For the first time in 15 years, the U.S. Women’s Open Presented by ProMedica returns to Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in North Carolina. This is the fourth time the championship will be played at this venue, breaking a tie with Atlantic City Country Club for most all-time.
The storylines entering this week’s championship are overflowing – from a legend making her grand return to North Carolina, to a dominant world No. 1 seeking to add to a growing collection of trophies. Here are the top notes to know entering Round 1 of the 77th U.S. Women’s Open:
1. Number one on this list could not possibly be anyone but reigning world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, a player who has rattled off six wins in 18 official LPGA starts since last year’s championship. Since last year’s U.S. Women’s Open at The Olympic Club, Ko has more finishes inside the top 10 (11) than out of it (7). Her scoring average is a stout 68.7 in that stretch, with more than two-thirds of her scores being in the 60s.
Ko has averaged 2.60 strokes gained total per round in her U.S. Women’s Open career, encompassing five starts. Over the last 30 years, that is the highest average by any player with 20 or more rounds played who has not won. Ko finished tied for second in 2020 and tied for seventh last year.
2. Reigning U.S. Senior Women’s Open champion Annika Sorenstam will tee it up in her first U.S. Women’s Open since 2008. Sorenstam returns to the site of her 1996 U.S. Women’s Open triumph, when she ran away in a six-shot romp, becoming the sixth woman all time to go back-to-back. Sorenstam’s 72-hole total of 272 is still tied for the lowest by any player in the history of this championship.
At age 51, the odds are obviously stacked against Sorenstam. The oldest player to win the U.S. Women’s Open was Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who won it one week after turning 43 back in 1954. Last year’s champion, Yuka Saso, tied Inbee Park’s record (to the day) for youngest champion all time at 19 years, 11 months, 7 days. But doubt the three-time U.S. Women’s Open champ at your own peril.
3. Speaking of Saso, she will try to become the first player to go back-to-back since Karrie Webb in 2001. There’s some synergy in play for that possibility – that 2001 victory for the Aussie came here at Pine Needles. In her breakthrough win at The Olympic Club last year, Saso putted brilliantly, leading the field in make percentage from 5 to 10 feet (81.3%). Recent history won’t be on Saso’s side: over the last 20 years, only two defending champions have finished in the top 10: Juli Inkster in 2003 (8th) and Jeongeun Lee6 in 2020 (T-6).
4. World No. 2 Nelly Korda will make her first official start since February this week in North Carolina. Korda has been sidelined with a blood clot in her left arm, an ailment that required surgery. Korda had an enormous summer of 2021, winning her first major championship and the Olympic gold medal in Tokyo.
The 23-year-old American star has one top-10 finish in her U.S. Women’s Open career, a tie for 10th place in 2018. Among players with 20 or more major-championship rounds played since 2020, no player has a better scoring average than Nelly (70.2).
5. Try to wrap your mind around this one: this week, both Lexi Thompson (age 27) and Annika Sorenstam (age 51) will be playing in their 16th career U.S. Women’s Open. While Sorenstam hasn’t played in 14 years, Thompson is seemingly always in the mix in recent years at this championship. Lexi has five top-10 finishes in her U.S. Women’s Open career. Over the last 30 years, only two players have had more top-10 finishes without a win: Amy Yang (seven) and Tammie Green (six).
6. A year ago, Nasa Hataoka had her closest call yet in a major, losing a playoff to Yuka Saso. This year at Pine Needles, she will try to become the first player to win the U.S. Women’s Open one year after finishing runner-up since JoAnne Carner in 1976. Only three players on the LPGA Tour this season have made more birdies than Nasa has (156). She’s also among the top 15 on tour this season in official earnings, putts per green in regulation, scoring average and rounds under par.
7. This championship has been prone to final-round comebacks in recent years. Only one of the last seven U.S. Women’s Open champions held the 54-hole lead or co-lead, a stark contrast from this event’s history before that stretch. From 1947 through 2014, about 70 percent of winners held at least a share of the lead entering the final round.
At Champions Golf Club in Houston in 2020, A Lim Kim was tied for ninth through 54 holes before surging to victory with a closing 67. It was the largest final-round comeback by position in the storied history of this championship, and at five shots back, Kim tied the largest deficit overcome to win.
8. Excellent iron play has been a prerequisite for success in the U.S. Women’s Open. Each of the previous five champions hit at least 8 percent more greens in regulation than the field average that week. Each of the three champions at Pine Needles fit that trend, too, with each hitting at least 65 percent of their G.I.R. on the road to victory. That’s good news for Thompson if she can be accurate off the tee: Lexi is hitting a Tour-best 84.8% of her greens in regulation this season after she finds the fairway.
Minjee Lee, who broke through with her first major win last year (the Amundi Evian Championship), has been among the best approach players on the LPGA Tour in 2022. Lee ranks in the top 10 in greens in regulation and heads to Pine Needles with the best scoring average of any player on tour this season (68.89).
9. Women’s professional golf has seen a surge of first-time major winners recently: 15 of the last 17 major championships have been won by players who had never previously claimed one of the game’s biggest titles. That’s also been the case in seven of the last eight U.S. Women’s Opens, with Ariya Jutanugarn (2019) being the only exception since 2014.
The top-ranked player in the world without a major championship to her name is Atthaya Thitikul, a 19-year-old rookie sensation from Thailand who is making her U.S. Women’s Open debut. Thitikul has made more birdies-or-better (178) than any other player on the LPGA Tour this season. The 2021 Ladies European Tour Player of the Year, Thitikul picked up her first career LPGA win back in March.
10. The U.S. Women’s Open is unquestionably the toughest test among the five major championships in women’s golf. Since 2010, the average winning score to par at this event is 6.0 under. In that same span, the other four majors each have an average winning number of 12.1 under or lower. Fifteen of the last 17 U.S. Women’s Open winners have had a score of single digits under par. Contrast that to the winning scores for the other four in 2021, who had an average winning number of 15.8 under.
Justin Ray is the head of content for Twenty First Group. He has also worked as a senior researcher at ESPN and Golf Channel.