SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. — It’s an extended stroll from contained in the ropes to the primary tee at Pine Needles, and even longer on Sunday.
The tee markers are method again on Sunday afternoon, additional again than they’ve been all week, and that’s dangerous information for just a few causes. First, it means the monstrous par-5 first gap will play an additional 10 yards longer on Sunday. Nevertheless it additionally means the tee shot, which already feels claustrophobic in its cubby nook between the 18th grandstand and first fairway, is about to get a complete lot extra uncomfortable.
After which there’s the matter of the trophy. The teams first seem from a small hole within the ropes roughly 40 yards into the golf green earlier than turning again towards the tee field. In an ingenious piece of skullduggery, the USGA has elected to put the Harton S. Semple trophy within the heart of the tee field, instantly inside view of each participant who walks down the trail.
Most of these within the remaining teams attempt to downplay the second as they stroll to the primary tee, protecting their eyes low and their expressions severe. It’s clear, nevertheless, that issues aren’t as they seem.
First come Bronte Regulation and Lydia Ko, the penultimate group. They’re anxious to get going — beginning the day six and 7 strokes again, respectively — and it’s no marvel. From contained in the ropes, you possibly can really feel each motion from exterior of them. However the starter is in no temper to maneuver issues alongside. After 5 minutes that really feel like an eternity, it’s lastly their flip to swing. Two tee pictures quickly comply with, and each miss their goal significantly, coming to relaxation on the appropriate facet of the golf green. Each gamers look frustratedly down beneath the timber. Earlier than lengthy, they’ve disappeared into the golf green.
All of a sudden, a brand new group seems within the fairway. Main the pack is a tall determine wearing a shock of neon inexperienced. She walks in clean, assured strides, her focus skilled on the tee field. Minjee Lee, the event chief, is about to step beneath the microscope.
She waits the customary 5 minutes earlier than the starter declares her identify. Lastly, it’s time to tee off. She takes one apply swing, settles herself and takes a managed, aggressive hack on the ball. It’s crushed — a low bullet that skitters out onto the proper patch of the golf green.
A couple of minutes later, she smokes a 3-wood from that spot and hits it to twenty ft. A couple of minutes after that, she finishes out the opening. It’s a tap-in birdie to increase her result in 5.
A lot for nerves.
Nothing about Sunday afternoon at Pine Needles was simple. After three days of traditionally low scores raised eyebrows amongst carnage-conscious followers, the ultimate spherical on the U.S. Ladies’s Open sufficiently lowered them.
On Sunday, Pine Needles was every of the “three Bs” we’d been promised all alongside: brown, baked-out, and bouncy. The ultimate-round scoring common was 75.188, a stroke-and-a-half more durable than the weeklong common, and three strokes more durable than Saturday.
“It was undoubtedly a battle on the market,” Nelly Korda stated. “The greens received a bit of crispy. Pins have been — it’s a Sunday of a serious, Sunday of a U.S. Open — we have been all anticipating it.”
By it, Korda means “chaos.” Typical, old-school, U.S. Open chaos. And on Sunday, Pine Needles received precisely that.
The pin positions have been difficult. The fairways took on a decidedly completely different hue. And the greens?
“They undoubtedly tricked out the greens,” Korda stated with a low chuckle. “A variety of them have been getting brown and really quick downhill. It got here off my membership, and I used to be like, ‘sit! instantly!’”
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However the circumstances weren’t the one trigger for discomfort. On Sunday, the USGA used each device in its toolbox to ratchet up the stress on gamers, who responded in form by recording 357 bogeys or worse, 81 greater than throughout Saturday’s third spherical, or a median improve of 1.19 per participant.
Solely two gamers performed Sunday under-par, and solely 4 performed it at even or higher. It was that sort of day on the U.S. Ladies’s Open. The sort of day we’d anticipated all week at Pine Needles, the place the circumstances and course conspire towards these within the area.
Nobody felt that stress greater than Minjee Lee, who entered the day with a major lead and the information that even one mistake may very well be her undoing.
“You already know, even with a three-shot lead I by no means felt snug in the present day,” she stated afterward. “I felt like I nonetheless wanted to play effectively. I nonetheless wanted to carry my floor.”
Consolation would by no means come simply for Lee on Sunday. Not that she ever confirmed it.
Minjee Lee was not good on Sunday. Not by an extended shot.
She was unsteady along with her irons, unusually inconsistent off the tee and surprisingly yippy along with her putter. In different phrases, she appeared exactly how a Sunday chief on the U.S. Open ought to.
Lee managed to flee Pine Needles on Sunday by recording a fair 4 birdies to 4 bogeys, however there wasn’t an unearned shot in any of her 71 strokes Sunday. Her feelings wore because the spherical went on — a pulled tee shot on the fifth led to a difficult bogey, a pushed strategy on the tenth settled right into a shrub and practically led to catastrophe on the following chip.
“I didn’t hit it that effectively,” she stated. “I had actually good saves, up-and-downs from a whole lot of the locations.”
It didn’t assist issues that for the primary time all week, the course gave the impression to be preventing Lee, too. Greens that had as soon as held now deposited her approaches in bunkers. Tee pictures that discovered fairway now snuck into the sand. If she was going to hold onto her lead on Sunday, she was going to wish a real championship effort.
Her effort was sufficient, not less than, to get her to the 18th tee field carrying a five-stroke lead — and that was vital. The quick, downhill par-4 had performed as one of many best holes on the course all week, however on Sunday, it changed into one of many hardest holes on the course.
The tee shot on the 18th — very like the one on the first — is easy. The green is large and angled to press tee pictures nearer to the flagstick. However, very like the tee shot on No. 1, it’s angled near the followers. A nervy, fast swing may simply wind up within the timber, the place catastrophe was all-but-imminent.
To make issues worse, Lee had the advantage of understanding the day’s pin placement: a delightfully evil, back-right location that rejected all however one of the best approaches.
It was the event’s largest second … not that Lee seen it. Stone-faced, she stepped to her ball with out saying a phrase. She settled herself, took a single apply swing, and unleashed an aggressive, managed hack on the ball. As soon as once more, it was crushed — crusing over the bunker earlier than halting a good distance into the golf green.
As she returned her driver to her bag, Lee took a deep breath and a small smile escaped. For the primary time all week, the battle was over. She’d plowed her method by means of the gauntlet at Pine Needles. She’d battled by means of hell on Sunday. She’d bested the largest area in ladies’s golf. And now it was time for Minjee Lee to embrace actuality: she was about to win the U.S. Ladies’s Open.
However first, it was time for one more lengthy stroll.
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