Legendary Champions Excited for Evolution of U.S. Women’s Open

By David Shefter, USGA

| Jul 05, 2023 | Pebble Beach, Calif.

Legendary Champions Excited for Evolution of U.S. Women’s Open

Fifty years ago, Amy Alcott ventured up the coast from her home in Southern California to play in the California Women’s Amateur. Then a 17-year-old up-and-coming player a month or so away from winning the U.S. Girls’ Junior, Alcott was about to experience the breathtaking beauty of Pebble Beach Golf Links for the first time.

Alcott carded a 70 – a female course record previously held by idol Babe Didrikson Zaharias – during qualifying and eventually won the title.

Many trips to the Monterey Peninsula – and specifically Pebble Beach – followed for the 1999 World Golf Hall of Fame inductee. But this week, when she stepped foot on the hallowed grounds, Alcott was witnessing history. For the first time, a women’s professional major is being staged at a site where men owned virtually every memorable moment.

“I think the times had to change, the environment had to change,” said Alcott, one of 39 past U.S. Women’s Open champions who gathered for a special reunion to celebrate their achievements as well as the feats that will take place on the greatest meeting between land and sea. “The leadership at the USGA and the top people at Pebble Beach are to be thanked for seeing the vision to that.”

On Thursday at 7 a.m., Californian and rising Stanford University sophomore Kelly Xu will hit the opening tee shot of the first U.S. Women’s Open ever staged at Pebble Beach. But it’s not just Pebble Beach. It’s the championship itself that is entering a new chapter.

A couple of years ago, major champion and then-USGA Executive Committee member Nick Price stood before his peers and told the other 14 members on the committee that it matters to the players where they win their U.S. Opens.

USGA leadership also reached out to many past champions to get feedback on how the U.S. Women’s Open could be improved. Raising the purse – the winner now receives $2 million – and taking the competition to places like Pebble Beach, Erin Hills (2025), The Riviera Country Club (2026), Inverness Club (2027), Oakmont Country Club (2028, 2038), Pinehurst (2029), Interlachen Country Club (2030), Oakland Hills Country Club (2031, 2042), The Los Angeles Country Club (2032), Chicago Golf Club (2033) and Merion Golf Club (2034, 2046) is raising the profile of the event. Even next year’s site, Lancaster (Pa.) C.C., is a hidden William Flynn gem.

All the aforementioned venues, except Lancaster, have hosted at least one U.S. Open, and only Oakmont, Pinehurst and Interlachen have previously had a U.S. Women’s Open.

“I am so happy for the women that they are playing great venues,” said two-time champion Meg Mallon (1991 and 2004). “We didn’t get that as much. People turn on the television to watch golf. [But] part of that reason they turn it on is to watch where they are playing. And when you have an iconic venue like Pebble Beach, it’s just going to up the game even more.”

Two-time U.S. Women's Open champion Juli Inkster, seen chatting with Cypress Point president George Still during an outing for past champions on Tuesday, can't wait to see today's great female players perform at Pebble Beach. (USGA/Jason E. Miczek)

Two-time U.S. Women's Open champion Juli Inkster, seen chatting with Cypress Point president George Still during an outing for past champions on Tuesday, can't wait to see today's great female players perform at Pebble Beach. (USGA/Jason E. Miczek)

Six U.S. Opens, won by the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Tiger Woods, have been staged at Pebble Beach, along with four U.S. Amateurs. While two U.S. Women’s Amateurs were held here in the 1940s, this is the first time the game’s best female players will gather on the property.

To celebrate, the USGA invited all 46 living U.S. Women’s Open champions back for a special reunion, which included a dinner Monday night at the Beach Club and a golf outing at nearby Cypress Point, site of the 2025 Walker Cup Match, the following morning. Thirty-nine players, including 1998 winner Se Ri Pak, attended. The oldest was 1963 champion Mary Mills, 83, while 2021 champion Yuka Saso, 21, was the youngest.

“[Monday] night’s dinner was super fun,” said two-time champion Karrie Webb (2000-2001), of Australia, who was an inspiration to last year’s champion and countrywoman Minjee Lee. “It’s just great to see everybody. I think that’s when you realize that it’s a sisterhood. We’re all U.S. Women’s Open champions and we all come from different parts of the world. But we all understand what it takes to win a U.S. [Women’s] Open and we are lucky enough to have done that.”

Added two-time champion Juli Inkster (1999 and 2002), who grew up 48 miles north of Pebble Beach in Santa Cruz and played in a record 35 U.S. Women’s Opens: “I have tried to imagine that we would be able to play here. It’s great for these women to play these iconic courses. Pebble Beach is so well renowned around the world. A lot of people will be tuning in to watch women’s golf.”

To illustrate where the game has come from, Mallon’s first-place prize in 1991 at Colonial Country Club was $150,000. It was $500,000 when she won 13 years later at the Orchards Golf Club in South Hadley, Mass. Last year’s winner took home $2 million with the runner-up getting $1 million, a first for the women’s game.

And with the event going to so many iconic venues in the next two decades, thousands of young girls will likely be inspired the way Mallon was inspired by champions such as Susie Maxwell Berning, Merle (Lundstrom) Breer, Mills, Sandra Palmer and JoAnne Gunderson Carner, all of whom attended the reunion.

“To hear their stories and what they went through, driving from event to event hoping that they got a paycheck,” said Mallon. “It’s the love of the game that’s the common denominator.”

Alcott’s women’s course record at Pebble Beach stood for nearly 50 years. It was until last fall when Stanford star Rose Zhang shot a 63 in the Carmel Cup did Alcott get a call from Pebble Beach professional Eric Lippert.

“Was your course record a 69 (actually a 70)?” he asked Alcott, the 1980 U.S. Women’s Open champion. “I said it was.” Lippert responded, “Well it was broken today, because Rose Zhang shot a 63.”

All Alcott could do was smile. The women’s game had come a long way since her halcyon days as a competitive golfer. Zhang, who last month became the first player in 72 years to win an LPGA Tour event in their first start as a professional, is in the star-studded field at Pebble Beach.

Alcott, like the rest of her past champions assembled here, can’t wait for the story to unfold.

And for the next player to join this special sorority.

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.