U.S. WOMEN'S OPEN
Pedersen’s Resurgence Gives Denmark a Hopeful at Champions December 8, 2020 | Houston, Texas By David Shefter, USGA

Emily Kristine Pedersen, of Denmark, has produced one of the more remarkable turnarounds in women's golf in 2020. (Simon Bruty/USGA)

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Three months away from competitive golf is usually anathema to a touring professional. Games get rusty and the lack of reps can diminish a competitive edge. But for Emily Kristine Pedersen, the shutdown from the COVID-19 pandemic turned into a blessing.

Not since she became a golf sensation in Denmark as a teenager had Pedersen endured such a layoff. But she had also never been through the mental and emotional strife that her lackluster tournament results had created, just ahead of the mandatory break. She made just 15 of 39 cuts on the LPGA Tour and Ladies European Tour (LET) in 2018 and 2019, and when competition restarted in August, Pedersen stood at No. 489 in the Rolex Rankings.

The biggest story in women’s golf this season is then-world No. 304 Sophia Popov winning the Women’s British Open. Not far behind, and admittedly much farther off the radar, is Pedersen’s transformation. 

Since late August, Pedersen has produced four victories on the LET, including three straight to end the season in November. There was also a playoff loss to Stacy Lewis in the Aberdeen Standard Investments Ladies Scottish Open and a tie for 11th in the Women’s British Open, all of which vaulted her 420 spots (she enters the week at No. 69) and earned her a spot in this week’s all-exempt U.S. Women’s Open field at Champions Golf Club. She is joined by two other Danes, Nanna Koerstz Madsen and Nicole Broch Larsen.

Pedersen, who tied for 41st in her only previous U.S. Women’s Open in 2018, finished the 2020 LET season No. 1 on the money list with €436,683 ($528,927) – four times more than her closest pursuer – and led the circuit in three statistical categories: stroke average (70.40), birdies (158) and eagles (13). She finished sixth in driving distance (269.1).

“The three months’ break … allowed me to have time to actually work on my game,” said Pedersen, whose best major finish is a T-14 in the 2016 Evian Championship. “We normally play 25 weeks a year and are only off for one or two weeks. You don’t have time to dig deep and make a significant change. I don’t think in the last 12 years that I have played [at a high level] I have had three months to look at my stuff.”

Pedersen gathered everyone on her support team, including David Dickmeiss, her swing coach of 10 years, a sports psychologist, both her parents and boyfriend Olly Brett, to break out of her funk. All golfers go through highs and lows, but this was something that Pedersen had never experienced.

When she first took up the game at age 10, Pedersen was something of a golf prodigy, making the Danish National Team at 12 and representing Europe on one Junior Ryder Cup and two Junior Solheim Cup teams. At age 17, she captured the European Ladies Amateur (2013) and a year later became the second Dane to win the British Ladies Amateur, following Pernilla Pedersen (no relation).

Dozens of U.S. colleges offered scholarships, but the long-hitting Pedersen decided at age 18 that the logical next step in her development was professional golf. Looking back, she believes playing Division I golf in the U.S. might have helped her progression. Then again, nobody could argue the decision after an astonishingly strong first season on the LET in 2015. She won her first pro title (the Hero Women’s Indian Open) and was named the circuit’s Rookie of the Year. Her ascension continued two years later when Annika Sorenstam tabbed her as one of her captain’s pick for the Solheim Cup in Des Moines, Iowa.

The Europeans lost, 16.5-11.5, and Pedersen went 0-3, including a singles defeat to Danielle Kang. Instead of using the prestigious biennial team event as a building block, it sent Pedersen’s game spiraling in the wrong direction. Her confidence plummeted, and she even lost 25 pounds from the stress.

“I put a different kind of pressure on myself that wasn’t healthy,” she said.

Longtime rival Madsen, who grew up at the same Copenhagen-area club (Smoerum), could see something wasn’t right with her talented countrywoman.

“She always had the [physical] game,” said Madsen, who tied for 16th in last year’s U.S. Women’s Open. “There were things going on [with her mental game].”

The enforced break provided the opportunity for a reset. Support came not only from her coach, but from Brett, an Englishman who is world No. 4 Danielle Kang’s caddie, and her father, Jesper, a former professional soccer player who now manages FA 2000 in Denmark.

With limited opportunities, Pedersen entered a men’s Ecco Tour event in Denmark and won by a stroke, shooting 66-67.

“Golf had consumed me a little bit,” she admitted. “You have to separate when you are working and when you are not. I worked hard with a psychologist to learn that. Every time you get knocked down, you have to learn how to rise up.”

One victory was all it took to bring back the positive vibes.

At the Tipsport Czech Open in late August, Pedersen showed her intestinal fortitude. After nearly blowing a six-stroke lead in the final round, she finished birdie-eagle for a four-stroke victory. She closed the season with three straight wins – including a playoff victory over 2018 Women’s British Open champion Georgia Hall in the Saudi Ladies International.

Even a one-week break to quarantine and travel to Texas hasn’t sapped Pedersen’s confidence. Her sinewy swing and power were on full display during a range session on Monday. But she also knows her wedge game and putting need to be on point to contend against a U.S. Women’s Open field far stronger than the ones she bested last month on the LET.

It doesn’t hurt to have Terry McNamara, the former caddie for Sorenstam, on her bag.

“I’m going into this championship humble,” said Pedersen. “You need that [attitude] going into a major championship. In Europe, we have great players, but here we have the top 30 in the world. They’re all here and all ready to compete.”

This Women’s Open is also an opportunity for Denmark to get out of the long shadow cast by Sweden, its Scandinavian neighbor to the north, and perhaps inspire a new generation of female golfers. Thomas Bjorn, who has won 15 times on the European Tour and played in three Ryder Cups for Europe, is by far the nation’s best known player.

Last year, Madsen and Larsen each posted runner-up finishes on the LPGA Tour, the former in the CP Women’s Open and the latter in the Indy Women in Tech Championship.

Earlier this year, Popov gave Germany its first female major champion. Perhaps now is the time for Denmark’s major moment.

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.

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