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Players Ready for Biggest Stage Despite 2020 Challenges December 7, 2020 By Ron Sirak

The world's best female golfers are thrilled to compete for a U.S. Women's Open title, despite many challenges due to COVID-19. (Robert Beck/USGA)

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It is somehow totally appropriate that the U.S. Women’s Open is the final major of the 2020 golf season. The 75th edition of the oldest continuous women’s professional major championship is a tribute to the ingenuity and determination demanded by a challenging year.

Think of the road traveled since the pandemic began shutting down the world late last winter. Events went away and those that reemerged were redefined. This U.S. Women’s Open at aptly named Champions Golf Club in Houston is a shining example of the resilience required during trying times.

Because of COVID-19, the U.S. Women’s Open is being played in December, not June.

Because of dwindling daylight, the championship will be played on two courses for the first time – both the Cypress Creek and Jackrabbit courses at Champions the first two rounds, then Cypress Creek on the weekend.

Because of the pandemic, there will be no spectators, but fans can watch on Golf Channel, NBC Sports and via a wide array of virtual streaming experiences.

And because of COVID-19, instead of qualifying events there were various qualifying standards that determined the field.

But what remains overshadows what was lost, modified or redefined, exemplifying the success sacrifice can bring.

There will still be 156 players vying for $5.5 million in prize money – the largest purse in women’s golf – with $1 million for the winner. Of those, 41 are playing in their first U.S. Women’s Open, 24 are amateurs and 26 countries are represented.

And while some big names just returned to the LPGA Tour, in part because of the U.S. Women’s Open, their effort in last week’s Volunteers of America Classic near Dallas proved they are ready for the women’s game’s biggest stage.

Angela Stanford, who in 2003 was second in a playoff at the U.S. Women’s Open to Hilary Lunke, won on Sunday, two strokes ahead of the trio of Inbee Park, the 2008 and 2013 U.S. Women’s Open champion; So Yeon Ryu, who took the title in 2011; and 2018 U.S. Girls’ Junior winner, 19-year-old Yealimi Noh.

Three back was Jin Young Ko, currently No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings. Both Ryu and Ko have been back in the United States only a couple of weeks after riding out the pandemic in the Republic of Korea. Clearly, the best in the women’s game are ready for its ultimate test.

A hallmark of USGA events is that they test the total player. Courses are set up to demand every shot in the bag and mental discipline is tested as well as shotmaking ability. This week includes a special test – getting ready for two golf courses.

“I’ve never had to prepare for a major on two courses,” said John Killeen, who has looped on the LPGA for more than 35 years and won the U.S. Women’s Open with Meg Mallon in 2004. This year, he’s with Mirim Lee, who won her first major at the ANA Inspiration in September.

“Uncharted waters,” Killeen says. “Some players have gone down and played the last two weeks or so. I was going to walk both course last weekend, but heavy rain made it pointless. I’ll see both courses Sunday. For others who haven’t, it means walking 36 holes Monday and Tuesday.”

Greg Johnston won the U.S. Women’s Open as the caddie for Juli Inkster in 1999 and 2002 and now works with Nasa Hataoka, the young star from Japan who is looking for her first major.

“We played each course a few days before Thanksgiving,” Johnston said. “We will play the Cypress and Jackrabbit once in practice rounds. Thankfully, they are pretty straightforward, more about executing shots.”

Ko has veteran Dave Brooker on her bag. He won majors with Grace Park and Lorena Ochoa and last year was with Ko when she won the ANA Inspiration and the Evian Championship.

“It’s tough,” says Brooker. “I’m just going to spend any spare time away from Jin Young walking as many holes as I can for three days. Dawn till dusk as they say.”

Travis Wilson has a unique advantage. His player – Stacy Lewis – grew up in Houston. “Lucky for us, Stacy has played them both a lot of times,” says Wilson, who won majors with Lewis at the 2011 ANA Inspiration and the 2013 Women’s Open at St. Andrews.

“I’ll focus my attention mostly on the course we play three times (Cypress),” Wilson said. “For caddies, it’s definitely twice the work, though.”

For defending U.S. Women’s Open champion Jeongeun Lee6, the first challenge was getting back to the United States. She played the Australian Women’s Open, which on Feb. 13 was the last competitive round for the LPGA until late July, then didn’t return until the week before Thanksgiving.

“I was scared [of] COVID-19 so I wanted to go home,” she said. “I didn't expect to be [gone] that long.” She kept her game sharp on the Korea LPGA, with the U.S. Women’s Open always on her mind.

“I didn't [want to] give up the U.S. Open,” said Lee6. “I really wanted to play as defending champion.”

For Lee6, who rode her 2019 victory at the Country Club of Charleston to Rolex Rookie of the Year, returning to defend is a dream come true.

“I'm a little bit nervous and excited,” she said. “I really want to play well as defending champion. It is the first tournament as defending champion for me and the U.S. Open is a very big tournament for players, so I want to play well.”

When Lee6 won at Charleston, she apologized for using an interpreter during her interview, vowing that wouldn’t be necessary next time. When she returned to the U.S., it was with English skills honed on Netflix shows during the quarantine.

Just another example of turning the perils of the pandemic into a positive. More examples of that will come this week at the U.S. Women’s Open.

Ron Sirak is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA digital channels.

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