson, were among the players who chose not to play in Las Vegas.
Nelly Korda’s decision came after thoughtful consideration with her team about how far she might advance. Nelly knew that the possibility of having to play 36 holes in a single day, in high temperatures, wasn’t something she wanted to do the week before a major championship.
“It's such a cool event and I wish I could have played it,” Nelly said Tuesday, “but I was just focusing on being prepared for this week.”
Instead, Nelly spent a few days relaxing and then went to work with both her coach and trainer to ensure her body was feeling 100% before competing this week. Her sister, Jessica, spent the week with their parents and watched the Match Play from home.
“Too much golf,” Jessica said with a laugh when asked why she chose not to play in Las Vegas. “Once I saw Sophia [Popov’s] feet kind of bleeding, I knew I made the right choice.”
Popov advanced to the final match with eventual champion Ally Ewing. Afterwards she posted on Twitter a photo of her sock soaked in blood.
The U.S. Women’s Open is the third event in a stretch of 12 consecutive tournaments, 13 if players qualify for the Summer Olympic Games. It’s the busiest part of the LPGA Tour season, which includes three of the season’s five major championships. It’s a time when players will need to evaluate priorities to maximize their energy and efficiency in order to peak for the season’s biggest events. And that means skipping tournaments.
“If it would have landed anywhere else in the schedule, I think that would have been an amazing event,” Jessica said about the Match Play. “I loved watching it.”
The new match-play event is likely the most exciting addition to the LPGA schedule, but its placement on the schedule during the week prior to one of the biggest events of the year, gave many top-ranked players no choice but to skip the event in hopes of achieving peak performance at the U.S. Women’s Open.
“All you want to do is be prepared going into the U.S. Open,” Nelly said.