Amateur Hour At U.S. Women's Open?

It has been 46 years since Catherine Lacoste's triumph


Reigning NCAA Division I champion and Long Island resident Annie Park is an amateur to watch at this week's U.S. Women's Open.
By Stuart Hall
June 26, 2013

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – Yani Tseng stood petrified on the driving range at Cherry Hills Country Club in suburban Denver. Her hands were shaking, her heart racing, and scattered along the range to her left and right were the marquee players of women’s golf.

"I was so nervous," said Tseng, then 17 and making her U.S. Women's Open debut in 2005. "It was already a dream come true to make the Women's Open, so anything else I did was just extra."

At the time, Tseng was in the midst of a well-decorated amateur career. She had defeated Michelle Wie for the U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links Championship in 2004 and was in the middle of a three-year reign as the No. 1-ranked amateur in Chinese Taipei.

 

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But that week in Colorado, she did little to back up her credentials. Tseng shot 80-74 to miss the cut.

 

"I think I was hitting the driver off of every tee," said Tseng, laughing. "I don't think I really had a strategy."

Every year a handful of amateurs arrive at the U.S. Women's Open and the question is asked: Can any of them be the first amateur to win since Catherine Lacoste won at The Homestead in Hot Springs, Va., in 1967?

Since Lacoste's win, four amateurs have finished second: Nancy Lopez in 1975, Jenny Chuasiriporn (in a playoff) in 1998, and Morgan Pressel and Brittany Lang at Cherry Hills in 2005. Prior to Lacoste, Sally Sessions and Polly Riley (1947), Betsy Rawls (1950) and Barbara McIntire (1956) also finished second.

Juli Inkster, who is making a record 34th start at this week's 68th U.S. Women's Open at Sebonack Golf Club, believes Lacoste will soon have company.

"The top amateurs are just so well prepared," said Inkster, 53, who played in her first U.S. Women's Open in 1978 and later won in 1999 and 2002. "Look at a player like Lydia Ko. I know she's an amateur, but I don't consider her one. She's played around the world and has already won two professional tournaments."

Ko is the player this week who many observers believe could join Lacoste.

The 16-year-old New Zealander is the world's No. 1-ranked female amateur, and is making her second start in the U.S. Women's Open. A year ago, Ko finished 39th and later in the summer won the U.S. Women's Amateur and the CN Canadian Women's Open, her second professional title. 

That Ko views a fourth-place tie at last week's LPGA Walmart NW Arkansas Championship as a bigger positive than her two wins last summer speaks to her growing comfort zone at the game's highest level.

"I think that was the biggest boost because it's much closer to this event," Ko said. "I think coming off a really good week makes me most confident. But you never know what's going to happen.

"I'm playing pretty well, but I get nervous. When I'm in nervous positions, that's when you don't hit it as well as you want to. I think that happens with all players. Hopefully I can perform to what I can."

Ko understands Inkster's perspective on experience and calculates that her amateur schedule the past year is comparable to that of an LPGA rookie's. Still, there is something about being a regular on tour.

"[As an amateur] you're seeing a lot of these courses for the very first time," Tseng said. "If I had to give [an amateur] any advice it would be to get a local caddie. They know where and where not to hit shots. This week, they need to remember it's OK to make a bogey or miss a 5-foot putt every now and then because everyone else is doing it."

Annie Park, one of the 20 amateurs in this week's field, learned that lesson the hard way a year ago. Park, 18, of nearby Levittown, N.Y., made her U.S. Women's Open debut a short one. She shot 81-84 at Blackwolf Run, and "wanted to just forget it. I do remember the heat, though," she said.

Park won four times as a freshman at the University of Southern California this spring, including a sweep of the Pac-12, NCAA West Regional and NCAA Division I championships. Not surprising, she was named the Women's Golf Coaches Association's Player and Freshman of the Year. She acknowledges that those experiences have better prepared her for this week.

"I learned that playing my own game is really the key when playing hard golf courses," said Park, who first played Sebonack last fall at the French-American Challenge and instantly fell in love with the course. "I just want to play well and not worry about where I stand [on the leader board]."

Park, who is using veteran Sebonack caddie Joe Carson, says that winning is not on her mind this week, and will not entertain such grand thoughts until maybe Sunday.

Inkster can relate. When she qualified for the 1978 U.S. Women's Open at Indianapolis Country Club, she had only been playing for three years.

"I never really followed women's golf," Inkster said. "I wasn't a big TV watcher, so I didn't know that much. But I remember seeing Nancy Lopez and JoAnne Carner, and I remember I shot 80 my first round."

She acquitted herself well, though, with a second-round 72 to make the cut and ultimately finished tied for 23rd. But it was not the finish that she remembers most.

"What I remember was going out to the range and seeing all brand new Titleists," she said. "I was like, 'Whoa.' So every day I fleeced a few and put them in my bag and took them home."

Who knows, after 46 years, maybe this will finally be the week an amateur again fleeces the world's best professionals and takes home the Harton S. Semple Trophy.

Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA championship websites.

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