PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. | A $2 million winner’s check and history are up for grabs this week at the 78th U.S. Women’s Open, held at Pebble Beach Golf Links for the very first time. Whoever hoists the Harold S. Semple trophy on Sunday will add their name to a laundry list of legends who have won at one of the most iconic venues in American golf, players like Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Tiger Woods. With small greens, juicy rough and tough conditions awaiting the 156-player field, it will take a special performance from a special to get the job done and win the third major championship of the 2023 LPGA Tour season. Here are six players that just might accomplish that feat at Pebble Beach.
Slow and steady has been the theme of Nasa Hataoka’s 2023 season thus far as the Japan native just hasn’t been able to kick things into high gear. She hasn’t missed a single cut this year and has recorded five top-15 finishes, the best of which came at the season-opening Hilton Grand Vacations when Hataoka finished solo fifth. But she hasn’t cracked the top 10 since the middle of May – Hataoka was eighth at the Cognizant Founders Cup – and is coming to the U.S. Women’s Open looking for a momentum shift, one that she just might get considering her history in these kinds of conditions.
Hataoka won the 2019 JTBC Classic presented by Barbasol, an event whose venue, Aviara Golf Club, featured incredibly tricky Poa annua greens. She also fared well at the DIO Implant LA Open, held at Palos Verdes Golf Club, another course that has plenty of Poa in their putting surfaces. In 2021, Hataoka lost in a playoff to Yuka Saso at the U.S. Women’s Open at The Olympic Club whose Lake Course required precision off the tee and accurate approach shots with narrow fairways, thick rough and small greens. The six-time LPGA Tour winner is currently gaining strokes in every statistical category, most notably ranking 11th in strokes gained total (+1.40) so far this season and will use that consistency to her advantage as she looks to become the second Japanese player to win a major in the last three seasons.
When it comes to 2023 major championships, no one is gaining more total strokes than Megan Khang. The Massachusetts native has gained 3.06 strokes on the field in both The Chevron Championship and KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, finishing T9 and T3, respectively, which are her only two top 10s this season. Khang’s ball striking has been strong this season as she ranks 5th in strokes gained tee-to-green, 12th in strokes gained approach and 11th in driving accuracy, three things that will be critical for success this week at Pebble Beach.
As it relates to putting on Poa annua, the 25-year-old seems to have figured out the grass type the past two seasons. She finished in a tie for third in the first and only edition of the Palos Verdes Championship presented by Bank of America at Palos Verdes Golf Club, recording rounds of 67-69-72-68. At the DIO Implant LA Open earlier this season, held at the same venue, Khang finished T13, her best result of the season outside of her two top-10 finishes at the majors.
After making the cut on the number, Anna Nordqvist wowed with her weekend play two weeks ago at Baltusrol Golf Club, going 66-65 on a brutally tough Lower Course to finish in a tie for third at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. With another difficult test on tap this week at Pebble Beach, the 36-year-old Swede must be in the conversation considering her history at some of golf’s most challenging venues. Nordqvist’s most recent LPGA Tour win came at the 2021 AIG Women’s Open at Carnoustie Golf Links, colloquially referred to as “Carnasty”, and she also won the 2014 JTBC Classic at Aviara Golf Club, a facility that boasts tricky, Poa annua greens.
In addition to her tie for third at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, Nordqvist has recorded five additional top-15 finishes this year, most notably a ninth-place result at the Bank of Hope LPGA Match-Play presented by MGM Rewards. According to KPMG Performance Insights, Nordqvist is ranked in the top 15 in two strokes gained categories, currently sitting at 7th in strokes gained putting (+1.13) and 15th in strokes gained total (+1.30). She also is second on the LPGA Tour in greens in regulation so far this season, hitting the green 75.42% of the time, a skill that should be beneficial considering the small green complexes at Pebble Beach.
Two-time LPGA Tour winner Atthaya Thitikul has gone quietly about her business so far this season, capturing seven top-10 finishes in 10 total starts, one of the more impressive shows of golf thus far in 2023. Three of those seven results saw Thitikul finish inside the top five as the 20-year-old notched a solo third at the Honda LPGA Thailand, a T4 at The Chevron Championship and a T5 at the Cognizant Founders Cup. Having won the JTBC Classic at Aviara Golf Club last season, Thitikul knows what it takes to perform well on this style of golf course and will benefit from her experience winning last season at a venue that sees a lot of Poa annua in their greens.
According to KPMG Performance Insights, Thitikul comes to Pebble Beach ranked inside the top 15 in three strokes gained categories, sitting at 3rd in strokes gained total (+1.88), 8th in strokes gained putting (+1.10) and 14th in strokes gained driving. She’s also fifth in both scoring average (69.70) and putts per green in regulation (1.74) on Tour so far this season. With that level of consistency, Thitikul is one to watch as she plods her away around Pebble Beach, one that just might finally breakthrough in a major way this week.
The Republic of Korea’s Amy Yang is another player that contended in the first major of the season at The Chevron Championship, ultimately finishing in a tie for fourth after posting rounds of 73-69-65-73. It was the first of two top-five results that Yang has already recorded this season with the second coming a few weeks ago at the Meijer LPGA Classic for Simply Give when she fired all four rounds in the 60s on Sunday at Blythefield Country Club. She’s a player that enjoys the challenge of a U.S. Women’s Open – Yang has finished in the top five in five of her last 14 starts in the major championship – and she’s familiar with what it takes to play well at a venue like Pebble Beach, having earned three T11 or better results at the JTBC Classic, the best of which was a tie for 10th last year.
Yang is gaining strokes in every statistical category except strokes gained around the green, most notably sitting at 21st in strokes gained total (+1.05) and has the eighth most birdies on the LPGA Tour this season with 153 which has contributed to her No. 15 and No. 19 rankings in rounds under par (23) and scoring average (70.47), respectively. While the results haven’t come as fast and furiously as Yang would’ve liked this season, her steady Eddie attitude and consistency will serve her well at Pebble Beach as the veteran continues to search for her first win since the 2019 Honda LPGA Thailand.
A player that could surprise everyone at the U.S. Women’s Open this week is Allisen Corpuz. The Hawaii native played well in the first two major championships of the 2023 season, finishing in a tie for fourth at The Chevron Championship and in a tie for 15th at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship a couple of weeks ago. She has one additional top 10 to her credit this year, a T3 at the HSBC Women’s World Championship that saw the 25-year-old play alongside and hold her own against powerhouses Jin Young Ko and Nelly Korda in Singapore. And statistically, the University of Southern California alum is striking it well, ranking third on Tour in driving accuracy at 85.61% and 16th in greens in regulation at 72.64%, two keys for success when playing Pebble Beach. Corpuz is also inside the top 25 in two strokes gained categories, sitting at 20th in strokes gained tee-to-green (+0.95) and 24th in strokes gained approach (+0.55).
The most telling statistic, however, is her strokes gained total in the last two major championships. According to KPMG Performance Insights, Corpuz gained 2.68 strokes on the field at Chevron and KPMG, tied for third-most of anyone that teed it up in both events. Couple that with her years of experience playing all sorts of different California venues during her time as a Trojan and Corpuz could be dangerous in this setting, especially riding the momentum derived from her top-15 result at Baltusrol Golf Club.