A couple of posts ago wrote about my affinity and enthusiasm for the United States Open Championship. I opined that if you are a golfer or golf fan, it’s a must-see in person kind of event. While that remains my belief I may have a better idea for you… get your soft spokes to a United States Women’s Open Championship. The venue is less crowded, the athletes just as talented and you just might find the experience more enjoyable.
Last time I checked the women play for five major championship trophies each year and the U. S. Women’s Open is, by far, the most prestigious. 2011 Champion Seo Yeon Ryu once said, “the entire world focuses on the U.S. Women’s Open”. Despite that you’ll find the players that are friendly and accessible at your run of the mill LPGA tournament are just as friendly and accessible here (especially on Tuesday or Wednesday). Disappointingly, the ones that are not, are just as not. I arrived at the 2016 U. S. Women’s Open at CordeValle Golf Club bright and early Thursday morning ready to watch some of the greatest players on the planet compete for a major.
I was at Oakmont for the U.S. Open weeks earlier and the first thing I noticed this time around was the vibe was much more laid back. Fewer people made for fewer headaches. The lines were short, the people less grouchy and the grounds easier to navigate. As my want I headed straight for the merchandise tent. The shopping space is much smaller than at a men’s open and the selection less impressive. Unscientifically I concluded that the ration of women’s options to men’s was about 70-30 in favor of the fairer sex but I found what I wanted and headed for the exit. No lines, no hassles, in and out in 10 minutes and ready to see what the day would bring. A quick glance at the groupings sheet told me I had a full day of great golf ahead. I planned the start to my day around the morning grouping of Defending Champion In Gee Chun, U. S. Women’s Amateur Champion Hannah O’Sullivan and Stacy Lewis. The afternoon had several options including a group featuring 2014 champ Michelle Wie.
There were other interesting groups to follow in the morning but I chose Chun’s because I wanted to see, up close and in person, the different personality and playing styles of In Gee and Stacey. I had seen them both on TV and thought I knew what to expect. I was also excited by the prospect of watching O’Sullivan, one of the world’s best amateurs and a sure-fire professional prospect. I strolled up to the first tee, got right up against the gallery ropes (a mere 15 feet from the teeing ground) and waited for the threesome to arrive. The first player to appear was Chun. With a big, natural smile on her face she acknowledged the applause with a wave or two. Next came O’Sullivan who appeared much more nervous but still managed a smile and a nod to the assembled crowd. Then came Lewis who looked the way she always looks, like she just came from a seven hour IRS audit. No smile, no wave, a slight, almost imperceptible nod to those kind enough to clap for her. After the customary announcement Chun ripped her first tee shot right down the middle. Lewis’s and O’Sullivan’s balls didn’t go as far or as straight but we were off.
I was joined by at least a hundred other folks so finding a spot along the rope line with all three players in sight was an easy task. I grant you that it was Thursday morning but if this had been Oakmont and defending champion Jordan Spieth had been the target such stellar access would have been impossible. After assessing the crowd as happy, excited and knowledgeable I turned my attention to the approach shots, O’Sullivan was first. I get that she is young and playing with two of women’s golf’s biggest stars might be intimidating but it took her a full minute to hit her short iron approach to the first green. Chun and Lewis each played in less than half that time. It wasn’t an anomaly. She took almost exactly the same amount of time to play every shot and through no fault of the two professionals in the group they were a hole behind by the time they reached the third tee. By the sixth tee they were “on the clock”. Playing with the “flaps down” O’Sullivan managed to scrape her way to 4 over par through 5 holes. After the USGA traffic cop gave her a warning for going slow in the fast lane and implored her to pick up the pace she played the next 13 holes in 4 under par. Imagine that.
RANT ALERT !!!
8, 10 and 12 year-old girls (and there were hundreds of them at CordeValle) are going to want to be like Hannah O’Sullivan and who can blame them. She’s cute, athletic, talented and wears FootJoys with “I golf” stamped on the right heel. She is already an accomplished player and no doubt has a bright professional future ahead of her. There is no need to rush success but how about when it comes your turn to play, play. If an aspiring young player thinks your pre-shot routine is the way to approach every shot, then we’re all in big trouble. And so, sadly, is the game of golf. As a long time player and fan of the sport I find it an unsettling and disturbing trend. I saw it in person with O’Sullivan, you see it on television with Jordan Spieth. Young, terribly talented, terribly slow, players. Pedantic pace of play is a disease that can cause lasting and irreparable harm to this great game. Especially in this day and age.
RANT OVER – we now return to our regularly scheduled blog post.
I left that group and went in search of history. Se Ri Pak was playing in her 19th and final United States Women’s Open. She won the championship in 1998 and started a phenomenon. Before Pak burst onto the scene, Koreans had won exactly one LPGA event. Since that historic victory her countrywomen are responsible for 142 wins, many of them major championships, several of them U.S. Women’s Opens. Se Ri Pak, and Se Ri Pak alone is the reason for that. She did much more than anyone hoped or imagined Tiger Woods would do for the sport. She energized an entire nation, set a standard of excellence and instilled an achievable dream in the hearts and minds of a country full of parents, children, brothers and sisters. She competed with class and grace and is leaving the game in better hands than she found it. At every green along her final U. S. Women’s Open journey the fans let her know how much she is appreciated by the strength of their cheers and applause. I know Se Ri Pak would have wanted to thank each of them personally if there were time.
By the time the afternoon wave of players hit balls with a purpose the sun had burned off all the early cloud cover and thousands more golf fans had arrived. They were here to see Creamer, Henderson, Thompson, Ko, Lincicome, Wie and more. The group of a hundred or so who joined me to watch the defending champion a few hours ago now numbered in the thousands as Angela Stanford, Sandra Gal and Michelle Wie began their 2016 U. S. Women’s Open on the tenth hole. Many walked with me and just as many stayed behind to be joined by others waiting for Lydia, Brooke and Lexi who would tee it up two groups later. I wanted to watch Wie. She hasn’t won since her U. S. Women’s Open victory two years ago but she is still a commanding presence on the golf course and demands attention. As I walked ahead I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard someone in the gallery say, “this next group is Michelle Wie’s group”, or “here comes Michelle Wie.”
The golf course at CordeValle is built into the hills of San Martin, California about a half an hour south of San Jose. It’s a good walk. Not from San Jose (that would be silly) but around the course once you get here. A continuous cart path borders the entire layout. I don’t know if it was the routing, the roping and staking, or the fact that there weren’t 35,000 other people on site but unlike the men’s open I got to see golf shots played on all 18 holes hit by players I specifically wanted to watch. Sometimes, like with Wie or Chun, I had company. Other times it was just me Lee Ann Pace, Sung Hyun Park and Chella Choi. That would never happen at a men’s open. Believe me when I say I am not casting aspersions on people that are or do the following things but another difference between the folks who attend most men’s opens and most women’s opens is, on this day, nobody was drunk, nobody was rude and nobody was puffing needlessly on a big, fat, smelly cigar. Another thing you won’t find at a men’s open are port-o-lets that are convenient, plentiful, devoid of long lines, and for the most part clean considering they are there for the benefit of humans of all shapes and sizes. Hey these little things matter!
So I will reiterate my unconditional recommendation that you attend a United States Open Championship in person but would offer this caveat. Go to a Women’s Open instead of a Men’s Open. Some of the host cities during the course of the next several years include Charleston, SC, Houston, TX, and San Francisco, CA. I can’t promise you’ll have as good a time as I had but what I can promise you is that you will see world class athletes whose skills will be tested by the game’s most challenging conditions. If that isn’t enough, those athletes will, for the most part, be amazingly friendly, exceedingly accessible and a joy to watch. You will be treated to a championship test in a much more comfortable setting. Oh and be sure to bring your sunscreen and a Sharpie because you can bet that sunshine and autographs will be plentiful.