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Friday, June 20, 2014

A Walk Around Pinehurst No. 2

US Women's Open Trophy
In many respects Lucy Li and I are polar opposites -- she is young and I am old, she lives on the West Coast and I live on the East Coast, she is an amazing golfer and I struggle to occasionally break 90 -- but on one core matter we are rookie sisters.  This is our first US Women's Open, and as I walked the course today, beginning my day by following Laura Davies, then turning to Lucy's group for a time, and finally picking up Stacy Lewis, Inbee Park, and Emma Talley, I reflected on the extraordinary power emanating from the tee boxes and fairways and greens at Pinehurst No. 2.  Perhaps this is an artifact of my rookie blogger status, but I think not.

For four days the Cradle of American Golf belongs to the women and they're paying a high price to occupy the space.  No. 2 is a harsh mistress and she's extracting every bit of technical skill, mental endurance, and physical energy the finest women golfers in the world can bring to their game.  The press, the fans, the 7,500 volunteers USGA needs to execute this championship, have all gathered for one single purpose: to witness the battle each of the 156 contenders is individually waging against a demanding, challenging, heartbreaking golf course.

Laura Davies tees off on the Pinehurst No. 2 13th hold
during the Friday round at the US Women's Open
I watched Laura Davies, the 1987 US Women's Open champion, finish her second and final round this morning and I was completely mesmerized by her aura.  She delivers every ball strike with authority.  She doesn't walk down the fairway.  She strides.  This woman whose career spans three decades, who's compiled 84 professional wins, who seems much taller and grander than her measured five feet, ten inches, played her final holes today with unflagging determination and with a personal demand for excellence, knowing that at sixteen strokes over par she was well below the cut line and wouldn't play the weekend.

After Davies had finished I turned my attention to Mighty Lucy Li who has enjoyed two days of giddy celebrity at the Open with exceptional grace, patience and good humor.  From the first tee to the 18th green Li's group had a huge gallery, perhaps the largest on the course today.

What draws us to young Lucy?  Is it her age and her exceptional athletic skill?  Is it the novelty of such a young person competing effectively against adults twice and thrice her age?  Or is it her attitude?  The latter, I think.  (Ron Kroichik of Global Golf Post has an interesting take on Lucy's appeal.)

Lucy Li reacting to running her birdie putt past the hole on
the par-4 12th hole during the 2nd round at the
US Women's Open 
As Lucy played her round today I saw in her carriage the same dignity, in her face the same self-demand for excellence that I had just witnessed in Laura Davies.  The giggling schoolgirl licking an ice cream that we're met through her press conferences was nowhere in sight.  Instead, there was an intensely focused, thoughtful, adrenalin-charged athlete making her way around No. 2.

Like Davies, Mighty Lucy's 2014 Open experience has come to a close.  She, too, ended her day at sixteen strokes over par, but neither Lucy Li nor Laura Davies let up for a single shot.  Their final putts carried as much authority as their first and neither of them gave any less than their finest effort from their first drive to their final putt.

I wrapped up my day by following defending US Women's Open champion Inbee Park, Stacy Lewis, the world ranked number 1 golfer, and current US Women's Amateur champion Emma Talley through their back nine. What a trio!

Stacy Lewis tries some body English on the par-3 9th hole
during the second round at the US Women's Open.
Lewis had started the day with a gentle lead, but her putter cooled off and Michelle Wie took over the top of the board.  Park, who's been struggling with her short game for the past year but who remains a threat, was matching Lewis shot-for-shot.  Talley is an extraordinary athlete and was doing a fine job of keeping pace with Lewis and Park.

What makes these three women great athletes?  The same qualities that make Laura Davies and Lucy Li great athletes: grit, determination, skill, control, endurance.  I had watched the group prepare to tee off much earlier in the day, putting on the practice green behind the first tee.  There was no chatter among them -- each was focused on the task at hand, getting centered, filtering out the distractions, synching mind and body.   They were still in that mode as they made their way up the 18th fairway (and it's a decided uphill climb) and onto the green.

Lewis, Park and Talley didn't card exceptional rounds.  Stacy Lewis "knew I just didn't have it today and I just had to keep grinding and get the ball in the hole."  When the cards were signed Lewis had lost her lead to Michelle Wie.  Inbee Park, at seven strokes over par, is trailing Wie's lead by eleven strokes, which is a large gap to close in 36 holes on a course like No. 2 but, as Park observed after her round,
Anything is possible on this golf course.  Everyone can shoot 5- or 6-over par and 2-under par, and that's seven or eight shots a day. 
And Emma Talley, at eight strokes over par, barely squeaked past the cut line and isn't likely to record a top-10 or even a top-20 finish, but she's still in the field and she won't back off either.

I was also watching the galleries as I made my way around the course today: middle aged and older women wearing golf caps and club shirts, golfers like me, finding in Laura Davies and Julie Inkster role models for the active lives we enjoy; little girls decked out in Paula Creamer pink and other little girls with their long hair folded up into Stacy Lewis-style faux buns that poked out from the backs of their golf caps, following Lucy Li, their peer, who was showing them that it's more than ok, it's actually fun to put your body and mind to the test in hot, humid, sandy, windy, uncomfortable conditions; young couples, holding hands, pushing a baby in a stroller, wives explaining the nuances of women's pro golf to their husbands.  There was a dynamic energy between players and gallery in play.

Lucy Li explained that she enjoys golf because it's a game everybody can play -- young and old, male and female, tall and short.  The USGA double-header experiment underscores Lucy's observation, and watching these five women today claim the Royal and Ancient game for themselves at the Cradle of American golf was a simply exquisite experience for me, as it was for those around me.

We go now to the next phase of the 69th playing of the US Women's Open.  Michelle Wie holds the lead going into the third round.  Five players are at even par or better and Pinehurst No. 2 isn't finished with these women, not yet.

There's been some talk that Pinehurst No. 2 may be too difficult, too challenging for the women.  To be sure, there aren't many red numbers -- only Michelle Wie at -4 and Lexi Thompson at -1 going into the third round.  But the players aren't complaining.  To the contrary, they're embracing the challenge, and this, I would  claim, is the source of that extraordinary power I sensed when I stepped onto the grounds at Pinehurst this morning and began my day.