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Saturday, June 21, 2014

Moving Day at the US Women's Open

Saturday at the US Women's Open, the galleries are swelling
Photo credit: USGA
I was sitting in the stands watching Stephanie Meadow and Karrie Webb warm up on the range this morning.  Behind me, a thirty-something thoughtful and patient daddy was identifying golfers and explaining the nuances of pro golf tournaments to his endlessly curious 10-year old daughter --
. . . that's Catriona Matthew, she's a mommy too and has little girls your age . . . and that's Michelle Wie, she might win the Open tomorrow (it was actually Azahara Munoz), and that's Karrie Webb, she's very, very famous because she's won so many golf tournaments, and that one in the pink shirt with the ruffles on her skort, that's Stephanie Meadow -- she's a college student . . .
Politely interested in her daddy's narrative, the 10-year old was, not surprisingly, more interested in seeing Lucy Li!  (If she kept a sharp eye out, she'd probably spot Lucy, in a heretofore unseen colorfully tie-dyed outfit with a green visor, following Michelle Wie and Lexi Thompson all afternoon.)
. . . Lucy's not playing any more.  She was cut.  A lot of players were cut yesterday . . .
They were sitting behind me and although I could eavesdrop easily, I couldn't see facial expressions, but daddy's initial explanation must have alarmed his daughter because he went on and elaborated on the situation --
. . . see this list?  The players on the bottom don't get to play on Saturday and Sunday . . . they didn't play good enough on Thursday and Friday . . . no it's not always the same players . . . yes, Lucy will probably get to play later, in another tournament, on the weekend . . . no, today we'll watch these women play, and see who gets closer to winning tomorrow . . . they have to work very hard for four days in a row in order to win . . .
Stephanie Meadow tees off at Pinehurst No. 2 16th hole.
Photo Credit: www.irishtimes.com
Stephanie Meadow (who went on to take solo 3rd on Sunday afternoon and jump start her pro career) and Karrie Webb were among those women who worked very hard today and opened up an opportunity to claim a win tomorrow.  They were paired for the third round and I wanted to follow them, the Hall of Famer and the rookie.  How would it unfold, this pairing between the woman who's won 56 tournaments on the LPGA and Ladies European Tours over her 20-year career and Stephanie Meadow, the girl from Northern Ireland, the recent college graduate who compiled an outstanding record at Alabama, who was an alternate after the regional qualifiers and who was notified during the Curtis Cup that she'd been advanced into the US Women's Open field, who turned pro three days ago, just before her first round playing as a professional at her first US Women's Open.

Stephanie Meadow had recorded round of 71 and 73 when she and Karrie Webb teed it up today.  They were both at +3 for the tournament.  Webb's been a bit longer off the tee at Pinehurst and slightly better at getting the ball in the fairway than Meadow, but not much and not significantly, particularly on a course like No. 2, where the real challenge comes in getting on and staying on the green.  Meadow was coming into the third round on Saturday with slightly better putting statistics, but Webb's a wizard when it comes to reading greens and shaping putts and has the ability to sharpen and focus instantly when she drifts off the line, as we all do from time-to-time.  I rightly anticipated that I'd be treated to a very balanced if informal match between two players at quite different points in their careers.

Karrie Webb, US Women's Open
Photo credit: Streeter Lecks/Getty Images
I watched from the 1st tee grandstand as Webb and Meadow and their caddies moved from the practice green to the tee.  Meadow and her caddie arrived first, promptly, as soon as the group in front of them had completed their shots and started down the fairway.  Webb lingered on the practice green.  Her caddie lingered with her, retrieving her balls from the cup, lining them up for a few more putts.  Webb never looked up, never diverted her focus from her target.

Meadow glanced over at the practice green once, then again. Anxious? Curious? Impatient?  Webb putted again, and then again.

Then, in a series of motions smoothly coordinated from years of working together, Karrie Webb and her caddie collected up the golfer's paraphernalia and glided to the first tee, making their way efficiently through the all-around handshaking routine.  The golfers exchanged ball information, and then, during a brief wait while the group in front cleared the fairway, Karrie Webb engaged Stephanie Meadow and for a brief moment the competitive impulse was suspended.  They smiled, chatted, nodded, like a pair of housewives waiting in line at the grocery store.

Then it was back to business.  Webb teed up first.  She's thoughtful and deliberate as she sets up her shot, and it's a pre-shot routine that doesn't vary (although it can become a bit more protracted when she's faced with a tough putt).  Stephanie Meadow watched Webb, never shifted her gaze off Webb, through the entire process.  Taking her measure?  Admiring her style?  Studying her technique?  It felt from my vantage point like a moment suspended in time.

Meadow shot a 69 today and Webb a 70.  It was a round of golf played by two quite evenly matched players.  In the gallery we chatted amongst ourselves, happy to be following a pair who were matching each other shot-for-shot.

There was no more casual, friendly chatter between them after they left the first tee box, and by the third hole, where she nailed her first birdie of the day, Meadow's focus was entirely on her own game.

Both Webb and Meadow executed some impressive putts on those rolling, rounded, tummy-clenching greens that elicited gasps and clapping from outside the ropes.  Unlike Wie and Thompson and Creamer, neither of them found any big trouble out in the natural areas.  They just played steady, wonderfully competent, world-class golf, and they're both positioned to take advantage of any opportunities that may present themselves tomorrow, which is a happy state in which to approach Sunday at the Open.

When all the cards were signed Moving Day at the US Women's Open lived up to its name.  Amy Yang moved up from the third slot on the board to a tie with Michelle Wie for the top spot.  Juli Inkster moved from a tied 28th place position to a four-way tie for third place with Aussie amateur Minjee Lee, South Korea's Na Yeon Choi,  and Northern Ireland's newly minted and very promising pro, Stephanie Meadow. Choi came up from 6th and Meadow from 10th place to slide into the crowded slot.  The rookie played a superb game!

Further down the board, Japan's Sakura Yokomine sat steady in an increasingly crowded 7th place, joined by Aussie veteran Karrie Webb and 2011 Open champion, South Korea's So Yeon Ryu, who both traveled up from the 10th slot on the board. Thailand's Pornanong Phatlum moved even further, from 14th place, and Lexi Thompson, who'd started the day chasing Michelle Wie's lead and thinking about a rematch of Sunday at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, had dropped down from 2nd to 7th place after a string of unfortunate missed putts.

Stacy Lewis, who looked so very good for the top of the board on Thursday, who characterized her first round 67 as "easy," was a long way from that bogey-free perfect first round.  Now Lewis is facing Sunday four strokes over par and looking at a six stroke deficit.  Paula Creamer and Chella Choi are sharing 11th place with Lewis, but that's probably of little comfort for any of them.

No matter their placement on the leaderboard at the end of Moving Day, there are still 18 holes of golf to be played tomorrow on a course that doesn't forgive mistakes and requires a certain measure of good fortune if it's to be played successfully.  Sunday game strategies are in place as best they can be until the players know the pin placements, the critical piece of course layout that will fix the odds for prevailing against their common enemy, Donald Ross's greens.

Juli Inkster, who's said this will be her 35th and final US Women's Open, but who recorded a breathtaking 66 today and was beaming like a rookie rather than a retiree this afternoon, eyeing the top of the leaderboard and dreaming about one more time, issued a stark warning to the field --
You can think and you can  dream all you want, but the bottom line is you've got to come out and make the shots [on Sunday] . . .