With a current superstar back from injury, an enduring legend returning to the major fold and one of the most talked about female golfers of all time signaling the end of her career, this week’s US Women’s Open is dominated by big names.
Nelly Korda, the Olympic champion and world number two, is ready to compete after recovering from a blood clot in her arm. Annika Sorenstam is in the field at the age of 51 while Michelle Wie West bids farewell to an astonishing playing career.
Between them this illustrious trio dominated chatter ahead of the championship’s most lucrative running. It boasts a record $ 10m purse at the remodeled Pine Needles course in North Carolina.
Korda indicated on social media last week that she is ready to return having played just three times this season. The 23-year-old needed surgery after suffering a blood clot in a subclavian vein in her left arm in early March.
She posted a video hitting balls on May 19, having missed the Chevron Championship two months ago, the first major of the women’s season.
“Any major is a major, but the one that holds significant significance to me is the US Open,” Korda told Golf Digest.
While the American, who won four times last year including her first major at the Women’s PGA Championship, is looking at restarting her career, Wie West is looking to wind down her playing activities.
The 32-year-old has revealed that she is stepping away from the game after this week’s event – with one caveat. She does intend to play next year’s U.S. Women’s Open at Pebble Beach.
But her extraordinary competitive career is almost done. It began at Mission Hills with her firing a sensational third-round 66 to make the final group on the last day of the Kraft Nabisco, the first major of 2003.
She was just 13 years old and eventually finished ninth.
A year later the Honolulu native missed the cut by a single stroke after rounds of 72-68 in the men’s Sony Open on Hawaii. She also tried to become the first woman to play the Masters, getting within three matches of making it to Augusta.
Wie West qualified for the knockout stages of the US Amateur Public Links Championship. Then aged 15, she finally fell at the quarter-final stage and had she gone all the way, she would have been eligible for the 2005 Masters field.
Her attempts to take on the men attracted criticism but also raised the ceiling for women’s golf and she had a significant impact on the game.
Wie West, who is married to NBA basketball boss Jonnie West, won five times on the LPGA Tour, including the 2014 US Open at Pinehurst Number 2 – ironically on a course that had been used by the men the previous week.
Her last victory was at the 2018 HSBC World Championship but the colossal hitter’s career was blighted by injury. “At times, if I do play a lot of golf I’m just in bed [afterwards]”she told Golfweek.
“Or I can’t lift (daughter Makenna, who is two next month) up, and that scared me.” Winning the US Open eight years ago made the call to leave behind her competitive career much easier.
“I feel very happy in my decision now,” she added. “I think if I hadn’t won the US Open, I’d still be out there competing week to week trying to get that win.”
Sorenstam knows all about claiming the biggest prizes and won the second of her three US Opens with a successful title defense at Pine Needles in 1996. Nowadays she is a couple of clubs shorter than when in her pomp and winning 10 majors.
But competitive fires still burn as she showed by winning last year’s Senior US Open to allow this return to the big one for the first time in 14 years.
She will encounter a much changed course from the one where she triumphed by six strokes last century after the original Donald Ross design was revamped by Kyle Franz in 2017.
With Bermuda grass, the undulating greens play firmer and thick rough has been removed, replaced by rugged sandy areas populated by challenging wire grass to border narrowed fairways.
It is a par 71 of 6,638 yards, which is marginally shorter than when Cristie Kerr won the last time the US Open was staged at Pine Needles in 2007.
“The course is challenging but it’s fair,” is Sorenstam’s verdict. “It has a variety of holes and it may look straightforward but it’s not as wide open as you think.
“You have to have accuracy on top of distance.”
Being a United States Golf Association set up, it will be as tough a mental challenge as physical – qualities that Irish Solheim Cup star Leona Maguire possesses in abundance.
Other observers point to the need for a sharp short game which inevitably points towards the usually unflappable world number one Jin Young Ko. She will be keen to atone for her uncharacteristic 53rd place finish at the Chevron.
Putting efficiency will be a key quality, which is good news for New Zealand’s Lydia Ko and Scotland’s Gemma Dryburgh who both sit high in the stats for performance on greens.
Dryburgh capitalized on her late inclusion into the Women’s Matchplay last week by reaching the last eight in Las Vegas. The Scot is entitled to feel confident heading into this year’s second female major.
Other UK competitors include amateurs Louise Duncan and Annabell Fuller as well as 2018 Women’s Open winner Georgia Hall, Charley Hull, Mel Reid, Stephanie Meadow and Bronte Law.
There’s also a debut for BBC 5Live golf summariser Lydia Hall, of Wales, who fulfilled a 15-year ambition by prevailing at the fifth hole of a five-way play-off in qualifying at the Buckinghamshire Golf Club earlier this month.
It was a great story at the time and set the tone for what has been a fascinating build up to the biggest week in the women’s golf calendar.