Why the stars are aligned for the 75th U.S. Women’s Open

A day after Dustin Johnson slipped on the green jacket at Augusta National to commemorate his November win at the Masters, the U.S. Women’s Open Twitter handle posted a reminder: There’s more major golf to be played in this strange 2020 season. Accompanied by a video featuring Lexi Thompson, Annika Sorenstam, Michelle Wie West and more, the tweet highlighted “Women Worth Watching” at the 75th U.S. Women’s Open, which begins Thursday at Champions Golf Club in Houston.

Just as this year has been unprecedented because of the coronavirus pandemic, so has the LPGA season. The final major of the season being played in December is no exception.

The U.S. Women’s Open will showcase 156 of the best professional and amateur players in the world competing for a $5.5 million purse. For the first time in tournament history, the championship will be played on two courses. Due to the major’s move to December and the sun setting early in the fall, the U.S. Women’s Open will be played on the Jackrabbit Course and the Cypress Creek Course at the Champions Golf Club. The Jackrabbit will concurrently host Rounds 1 and 2 before the final two rounds shift exclusively to Cypress Creek.

Beyond the structural changes to this year’s championship, the field also lends itself to unprecedented moments and perhaps an unprecedented winner. This year, all three major winners have been first-time major champions. With 41 players making their championship debut this week, the final major could hoist a new name into the stratosphere.

But despite all of the first-timers at the U.S. Women’s Open, don’t rule out the big-name players like Nelly Korda, Danielle Kang and Lexi Thompson.

Returning to golf just in time for the U.S. Women’s Open, the younger Korda sister said she’s taking things “step by step” after injuring her back during the first round of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship in early October. After experiencing back spasms, Korda said she started practicing a few weeks ago and is now “pain-free.” This year marks her sixth U.S. Women’s Open, after playing in her first championship at 14.

“I’m just really grateful to be out here,” the No. 3-ranked Korda said earlier this week. “I wanted to take it slow until I was 100 percent. This year it’s a funky year, so I didn’t want to come back too early and kind of aggravate it again.”

Korda isn’t the only one returning to the golf course.

Five-time career winner Danielle Kang returns to competitive play after finishing second in the late October LPGA Drive-On Championship. Despite not having played in over a month, Kang said the time away doesn’t faze her, and it could even be beneficial.

Kang came off a 166-day hiatus from the LPGA schedule due to the pandemic and won the first two tournaments in July and August.

“To gear up, I actually took some time off,” the No. 4-ranked Kang said at the start of the week. “… When I played this golf course, I knew I needed my distance, I needed the height, my speed. I need that, and that’s very important to me.”

In her 14th U.S. Women’s Open appearance, Thompson is also coming into it with fresh eyes after taking a few weeks off. The 11-time career winner will join forces this week with Bryson DeChambeau’s caddie, Tim Tucker, who could become the first caddie on the bag for the men’s and women’s U.S. Open champions should Thompson prevail.

In her search for a full-time caddie, Thompson turned to Tucker because she and DeChambeau share the same agent, who connected them.

“He’s just a great energy to have out there,” Thompson said before her Thursday round. “Whether you’re playing good or bad, I feel like he’s always going to be positive, and that’s what I need by my side out there.”

This year, Thompson has yet to find a win on tour, but she’s hoping that with Tucker’s expertise on the greens and with yardage, she can finally take home the U.S. Women’s Open title. (She finished tied for second at the 2019 U.S. Women’s Open, two strokes behind Jeongeun Lee6.)

However, as the veterans and rookies strategize and prepare to take on the final major this week, the biggest hurdle might be the same hurdle these women regularly face: recognizing the women’s game in the same light as the men.

As the countdown for the next men’s major began almost immediately after Johnson put on the green jacket at Augusta (141 days between Johnson’s last putt and the 2021 Masters first tee), it became more and more apparent that the last major of the golf season might be forgotten or overlooked.

When the U.S. Women’s Open Twitter handle tweeted the day after the Masters with the hashtag “Women Worth Watching,” it meant it. The call-to-action sparked others to jump into action.

PGA Tour player Max Homa took to Twitter to reiterate what the U.S. Women’s Open tweet sought to achieve: “Major szn ain’t done yet!

Just one week ago, DeChambeau tweeted about the U.S. Women’s Open and asked his fans who would be watching with the hashtag “Women Worth Watching.”

“You need everyone to kind of to get behind a movement, so I think if the PGA Tour players got behind this, it would spread like wildfire,” Korda said.

This week, the USGA, in coordination with SheIS Sport, officially launched “Women Worth Watching,” a long-term commitment to using its championships and platforms to celebrate women in sports while promoting equality and diversity in sports and society.

Some of those spreading the “Women Worth Watching” call-to-action throughout the U.S. Women’s Open week will be 2014 U.S. Women’s Open champion Wie West, three-time U.S. Women’s Open champion and Hall-of-Famer Sorenstam, U.S. Open winner and Hall-of-Famer Gary Player, DeChambeau and prominent athletes like Sue Bird, Aly Raisman, Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson.

Despite not playing this year, after giving birth to her daughter Makenna in June, Wie West has been named the Women Worth Watching ambassador. In this role, Wie West continues to champion the USGA’s efforts and show how she can be just as impactful off-the-course as on.

“The USGA has always been proud supporters of women’s golf, which makes my U.S. Women’s Open victory that much more special,” Wie West said in a press release on Wednesday.

“Women Worth Watching is the next step in their continued promise to amplify the women’s game and its champions, and I’m honored to be part of an initiative that will create a better world for females, including my daughter, Makenna.”

For Sorenstam, her support of the Women Worth Watching campaign means more than just posting on social media or sharing her enthusiasm on the virtual first tee when the women tee off on Thursday.

The U.S. Women’s Open shares a special place in her heart. In 1995, Sorenstam won her first major at the U.S. Women’s Open by one shot after shooting 6-under 278. The following year, she won the prestigious trophy again. By this point, it was hard to mention women’s golf without mentioning Sorenstam.

“The U.S. Women’s Open has always meant so much to me,” Sorenstam told ESPN via email. “It’s our biggest tournament. With it being my first win, it really put me on the map, so to speak. Winning in ’96 sort of validated it, but then it broke my heart a few times over the next 10 years.”

After those 10 years of heartbreak, Sorenstam battled Pat Hurst in an 18-hole playoff and won her 10th career major title at the 2006 U.S. Women’s Open. Sorenstam played for two more years before retiring.

“To finally win again, my last major, 10 years later in ’06, just a week after becoming a U.S. citizen, kind of brought it back full circle,” Sorenstam said.

And despite the impact that players like Sorenstam have had on the game of golf and women in sports, Sorenstam knows that there is still a lot of progress to be made. With the Women Worth Watching campaign this week, Sorenstam said that it’s a step in the right direction to promote women and their accomplishments further and that the involvement of the men’s side of the game will only help in that effort.

“I love seeing the guys support the women’s game,” said Sorenstam, who famously competed against the men at the 2003 Colonial. “We are really all in this together. Tiger [Woods] was always very supportive of me during my career and that meant a lot. Justin Rose stepped up during the pandemic and sponsored some events in Europe. It is great to see, as high tides raise all boats.”

She added, “I think women’s empowerment is gaining momentum, and we need to keep pushing forward.”

As the best women’s golfer tee it up at Champions Golf Club, it’s hard to ignore the greater impact this year’s major will have on golf and women in sports, especially if this campaign drives more awareness. And this is not lost on the top-ranked LPGA players.

“[This campaign] is awesome,” Korda said. “The women’s sport is trending in the right direction.” Competing for her third win this year and her second major, Kang echoes Korda’s sentiments. Kang said she believes that women’s golf has been moving the needle since she’s been on tour, and this U.S. Women’s Open is just another moment to highlight and make change during an unprecedented year.

“I think the women’s game is getting a lot of good recognition,” Kang said earlier this week. “Especially during this pandemic, I know that a lot of people have time at home to watch now, and I know that the golf game itself has risen.”

“I only see positives and can’t wait to see what’s in store for us in the future.”

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