KOHLER, Wis. – Expect players at a U.S. Women’s Open to tread cautiously around the topic of course difficulty in the days leading up to the first round. If a venue has the chops to stage a national championship, it won’t play easy.
But amid the rolling hills of Wisconsin, players have come up just short of being fearful of Blackwolf Run. A look at the lush layout, which puts a premium on placement, brings into play water hazards and weeds at every opportunity and favors long hitters, and it’s easy to see why.
“When everybody said Blackwolf Run, I always said, ‘That’s the toughest golf course I ever played,’” said Juli Inkster, in the field the last time Blackwolf Run hosted in 1998 and returning this week for her 33rd Women’s Open. “And it was. With the wind blowing, the greens were firm, the rough was up, it was tough.”
Paula Creamer, the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open champion, had to pause for several seconds before she could answer this question: Which is harder, Oakmont (in 2010) or Blackwolf Run?
In the end, the answer was Oakmont, despite similarities between the two in terms of visuals and undulations.
“It’s different in imagination-type wise,” Creamer said. “Oakmont just in itself is a very difficult golf course. I think the USGA will make this one a difficult golf course with how they set it up.”
Blackwolf Run this year will play 500 yards longer than in ’98, which brings it to 6,954 yards. That earns this Pete Dye track the distinction of being the longest U.S. Women’s Open layout at sea level.
Ben Kimball, director of the U.S. Women’s Open for the USGA, calls Blackwolf Run a second-shot golf course. He said the USGA reviewed the ’98 championship in terms of what worked and what didn’t, and made some significant changes for this return visit. The most notable of which was changing the par-4 seventh hole, which plays at 550 yards this week and will be into the wind if it blows from the north, to a par 5. That’s a change heartily approved by Se Ri Pak, the ’98 champion, especially considering that hole played to the second-highest scoring average the year she won.
“I think that’s a pretty great change, because back then it was more the longest par 4, and then always into the wind,” she said.
If this year follows the trends of 1998, expect players to score at Nos. 13-15 (par 3, par 4, par 4). The fifth hole, a 409-yard par 4 this week, was the most difficult last time around. Kimball doesn’t expect that to change.
In short, Blackwolf Run will be a stern test all around, but welcome to the U.S. Women’s Open: It’s not for the feint of heart.