Truly, absence does make the heart grow fonder. Six months later than planned, the 75th U.S. Women’s Open adorned the 70th birthday cake of the LPGA on Thursday, beginning golf’s final major of 2020 at Champions Golf Club in Houston. And the wait was well worth it.
The commitment by the USGA to power through the pandemic and stage this championship with its $5.5 million in prize money – the most in women’s golf – was appreciated by players, who proved once again that they are women worth watching.
None more so than Amy Olson, who has the NCAA record for most college victories, winning 20 times at North Dakota State, but has yet to win an LPGA event. Her four-under-par 67 on the Champions Golf Club Cypress Creek Course, gave her a one-stroke lead over 2018 AIG Women’s Open champion Hinako Shibuno, Moriya Jutanugarn and A Lim Kim.
“I hit the ball really well off the tee,” Olson said. “I gave myself some good chances for birdie, but I really made some putts that I definitely wasn't necessarily thinking birdie on, and that helped. And then obviously the hole-in-one was kind of the highlight of the round. I was pretty excited to be able to do that at the U.S. Open.”
The 8-iron she holed from 141 yards on No. 16 – her sixth hole – got her to one under par and kick-started her round.
“The pin was tucked, it was just more on the right side of the green with the wind kind of coming from the right, so I hit a fade to try to hold the wind, and it landed two paces short of the flag, had some good spin on it and just trickled in,” she said. “We saw the whole thing, which was fun.”
There is an elite group two strokes back at 69, including this year’s Women’s Open winner Sophia Popov. She’s tied with Charley Hull, Gerina Piller, Linnea Strom, Patty Tavatanakit, amateur Linn Grant and Yuka Saso, who bogeyed the final hole.
In all, 23 players took advantage of near-perfect conditions to break par with the Cypress Creek Course playing a little more than one stroke harder than the Jackrabbit Course.
More than the date was different for the diamond anniversary U.S. Women’s Open. Because of COVID-19, there were no spectators. Because it is December, there is much less daylight, requiring the use of two courses for the first time in the history of the event.
And because it’s nearly winter, the Cypress Creek Couse – which will be used both weekend days – and the Jackrabbit Course were shimmering ribbons of emerald green hugged by the brilliant brown of dormant rough. Beauty, it seems, knows no season but rather graces all of them in different ways.
And while the lack of spectators limited the reaction when both Olson and Yun Jin Sung made holes-in-one, the relative silence gave unusual access to hear the reaction of players and caddies – an added treat for those watching on Peacock or Golf Channel.
Texas native Angela Stanford, who picked up LPGA win No. 7 last week at the Volunteers of America Classic four hours north of Houston, had the honor of hitting the first shot of this championship and she made it a true Lone Star State moment.
Stanford paid tribute to one of the greats of the game, her home state and the oldest LPGA major all in one move. She drove off No. 1 at Cypress Creek wearing a visor from the 1991 U.S. Women’s Open at Colonial Country Club in her hometown of Fort Worth autographed by winner Meg Mallon. That was the only other time the U.S. Women’s Open was played in Texas.
Because of the use of both No. 1 and No. 10 tee on Cypress Creek and Jack Rabbit, there was no morning and afternoon wave, as is usually the case. Instead, there was a two-hour block of tee times, which put all 156 players on the course simultaneously, playing under the same conditions. That was another cool twist to this re-imagined championship.
The Texas-sized hospitality of both courses at Champions Golf Club on Thursday likely will be a bit more reserved in the second round. Because of storms in the forecast, tee times for Friday were moved up 80 minutes.
Why not? After waiting six months for the 75th U.S. Women’s Open, it’s sort of refreshing to have something happen sooner than expected in this year all about delays.