Women get shot to take on Oakmont
Oakmont. Pinehurst. Pebble Beach. Venues that conjure up some of golf’s most celebrated moments – for men.
Now the women get a chance – beginning this year at Oakmont – to etch their place in history. The U.S. Women’s Open rota includes traditional courses that resonate, even with casual golf fans.
This will mark the second staging of the Women’s Open at Oakmont, where Juli Inkster lost a playoff to Patty Sheehan over Henry Fownes’ demanding design in 1992.
“It’s huge for us as far as respectability and accountability,” said Inkster, exempt this year because of her ’02 Open victory.
The women will share an Open venue with the men for the first time in 2014 when they play Pinehurst No. 2 the week after the U.S. Open. Pebble Beach is regarded as a frontrunner for the 2016 Women’s Open.
Mike Davis, senior director of rules and competitions for the U.S. Golf Association, said the association aims to find a combination of good markets where the Women’s Open will be the “happening of the year.” In huge markets, the premier event in women’s golf tends to get lost.
So while venues such as Blackwolf Run (Wisconsin) and Old Waverly (Mississippi) attract good crowds, players and fans appreciate when the USGA tosses a top-shelf venue such as Oakmont into the mix.
“Spectators like to see how the men and women compare,” Australia’s Lindsey Wright said.
Angela Stanford agrees, but cautions that women shouldn’t have a steady diet of tracks typically played by men. Fans don’t appreciate the differences between the genders’ games, she said.
Davis must take a keen interest in the differences. As the man in charge of setting up USGA championships, Davis has to figure out how to test the women July 8-11 at Oakmont – arguably golf’s most difficult track – without going overboard.
“This will be the hardest Women’s Open course you will see,” Davis said.
For starters, veterans such as Inkster won’t recognize the place. More than 5,000 trees have been removed since the women last played Oakmont.
“The biggest change was we moved the bunkers in up against the fairways and we deepened them,” longtime head pro Bob Ford said. “The driving zones are incredibly penal. It’s going to take a gal that can really drive it straight, who has the courage to drive it straight, and one that really putts out of her mind for a week.”
In ’92, torrential rain resulted in a local newspaper renaming the site “Soakmont.” Players experienced Oakmont without its sharpest teeth.
“If the greens (this year) are hard and fast,” Ford said, “it’s going to be a beating.”
Ford said it’s not about length at Oakmont; it’s about accuracy. Inkster recalls trying to be long on most of the holes, as several greens slope from front to back.
Davis, who was responsible for setup at the ’07 U.S. Open at Oakmont, said the rough was too penal that year. The women can expect shorter rough and softer greens, the latter because women generate less spin on the ball.
The course will play 6,598 yards; the men played it at 7,230 yards in ’07. While it was a par 70 in ’07, the women will play it as par 71, with the ninth hole set up as a par 5.
Angel Cabrera won in ’07 at 5 over. Ford said he’d be “shocked” if the women broke par.
One of the best putters in the women’s game is eager to test Oakmont’s renowned greens.
“On those greens, I feel like I can do something special,” said Cristie Kerr, the ’07 Women’s Open champion at Saucon Valley.
According to Ford, Oakmont’s green speeds average about 12 on the Stimpmeter for its courageous membership. In 2007, the men faced greens speeds that were in the mid-to-high 14s, according to Davis.
Future Women's Opens
• 2011: Broadmoor, Colorado Springs, Colo.
• 2012: Blackwolf Run GC, Kohler, Wis.
• 2013: Sebonack GC, Southhampton, N.Y.
• 2014: Pinehurst (N.C.) No. 2
• 2015: Lancaster (Pa.) CC
“Can we get them that high for the women?” Davis asked rhetorically. “I’m not really sure.”
Davis has consulted with a who’s who of former players – Annika Sorenstam, Judy Rankin and Dottie Pepper, among them – about what to do with Oakmont’s greens. PGA Tour players face faster greens than LPGA players do on a weekly basis.
Inkster, for one, would like to face the same green speeds as the men.
“I think it would be detrimental to us if we didn’t,” she said.
Others, however, think the adjustment would be too fierce. Davis said Oakmont’s undulating greens have the potential to be “something LPGA players have never seen in their lives.” He expects to set the speeds at 13-13 1/2 for the Women’s Open.
There was a time when Ford told reporters that whoever wins at Oakmont, host of 17 major championships since 1903, will be someone deeply familiar with the course. When Sam Parks Jr. won the 1935 U.S. Open, he was on property 30 days earlier, learning the greens.
But since Jack Nicklaus won the Open in ’62, Ford said no champion has been on the grounds before the week of the championship.
“That’s pretty phenomenal,” Ford said. “I would say, maybe you’re better off not coming here and getting scared.”