Oakmont: Golf’s version of downhill slalom
Women’s Open: Wednesday at Oakmont
Images from the Wednesday's practice round at the U.S. Women's Open.
OAKMONT, Pa. – Anna Nordqvist took copious notes on the 18th green at Oakmont on Wednesday, testing downhill sliders with Brittany Lincicome. Though she left college early, Nordqvist always has been a strong student. The quiet Swede might not be the first person who comes to mind when picking favorites, but we learned from last year’s LPGA Championship that she shouldn’t be overlooked.
What will it take to win at Oakmont? A fantastic short game (check); accurate positioning (check); nerves of steel (can I check twice?). This is Steel Country, and in Oakmont the women will tackle the toughest course they’ve ever played.
A two-time winner on the LPGA tour last year and one of the tour’s best putters, Nordqvist hasn’t had an overly impressive sophomore campaign. She chalks that up to life changes (moving from Arizona to Orlando) and swing changes (using her body more efficiently) that will help her more long-term. She did win that quirky, unofficial event in Jamaica, yet didn’t exactly take off from there.
“I’ve tried to be patient with it, because I know I’m working on the right things,” Nordqvist said.
Nordqvist, 23, handles pressure situations so well because she loves challenges. The pressure and obligations that came with winning motivated her to want more. While other players seemed intimidated by the demands of Oakmont, Nordqvist smiled at the challenge. It’s exactly what she expects from a U.S. Women’s Open.
“It’s not just about hitting the greens,” she said. “There’s a lot more thinking than any other week.”
One thing Nordqvist has concentrated on this year is creating more balance in her life off the course. With her parents still working back home in Sweden, Nordqvist found professional life to be lonely at times. On Wednesday afternoon after her practice round, Nordqvist played a game of tennis with Brittany Lincicome in scorching heat. She looked forward to letting loose in the midst of a demanding week.
“This is more of a lifestyle I can have for 15-20 years,” she said.
Especially if she keeps collecting majors.
Major Moments 2010: Tour Oakmont’s 17th with Lincicome
Ultimate test: Mike Davis, the man in charge of setting up USGA championships, is a reporter’s dream. His explanations of Oakmont, which is playing 6,613 yards with greens rolling in the low 14s on the Stimpmeter, are so thorough and engaging that he practically writes the story himself. Not a bad idea, actually:
• “When Oakmont is dry, it’s as good as any golf course – as far as what the USGA is trying to do for a test of golf – that I can think of.”
• “With respect to where we are right now, I can tell you the golf course is darn near perfect. In fact, it is perfect.”
• “The last three days – including today – you hope that the players really studied this golf course, because I think that this requires more study in terms of local knowledge than any championship site we play.”
• “You really do need to avoid these drive-zone bunkers because it’s a half stroke to maybe three quarters of a stroke penalty.”
• “We go to painstaking lengths to really analyze where we are with the firmness (of greens) every single day. We take firmness readings three times a day – every green, nine different quadrants in each green.”
• “I think there is no doubt that Oakmont Country Club – at least in my time with the USGA – will be the hardest Women’s Open venue that these players have seen. . . . So I know our timing rovers will be wearing out their stopwatches this week.”
How low will they go? Everyone has his or her number. Almost all are over par. Davis hesitates to throw out a winning score out because it largely depends on the weather. The forecast calls for storms Friday, which will soften the course for a weekend that’s supposed to be a bit cooler (temperatures in the low 80s).
This reporter’s guess is 7 over. It seems a given that some of these players won’t break 90. Davis acknowledges there will be big numbers, but said he sets up the course focusing on the top half of the field.
Major Moments 2010: USGA’s Davis breaks down Oakmont setup
Missing-person’s report: Natalie Gulbis made her first appearance at Oakmont on Wednesday. She caused a stir on the driving range and putting green, then drew an impressive line at the merchandise tent. Gulbis’ handlers had to turn people away after an hour of signing because she had First Tee and Golf Channel obligations.
“It’s going to be a long week,” said Gulbis, when asked why she took two days off. Americans at the U.S. Open, she noted, usually have a hectic calendar. In January, Gulbis had laser surgery on her back and said the time off this week is a precautionary measure.
Gulbis, who is near the end of a five-week stretch, played the course several times five weeks ago but acknowledged that much had changed since then. She planned to play nine holes Wednesday afternoon.
Gulbis has yet to post a top-20 finish in 2010. Her best Open finish is T-4 in 2005.
Kids these days: There are 23 teenagers in the field this week, including three 14-year-olds: Yueer “Cindy” Feng, Gabriella Then and Airya Jutanugarn. Four of the teens are playing as professionals: Chella Choi (19), Kimberly Kim (18), Jenny Shin (17) and Alexis Thompson (15).
Juli Inkster, 50, is one of four players in the field who played here in 1992. (She lost in a playoff to Patty Sheehan.) When asked how she has been able to keep up with the youngsters for so long, Inkster credited her “great genes.”
“You know, I haven’t had to take any time off because of injuries,” she said. “Pregnancies, but that’s self-inflicted.”