PINEHURST, N.C. – One week ago at Pinehurst, Martin Kaymer popped the drama balloon so early that by Sunday we were left wondering not who, but by how much. Blowouts in this game are rarely fun. The second act of this double feature, however, has been superb.
Michelle Wie walked inside the ropes with Jessica Korda during the final round of the men’s event, and when she looked up at the grandstands on the 18th, she got chills.
“It really just got me pumped up for Sunday,” Wie said. “I told her I was like, ‘Hey, let’s play in the afternoon here.’ ”
A birdie-birdie finish in the second round on No. 2 gave Wie a second 2-under 68 and a three-shot lead heading into the weekend at Pinehurst. After finishing an early round, Wie was off to watch her new addiction, “Game of Thrones,” and figured she’d be asleep by 8:30 p.m. It’s the first time the 24-year-old has led a major after 36 holes.
Last Sunday’s gallery felt like 400,000 to Wie (it was more like 55,000), but her walk with Kaymer showed the tour’s biggest star a new goal for the LPGA.
“I think it really puts it in perspective of where we want to get to,” Wie said. “So I think it definitely pushes us a lot harder when we see that, face-to-face. I think it motivates all of us.”
The USGA expects Sunday’s gallery for the women to be somewhere around 25,000. Many believed back-to-back national championships had the potential to really elevate the women’s game, and nothing could be more perfect to drive home that point than the Big Wiesy showing off on the most-hyped stage in women’s golf history.
Add to the mix Kraft Nabisco champion Lexi Thompson, who ran away from Wie in the year’s first major, and it’s shaping up to be a dreamy weekend. Thompson matched Wie’s 68 thanks to a trio of birdies on Nos. 3-5 and trails Wie by three strokes.
The USGA made it clear from the start that they wanted to give the women a similar test to the men, right down to hole locations. If that’s true, Saturday’s test should be a doozy.
“If the best female players in the world were paying attention,” USGA tournament director Ben Kimball said Wednesday, “they would maybe get a little preview of what they could see this week.”
There’s such a wonderful mix of characters in the women’s game, and this championship highlights it best with fresh-faced amateurs sharing the spotlight alongside seasoned pros. Fans fell in love with Lucy Li, who looked like a porcelain doll floating around Pinehurst in her ruffled skirts.
Catherine O’Donnell, a 24-year-old pro who happily played alongside Li both days, said friends suggested she show up to the tee Friday wearing a matching outfit.
“I don’t think think they have a tutu in my size,” O’Donnell cracked.
It’s worth noting that the only two players under par thus far at Pinehurst are former child prodigies.
Chasing Wie is another amateur, 18-year-old Minjee Lee, who was on a path of success similar to Lydia Ko before falling out of a golf cart and breaking her ankle two years ago. The native of Perth, Australia, won the 2014 Victoria Open and the Australian Amateur for the second consecutive year.
While Lee is making her USWO debut, she came last year as a guest of Karrie Webb for winning her scholarship series. Lee is staying with Webb again this year and beating her mentor by three shots at Pinehurst. Webb won her second USWO title in 2001 down the road at Pine Needles.
“If you ask her, she probably told you that she’s not playing well,” Webb said of Lee and then laughed.
Top-ranked Stacy Lewis called her opening day “easy” after missing only one green and one fairway in her first-round 67. The opposite was true Friday as she posted the worst score among players in the top 10, a 3-over 73. She hit 11 greens.
“I hung around and that’s what you’ve got to do at this tournament,” said Lewis, who welcomes even tougher conditions this weekend.
Juli Inkster predicted earlier this week that a first-timer wouldn’t win at Pinehurst. Four former U.S. Women’s Open champions are in the top 10 – including 2010 winner Paula Creamer, ’11 winner So Yeon Ryu and ’12 winner Na Yeon Choi.
“We want to put them on the same stage, have the same shots, the same amount of pressure that the men had in the previous week,” Kimball said.
Minus the solo act.