Kohler, Wis. – It has been 14 years since the U.S. Women’s Open was last contested here at Blackwolf Run, and much has changed in the game, with the biggest change probably in the clubs and the balls contestants will use to attack one of the more demanding championship courses in recent memory.
But one thing that hasn’t changed, and never will, is that competitive golf is played as much in the mind as on the ground. It’s likely then, that any player who this week can utter the phrase “if memory serves,” will more than likely be served well.
|THE PERFECT TEN
|Players In 2012 Women's Open Who Also Competed In 1998
|Se Ri Pak (Won)
Pat Hurst (T-4)
Lorie Kane (T-19)
Wendy Ward (T-19)
Karrie Webb (T-31)
*-Isabelle Beisiegel (T-36)
Cristie Kerr (60)
Catriona Matthew (MC)
Juli Inkster (MC)
*-Nicole Castrale (MC)
Ten players in the field of 156 competed on Blackwolf Run’s original championship course in 1998, including Se Ri Pak, who defeated amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn in a 20-hole playoff to become, at the time, the youngest winner of the championship.
The layout, made up of nine holes from the River Course and nine from Meadow Valleys Course, is about 500 yards longer and with par increased to 72 after the seventh hole was converted to a par 5. Nevertheless, this is predominantly the same track upon which Pak and Chuasiriporn finished at 6-over-par 290 to set up their 18-hole playoff that eventually extended to sudden death.
“I think it's definitely an advantage to have played here the last time to know where you can hit it, where you can't miss it and kind of overall how the course is going to play, how they move tees around,” said 2007 U.S. Women’s Open champion Cristie Kerr, who played her first national championship as a pro – and third overall – at Blackwolf Run. “I remember hitting a 7‑iron into the sixth hole from an up tee to the front-right pin.
“I think that because I've been here before, I kind of know what to expect. And I have more of a comfort level certainly than I did in 1998,” added Kerr, who finished 60th at 27-over 311 with weekend rounds of 82-81 on the Pete Dye design.
If any returning player has the highest comfort level, it’s Pak, naturally, who said, “My career started this week 14 years ago.”
But perhaps as a way of deflecting attention or pressure as the last winner here, Pak, refuted the notion that experience matters.
“All I remember [about] this golf course, doesn't matter how many times you play, how long you spend time here,” said Pak, 34, who is recovering from a shoulder injury. “I remember it was so difficult. But whatever the USGA setup, the golf course is really hard. Especially this year, I guess, more, actually, the distance.”
Other players returning to Blackwolf Run include Pat Hurst, who finished tied for fourth place, Lorie Kane and Wendy Ward, who tied for 19th, Karrie Webb (T-31), Isabelle Beisiegel (T-36 as an amateur), and Juli Inkster and Catriona Matthew (missed cut).
Hurst, the highest returning finisher – after Pak – said her performance 14 years ago was built on hitting greens in regulation. (She ranked 11th for the week.) But with Dye’s diabolical angles to contend with, every part of the game was under stress.
“I don’t remember a lot about the individual holes, but I do remember how well I hit the ball overall,” Hurst said. “It was hard then and it’s hard now, and I would venture that what Se Ri shot to win, that might be good enough again. The only thing that could help us is the rain making the greens a little more receptive.”
“When everybody said ‘Blackwolf Run,’ I always said that's the toughest golf course I ever played,” said two-time Women’s Open champion Inkster, who is making a record-tying 33rd Open appearance this week. “With the wind blowing, the greens were firm, the rough was up, it was just tough. The greens are a little more susceptible now because we got a little rain. They're rolling great. I don't think the rough is up as much as it was in '98, but it's still tough.”
Hurst and Pak both pointed out that Blackwolf Run is among the most arduous mental challenges they have faced in the last 15 years. Seldom is a shot straightforward.
“And every day they’re going to change the tees and the hole locations, so you have a whole different set of challenges,” Hurst said. “Still, I think I would rather have played here before. There’s a bit of an advantage in having seen how certain holes play in general.”
“Every single hole you have to really plan for your next shot,” Pak said. “You have to really have course management – what you’re trying to miss. Just miss the wrong side, and you don't have a chance. It's going to be tons of work to do.”
Well, yes, hard work is required every year at the U.S. Women’s Open. Which makes it the U.S. Women’s Open.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.