By Dave Shedloski
Edina, Minn. – The scoring trend at the top of the leader board Saturday afternoon in the 63rd U.S. Women’s Open was contrary to established norms. The U.S. Open usually means closed avenues to birdies. It means open season on egos. It means red faces, not red numbers.
But as a half-dozen or so players jockeyed for the top position at Interlachen Country Club in the third round of the U.S. Women’s Open, the value of par, so precious in the Open, seemed to be slipping. The plethora of birdies were an uncommon development but not unexpected given the conditions that prevailed and the setup of the layout.
Interlachen is the longest course in U.S. Women’s Open history at 6,789 yards, but it’s actual yardage on Saturday was set to 6,593, with the short par-4 seventh hole adjusted to play at a drivable 248 yards, for those comfortable with playing a sweeping draw. With five par-5 holes, Interlachen offers an overall par of 73. So there is an extra scoring chance not usually available.
Throw in soft greens from Friday’s heavy rains and a cloudburst or two on Saturday as well as the generally overcast and cloudy weather, and Interlachen was left with little defense, save for an occasional gust of wind.
Thus did Stacy Lewis, playing in her first tournament as a professional, fire a bogey-free 6-under-par 67 to take a one-shot lead over Paula Creamer after 54 holes. Lewis ended up with the top spot, but Creamer, Helen Alfredsson, Inbee Park and Minea Blomqvist all at one time or another held at least a share of first place.
"It wasn’t really that easy out there with a bit of wind and the pins tucked, but there were also a few places you could get to. The greens were pretty soft," said Brittany Lang, U.S. Women’s Open runner-up in 2005. "You do have to play well, and especially you have to putt well."
It didn’t hurt to position your ball in the right place, either, which is what Lewis, 23, managed to do. "I'm just hitting the ball well and putting myself in good places. And today I finally got some longer putts to go in," she said.
Lewis putted in from off the green and chipped in once, both for birdie, but she was hardly alone in creating fireworks. The top six players on the leader board combined for 30 birdies on Saturday. And while Lewis escaped without a bogey, Creamer and Alfredsson, who shot 69 and 71, respectively, had just one.
"I don't think you can really escape the bogeys on the USGA courses, you really have to take them and try to make a lot of birdies and a lot of putts and just play smart," said Park, the 2002 U.S. Girls Junior champion, who offset three bogeys with five birdies in a round of 71.
While the top players proved that good play would be rewarded, not everyone cashed in. The field averaged 74.91 on Saturday, only slightly better than the 75-plus averages of the first two rounds.
Nevertheless, Interlachen is proving to be a worthy examination, allowing players to separate themselves with the right combination of shots.
"It's a great test of golf," said Creamer, who has been 19th or better in this event the last four years. "That's what you want. You want to be challenged in a championship. You want the best players in the world to fight for a trophy."
It was a fine fight on Saturday, a scrum splashed with crimson smiles.
Lewis’ Father Has Faith
Dale Lewis, father and caddie of the tournament leader in the 63rd U.S. Women’s Open, won’t guarantee that his daughter, Stacy, is going to come out on top when the dust settles Sunday at Interlachen Country Club.
However, he knows her well enough to expect her to not crumble under the pressure of trying to win her first major title in what happens to be her first tournament as a professional.
"I don’t think she’ll be intimidated," said Lewis of his daughter after he carried her bag and she lifted his spirits and paternal pride with a 6-under-par 67 Saturday that afforded her a one-stroke lead over Creamer. "I’ve seen her shoot some low rounds under pressure before. She knows how big this is, but she seems to play her best when she’s a little bit nervous."
So far, Lewis, of The Woodlands, Texas, who just completed her senior year at the University of Arkansas, has excelled when encountering stress, which probably shouldn’t be that surprising given that she has battled a bad back since she was 11 due to scoliosis, a condition that eventually required surgery and a year away from the game that her father first introduced to her at age eight.
Lewis, 23, shot a final-round 6-under-par 66 to win the NCAA Division I Championship in 2007, and earlier this year led the U.S. Curtis Cup team to a 13-7 victory over Great Britain & Ireland at the Old Course at St. Andrews. In so doing, Lewis became the first player in the history of the event to post a 5-0 record.
"She is extremely focused," said her father, a computer analyst, who has caddied for his daughter for a few years. "She has loved golf since the very beginning, and she has always had a good approach to playing."
Dale Lewis remembers feeling not pride but a little bit upset when Stacy beat him for the first time. She was 13. But he got over it. "Once she started beating me from the same tees, well, that was a different story," he said with a smile.
The task on Sunday is to beat a collection of the finest players in the world. Not just Creamer is in the hunt, but also Alfredsson and Inbee Park are close, while Annika Sorenstam, though seven behind, can’t be ignored.
But Lewis, who turned professional just before sectional qualifying, seems prepared for the big day ahead. After all, Saturday was a glowing success, putting her right where she hoped to be – in the thick of things.
"I just wanted to put myself in contention to win," Lewis said. "And, hopefully, to go out there the last day and shoot a good score to win the golf tournament. I've done that so far, so I'm pretty happy and just going to go try to enjoy tomorrow and see what happens."
Dave Shedloski is a freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on www.uswomensopen.com.