It’s time for the home stretch of the 77th U.S. Women’s Open Presented by ProMedica. Fans were out in force on a gorgeous Saturday in the Sandhills to see which players would rise to the occasion and improve their chances. There were birdies to be made at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club, but the challenging green complexes and strategic nuances of this Donald Ross gem demanded precision by those looking to make a move.
While some contenders were stuck in neutral and others went into reverse, Minjee Lee of Australia kept her foot firmly on the gas to open a three-stroke lead. The 2012 U.S. Girls’ Junior champion and seven-time winner on the LPGA Tour added a 4-under-par 67 to go with her two previous rounds of 67 and 66 in pursuit of a second major title (2021 Amundi Evian).
Here are 3 Things to Know for Sunday’s final round of the U.S. Women’s Open.
Pine Needles has a tradition of crowning champions who are among the legends of the game. Lee, at 26, would elevate her place in the record books with a victory and has the opportunity for a runaway. The fact that she holds the 54-hole lead bodes well: The player in that position has won each of the previous three U.S. Women’s Opens at Pine Needles.
The statistics favor Lee’s chances of closing out the victory. Twenty-four of the last 26 U.S. Women’s Open champions were within three strokes of the lead entering the final round. Only Mina Harigae, at 10-under 203, is within that margin. Lee’s next-closest pursuer, Bronte Law of England, is six strokes back at 7-under 206.
But if anyone will be guarding against overconfidence, it’s Lee. Last year in France, she entered the final round of the Evian trailing by seven strokes, and fired a 64 to tie Jeongeun Lee6, then prevailed in a playoff. “I never really thought about having a chance to win while I was playing,” said Lee at the time. “I just tried to make as many birdies as I could.” Someone could arrive at Pine Needles on Sunday with the exact same approach and end up a surprise champion.
In January, it was announced that the purse for the U.S. Women’s Open Presented by ProMedica would nearly double in 2022, from $5.5 million to $10 million. The winner of the championship will receive $1.8 million – more than all but three players earned on the LPGA in the entire 2021 season.
That will make every putt down the stretch even more important on Sunday. Even those who didn’t make the cut walked away with $8,000, a doubling of the stipend given to pros leaving after 36 holes compared to a year ago.
“I think for all of us that are in the field, we're excited to play the Women's Open, and obviously for us to play for that amount of money, it's an extra bonus,” said Lydia Ko, who is playing in her 11th championship.
“For the prize money to go up each year, I think it's just a huge step in the right direction, and I think it's only going to get better and better,” said 54-hole leader Lee.
The USGA also announced a commitment to raise the Women’s Open purse to $11 million and then $12 million over the next five years.
There is more at stake on Sunday than a trophy. Any player who finishes in the top 10 will earn an exemption into next year’s championship at Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links. Two players currently in the top 10 – England’s Bronte Law (3rd) and Sweden’s Ingrid Lindblad (T-4) – got into this year’s championship through qualifying.
The 2009 champion, Eun Hee Ji, was not exempt but won her first event in more than three years – the Bank of Hope LPGA Match Play – last week to earn the final spot in this week’s field. The 36-year-old has taken full advantage, with three rounds under par that place her in a tie for 10th.
Other players currently in the top 20 who advanced through qualifying include Andrea Lee (T-15), Lilia Vu (T-17) and Amanda Doherty (T-20).