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The history of women’s golf and Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club go hand in hand. When the 77th U.S. Women’s Open Presented by ProMedica tees off on June 2 in Southern Pines, N.C., the championship will revisit a venue that has produced as winners two members of the World Golf Hall of Fame – Annika Sorenstam in 1996 and Karrie Webb in 2001 – and a third (Cristie Kerr in 2007) whose 20 LPGA Tour wins and two major championships likely will gain her entry into the Hall when she is age-eligible.
The Donald Ross masterpiece restored to its glory after its purchase in 1954 by Peggy Kirk Bell and her husband Warren “Bullet” Bell is featured throughout the USGA record book. In 2001, 12-year-old Morgan Pressel became the youngest qualifier, a mark broken in 2007 when Lexi Thompson earned her way in at 12, a few months younger than Pressel.
There is also this bit of history associated with Pine Needles: The last two players to successfully defend the U.S. Women’s Open title are Sorenstam, who won at The Broadmoor in 1995, and Webb, the champion at the Merit Club near Chicago in 2000. This year, that challenge falls to Yuka Saso of the Philippines, who won last year at The Olympic Club in a playoff with Nasa Hataoka of Japan.
This year’s championship also highlights another landmark in women’s golf. When Sorenstam won in 1996, the total prize money was $1.2 million. This year’s purse is $10 million and the winner alone gets $1.8 million – 50 percent more than the total purse 26 years ago. Sorenstam will compete in the championship for the first time since 2008, having qualified with her dominating debut victory in the 2021 U.S. Senior Women’s Open at Brooklawn Country Club in Fairfield, Conn.
Sorenstam, who won her 10th and final major when she claimed her third U.S. Women’s Open in 2006, and Webb, who has seven majors and two U.S. Women’s Open titles, are among the best of all time, while Kerr is among the best of her time. For all three, Pine Needles plays a special part in their history.
Annika, your first professional win was the 1995 U.S. Women’s Open. Did you feel you had something to prove at Pine Needles?
Sorenstam: Of course. Major championships are always full of pressure, especially when you are one of the top players. Also, being the defending champion adds to the pressure. I wanted to make sure that winning at The Broadmoor was not a fluke and that I belonged in the major-champion circle.
You were nearly perfect that week, hitting 51 of 56 fairways and winning by six strokes. What worked?
Sorenstam: I was totally in the zone. I was on autopilot. I had prepared very well, and I loved the course. It was just one of those weeks when everything clicked. It was nice to have my parents and my aunt there to watch me play. Also, being a friend of Peggy Kirk Bell made it even more special. She has done so much for the game, especially for women.
What were the challenges of Pine Needles?
Sorenstam: It was long, especially the par 3s. All U.S. Open championships are a true test with a variety of holes and shot shapes needed. Long, generally hot and intense days also test your patience, mental strength and your physical stamina. The rough was long and the greens were very firm so driving it straight was critical.
What memory stands out the most?
Sorenstam: I don’t remember this, but I was told later that I walked through the greenside bunker after finishing my 72nd hole to do the scoring. I’m not sure why, but I guess it shows how focused I was.
Karrie, like Annika in 1996, you came into Pine Needles as the defending champion. How did that set up the week for you?
Webb: I felt a little bit of pressure as defending champion but really the pressure I felt was more of the expectation I had for myself that week. My first U.S. Women’s Open had been in ’96 at Pine Needles. I loved the course then and knew coming into ’01 that it fit my game, which felt great in the lead-up. So I certainly had a lot of expectations from myself, which was really the pressure I felt.
What did it mean to you to successfully defend your title?
Webb: It meant a lot at the time, but I think it really means even more now as it shows how hard it is to win back-to-back U.S. Opens. It’s been 20 years and it hasn’t been done again.
What was the state of your game coming into Pine Needles?
Webb: I believe that my win at Pine Needles in ’01 was possibly the only time in my major career that I came in playing well. My prep went well and I went to the first tee on Thursday knowing and expecting to be there on Sunday with a chance to win. I’m not sure I’ve played a major from start to finish as well.
You were the only player to break par and finished eight strokes ahead of runner-up Se Ri Pak. What are the challenges of Pine Needles?
Webb: Pine Needles is very much a second-shot golf course. It’s a true Donald Ross test in that way. Understanding where to hit in on the greens and where the slopes are that could feed the ball away from the hole or off the green completely is a big key. Being able to hit irons with the precision and distance control to certain spots on the greens is the key to playing well there.
Why has Pine Needles stood the test of time?
Webb: The first two Opens there [in late May], it was cool enough in the evenings to have the overseeded ryegrass still in. I think the course plays how it’s supposed to when it has the overseed in play and the course is firm and fast. In ’07 [in late June], it was straight bermuda[grass] and really grainy around the greens. Bump and runs were almost out of the question. My hope is the course still has the overseed this year and they keep it firm around the greens so the short game offers the variety of shots it was designed for.
Morgan, when you qualified in 2001 as a 12-year-old were you aware it was a big deal?
Pressel: I kind of figured it out when camera crews started coming to our house. I’d only been playing golf seriously for four years. I didn’t know what it meant to qualify for the Open. It was something I watched on TV – I watched Se Ri [Pak] and Jenny [Chuasiriporn] at Blackwolf Run [in 1998] – but I didn’t really understand what it meant.
How did the established players treat you?
Pressel: The players were really nice. We had a lot of rain delays that week and I just wanted to sit in player dining and talk to people. I just wanted to soak it all in.
What was it like on your first tee shot the first day?
Pressel: I was pretty nervous. I remember I hit it down the center. There were a ton of people there. They only allowed the gallery down the right side. I remember my mother being there and that was really special. [Kathy Krickstein Pressel died of breast cancer two years later.] I pretended the people were trees. I don’t know where I got that. I didn’t really have huge expectations, so that helped. I just wanted to play well.
Was it a positive or negative experience for you to be on such a big stage at such a young age?
Pressel: It was definitely a positive experience. I learned from that week that this was what I wanted to do; I wanted to play professional golf. Being at Pine Needles and in the U.S. Women’s Open solidified my passion. I got a lot of media training that week, not from any teachers but just from being in the situation and interacting with the media, just learning how to handle it.
What was it like to go back in 2007 and play so well, making it to the last group on Sunday?
Pressel: I had success as an amateur, making it to the U.S. Women’s Open as a 12-year-old and then I won the 2005 U.S. Women’s Amateur and almost won the 2005 U.S. Women’s Open as an amateur. So USGA championships are special to me. Going back to Pine Needles in 2007 was coming full circle from playing as a 12-year-old to having a chance to win. I was really disappointed with how I played on Sunday. I was with Lorena and Cristie. Pine Needles is such a special place, even when I went back to work the TV broadcast for the U.S. Senior Women’s Open [in 2019], I could feel that.
Lexi, like Morgan in 2001, you were 12 years old at the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open. What was it like stepping into the spotlight at that age?
Thompson: I was just so excited to be there. I practiced my autograph on the drive up to Pine Needles and I was just – it was pretty overwhelming. I got to see all the players I watch on TV and I was so excited to be there, to tell myself all right, I’m actually playing this week.
Cristie, you had won nine LPGA Tour events and eight in the previous three years. What were your expectations going into Pine Needles?
Kerr: I had won a bunch of tournaments, but I had never won a major championship. My intention was to play myself into contention and that’s exactly what I did.
You opened with rounds of 71 and 72 before a sizzling 66 on Saturday. What clicked for you?
Kerr: We had a rain delay and finished the third round on Sunday morning. That was good because I carried my good play right into the fourth round. I got a lot of chances [in the third round] and my putter was hot. When we finished on Sunday morning there was a four-hour break until the final round. I took a nap. I knew I was going to need that. I came out and I didn’t hit it great but I was making putts and saving pars.
You went head-to-head with Ochoa, who was No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings, and Pressel, who had won a major earlier that year at the Kraft Nabisco Championship. What was your mindset?
Kerr: Honestly, my state of mind, I was a freight train and there was nothing that was going to stop me that week. I made a lot of 30-foot par saves. I just made saves.
You took the lead on Sunday for good with a birdie on No. 14 and then parred in for the two-stroke win. Did you have complete confidence?
Kerr: In my ball-striking no, but in my putter yes. I was just going to win. I was not going to let it slip away from me.
Why has Pine Needles produced such an incredible list of winners?
Kerr: It’s Donald Ross. It’s right in front of you. The shot values are some of the best in the world. The run-off around the greens is just brilliant and because of that you have so many options for shots around the green. This is the kind of golf course that stands the test of time. It doesn’t need to be tweaked.
Erik Stevens, you and Cristie had been married about a year when she won at Pine Needles and you’ve helped direct her business career. What did that victory mean?
Stevens: Winning the U.S. Women’s Open is like going from being Elton John to being Sir Elton John. For the rest of your life you are going to be introduced as a U.S. Open champion. That victory changed everything for Cristie.
Cristie, what did it mean to you?
Kerr: It was everything I had practiced as a little girl on Kendale Lakes Golf Course in Miami, pretending I was making a 6-foot putt to win the U.S. Open. It meant more to me than fame. It meant achieving a goal I had been chasing ever since I was a kid.
Ron Sirak is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA digital channels.