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US Women's Open has a lot to live up to

The U.S. Women's Open has a tough act to follow.

The LPGA Tour has produced the two most spectacular conclusions at major championships this year, shots that rank among the most memorable in any Grand Slam event.

It started with Karrie Webb holing out a wedge from 116 yards on the final hole at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, screaming in delight and sprinting into the arms of her caddie. She wound up beating Lorena Ochoa with a birdie on the first extra hole, and the playoff nearly included Michelle Wie until the 16-year-old lipped out a 10-foot birdie putt.

Then came another playoff at the LPGA Championship, where Webb got a dose of her own medicine.

She was on the verge of capturing the second leg of the Grand Slam when Se Ri Pak hit a 4-iron utility club from 201 yards and took a good hop on the green, climbed over a ridge and didn't stop rolling until it was 2 inches from the cup.

The reaction looked familiar. Pak burst into a bright smile and jumped into her caddie's arm.

What does Newport Country Club hold?

"I don't know," Webb said. "I don't know what the last hole is."

For the record, it's a par 4 that measures 440 yards -- long even by PGA Tour standards -- to an elevated green. Par might be a good score and besides, the U.S. Women's Open is where players are more likely to pull out their hair than jump for joy.

This tournament is known more for survival.

The final practice rounds concluded Wednesday afternoon as a soupy fog rolled in off the Atlantic Ocean, giving this historic club an even greater feel of a British Open. The course is the longest for a U.S. Women's Open at sea level -- 6,564 yards -- and resembles a links course with its tattered bunkers, rolling fairways and native grasses framing the fairways.

This place is so old, it still doesn't have an irrigation system, letting Mother Nature dictate whether Newport players firm and fast or long and lush.

Mother Nature has had plenty to say this week.

Storm systems dumped 13 inches on the venerable course during the last six weeks, and 3 1/2 inches last weekend alone. It got so bad the course was shut down to players Sunday, and fans weren't allowed out until Tuesday.

It's a far cry from the last big tournament held here, the 1995 U.S. Amateur won by Tiger Woods, when a puff of smoke followed each shot from the fairway, the sight of iron digging into crusty earth.

"It's not a traditional U.S. Open course by any means," said Webb, who won her two U.S. Opens at Pine Needles in North Carolina and the Merit Club outside Chicago. "I think you feel more like you're playing The British Open. But like any U.S. Open course, it's got its challenges. It's playing very long."

And that might play into the hands of Wie, a young star with another chance to make history at one of the oldest clubs in America.

The Hawaiian star is trying to become golf's youngest major champion, although this is nothing new. Wie has been competing in majors since she was 13 and played in the final group of the Kraft Nabisco Championship as an eighth-grader. She has been getting closer to an elusive trophy with every major she plays.

Wie was tied for the lead going into the final round of the U.S. Women's Open a year ago until Cherry Hills sent her crashing to an 82. She had a 25-foot chip for eagle to win the Kraft Nabisco before missing her birdie putt. Three weeks ago at the LPGA Championship, she missed two putts inside 8 feet on the final three holes and narrowly missed another playoff.

"I dream about winning tournaments, making history, and I do think about that kind of stuff," Wie said. "But I just can't think about it when I'm playing. I'm very focused. I'm just thinking about the shots that I have to hit, what I have to do for my part, and I'm just going to try my hardest and play my hardest.

"If I end up winning, great," she added. "If I don't, I want to end this week knowing that I played my hardest."

Expectations must be tempered for anyone at the U.S. Women's Open, the biggest event in women's golf.

Morgan Pressel had high expectations a year ago at Cherry Hills, tied for the lead and marching toward her ball in the middle of the 18th fairway. She looked up at the green in time to see Birdie Kim hole a 30-yard bunker shot for birdie to win.

"I was definitely disappointed and it was a letdown because I felt like I was ready," said Pressel, who turned 18 last month and graduated from high school. "But you realize that happens in sport."

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is Annika Sorenstam.

She won back to back at the U.S. Women's Open early in her career, but as Sorenstam took her game to unprecedented heights on the LPGA Tour by winning 44 times in the last five years, she has gone a decade without winning this event. She has hit the wrong shot at the wrong time, and on two occasions, someone else simply played better.

Sorenstam was a late arrival to Newport, and didn't play her first practice round Tuesday. She played Wednesday, and perhaps it was a sign of the tough conditions expected this week. The wind never died, gusting to 20 mph under gray, damp skies.

"I love the fact that course is quite long. I like the fact we're going to get some wind," Sorenstam said. "I think it's going to be a great course for this type of a championship."

The way the LPGA major season has gone, there might be a great finish.

 

 




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