The stage is set for women’s golf to finally get the attention it deserves.
The U.S. Women’s Open is the biggest prize on the LPGA Tour schedule and has been for years. It starts Thursday at CordeValle Golf Club, located among the vineyards a few hours south of San Francisco, only the third Women’s Open to be played in California. No other major sporting events are scheduled for late afternoon this weekend, golf included. Devastating flooding forced the PGA Tour to cancel The Greenbrier Classic in West Virginia.
The cast of characters is stronger than ever.
Lydia Ko and Brooke Henderson might be the latest rivalry to take root in women’s golf, both teenagers, each claiming a major championship this year. Not to be overlooked is Ariya Jutanugarn of Thailand, who won three straight times in May and probably should have won the ANA Inspiration in California, the first major of the year.
What can go wrong? Historically, there is reason to worry.
The last time the LPGA Tour had the stage to itself was in 2005 at Cherry Hills (Colorado) for the U.S. Women’s Open, and the tour promised a great show and a big future.
Among those tied for the lead going into the final round was a pair of teens in ponytails, 15-year-old Michelle Wie and 17-year-old Morgan Pressel. One shot behind was 18-year-old Paula Creamer, fresh off high school graduation. Still in the mix was Annika Sorenstam, the dominant player in her sport going for the third leg of the Grand Slam on the very course where Arnold Palmer charged to victory for his only U.S. Open.
Lights, camera, struggles.
On a Cherry Hills course with brutal rough and fast greens, the lasting image was Wie missing putts inside 3 feet on three out of four holes on her way to an 82. Sorenstam, five shots behind, tried to drive the first green just like Palmer did in 1960. She hit a tree, went into the creek and made bogey. Creamer struggled to move the ball more than 10 feet out of the rough. Lorena Ochoa snap-hooked a tee shot into the water on the 18th right when it looked like she was the winner.
This was not a celebration of women’s golf it should have been. It was an occasion to cringe.
That wasn’t the only time when the elements won out over timing. Go back to 2001 to find the mixed-team version of the “Battle at Bighorn” in California featuring a quartet of the best in golf — Tiger Woods and Sorenstam against David Duval and Karrie Webb. They had won five of the six majors that had been played that year.
The LPGA Tour commissioner at the time was Ty Votaw, who said the Monday night exhibition on a network (ABC Sports) in prime time would be the biggest day in LPGA history “based on the number of eyeballs that are going to be on our product.”
What he couldn’t predict was that 30 minutes before they teed off, the notorious Santa Ana wind showed up. It brought 30 mph of hot air that came roaring over the mountains and created some of the toughest conditions of the year for men or women.
Webb hit a 20-foot birdie putt some 60 feet beyond the hole when a gust showed up at the wrong time. Sorenstam hit a 25-foot birdie putt some 30 yards into the fairway because of the slope and a gust. It looked bad.
The hope was that another moment like Cherry Hills would arrive, and here it is.
What makes it the most successful women’s sport is that the LPGA has been going at it alone for six decades. They are not subsidized like the WNBA. They do not share the golf course with the men during the Grand Slam events. They have to work harder, and they do.
The LPGA survived the retirement of Sorenstam and Ochoa two years apart and now has the potential for a most compelling rivalry.
Ko won her first LPGA Tour event at age 15, and she might as well have “the youngest” as part of her name for all the records she keeps setting. She won two majors at 18, and the question now is when her LPGA victories (13) will catch up to her age (19).
Henderson won for the first time last year when she was 17 and not even eligible to be an LPGA member. The Canadian delivered the most clutch moment in a major this year when she tracked down Ko in the final round of KPMG Women’s PGA Championship in Washington with a long eagle putt and a tough par, then won in a playoff by coolly stuffing her approach into 3 feet.
They are Nos. 1 and 2 in the world. Nothing could lift the LPGA Tour like those two battling at CordeValle.
What women’s golf needs now are plenty of eyeballs and predictable weather. And for the USGA to do better than it did at Oakmont.