Pebble Beach is giving the best female golfers a chance at US Open history

Michelle Wie West, left, and Rose Zhang walk down the sixth fairway Tuesday during a practice round for the U.S. Women's Open golf tournament at Pebble Beach Golf Links in Pebble Beach, Calif. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Rose Zhang and Annika Sorenstam finished nine holes of practice Wednesday and stopped to pose for a picture on the 18th green at Pebble Beach, a convergence of generations. Zhang was born the day after Sorenstam finished her historic week against the men at Colonial.

This was more about setting — the U.S. Women’s Open, the most prestigious championship in women’s golf, played for the first time at Pebble Beach, among the most recognizable golf courses in the world.


The U.S. Open at Pebble Beach is no longer just for men.

“I think when casual viewers of golf tune in and see that the U.S. Women’s Open is at Pebble Beach it’s like, ‘Oh, this is something I need to pay attention to.’ Because even the casual sports or golf fan knows Pebble Beach,” two-time U.S. Open champion Karrie Webb said.

It all starts to unfold Thursday on the course where Jack Nicklaus hit 1-iron off the pin at the par-3 17th with the wind ripping off the ocean; where Tom Watson chipped in from behind the 17th green to deny Nicklaus a record fifth U.S. Open title; and where Tiger Woods delivered his greatest performance to win by 15 shots.

“It’s not a fair fight,” was the famous phrase Roger Maltbie of NBC Sports said of Woods in the 2000 U.S. Open. And for so many years, the world’s best female golfers could have said the same as the Women’s Open rarely went to America’s best courses.

That’s changing in a big way.

It starts with Pebble Beach and what is expected to be the full experience. Three days of practice is likely to give way to blustery conditions, particularly on the weekend, adding to what already is regarded as the stiffest challenge in golf.

The USGA announced Wednesday the prize money is increasing to a record $11 million, with the winner getting $2 million, matching the largest payoff in women’s golf.

More historic courses are lining up for the Women’s Open — Riviera, Oakmont, Merion, Oakland Hills and Pinehurst No. 2.

The USGA also said the Curtis Cup for amateurs would be going to Pine Valley in 2034, the course perennially rated among the best in amateur and once so restricted to men that Nicklaus played there during his honeymoon as his wife waited outside the entrance.

“I don’t think this was a magic moment,” USGA CEO Mike Whan said. “I don’t think there was a special meeting and somebody was at the easel chart. I think it slowly started to build its own momentum. Now if you think about the company that Curtis Cup hangs in or the U.S. Women’s Open hangs in … it’s the best of the best.”

Sorenstam, a three-time Open champion, is likely playing for the last time. She was offered a special exemption from the USGA and thought about turning it down except that it’s at Pebble Beach and the Swede did not want to miss out on this slice of history.

The views aren’t bad, either.

“Just walking around here, I think the camera literally came out on every hole. It’s a photo op here, photo op there with family and friends coming around and watching, and I’ve enjoyed every step,” Sorenstam said.

After playing the back nine on Wednesday, Sorenstam decided to play the front. She even had her 12-year-old son, Will, play a shot into the seventh green, a par 3 that measures just under 100 yards for the Open.

There is youth everywhere Sorenstam looks. Ronni Yin of China is only 20 and already a major champion, winning at Baltusrol two weeks ago in the KPMG Women’s PGA.

The 20-year-old getting all the attention this week, however, is Zhang, who accomplished more in two years at Stanford than most do in four years. She won back-to-back NCAA titles among her 12 victories in just 20 events. She won the U.S. Women’s Amateur and starred on the biggest of stages by winning the Augusta National Women’s Amateur.

Zhang won her first tournament as a pro last month at Liberty National. And she has a little experience at Pebble Beach — she set the women’s course record of 63 last September when Stanford played in the Carmel Cup.

“She has just literally won everything you can win, so the pressure is there, everybody is looking at her,” Sorenstam said. “And then to go out and win her first event on the LPGA, it just doesn’t get much better than that. I think the attention is there, well deserved. And I think she’s going to bring a lot to the game, there’s no doubt.”

Jin Young Ko, who holds the record for being No. 1 in the women’s world ranking for the most weeks (159), was so excited to be playing Pebble Beach that she arrived a week ago to practice, play and just soak up the scenery.

Adding to the interest is NBC showing it in prime-time hours on the East Coast (3 p.m. to 9 p.m.), another first for women’s golf.

Juli Inkster has been at Pebble all week as the USGA has celebrated its past champions. Inkster won two U.S. Women’s Open and three straight U.S. Women’s Amateurs. She grew up about an hour north and knows the course well, from playing and watching on TV.

“I think the women deserve this, to be able to play these iconic golf courses and have their games challenged just like the men,” Inkster said. “Playing Pebble Beach, the history that has come through here on the men’s side with Tom Watson chipping in and Nicklaus and Tiger, it’s going to be great to have a woman have those memories, also.”

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