Stacy Lewis leads hungry U.S. pack
In August, the best U.S. women's golfers got their tails kicked by Europe at the Solheim Cup and then had to reflect on -- or stew over -- why it happened. It wasn't due to a lack of talent, making the landslide loss even more frustrating for the favorite that had been outplayed on home soil.
Jump forward 10 months, and now it's clear that the Solheim pain was not in vain. The Americans have been a force on the LPGA Tour in 2014, winning eight of the 14 tournaments, including the season's first major. The top-ranked player in the world, Stacy Lewis, is from the United States.
What could be more intriguing for the LPGA and the United States Golf Association than this flexing of American muscle coming into the U.S. Women's Open at Pinehurst No. 2?
"I don't think you could script it any better," said Lewis, who leads the LPGA money list and would love to add to her 2014 haul in North Carolina.
I don't think you could script it any better.Stacy Lewis
Only two players from the United States -- Paula Creamer in 2010 and Cristie Kerr in 2007 -- have won the premier major in women's golf in the past nine years. This reflects the changing makeup of the LPGA Tour and women's golf overall.
The U.S. Women's Open began in 1946, four years before the LPGA was founded. In the first 50 years of the tournament, Americans won it 44 times. In the 18 years since, Americans have won it just six times.
The only American woman under the age of 36 who has won the coveted title is Creamer, 27. She was on the Solheim team that lost in Colorado and is one of the American winners on tour this year, along with Lewis, Jessica Korda, Lexi Thompson, Michelle Wie and Lizette Salas.
Creamer had the putt of the season so far, sinking a 75-footer for eagle to win in Singapore in March. That was her first LPGA title since the taking U.S. Women's Open four years ago at Oakmont in Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, Lewis has won twice in 2014 and regained the No. 1 ranking that she held briefly early in 2013. She thinks the Solheim Cup defeat has affected her and the other U.S. players in a good way.
"I think there's definitely motivation from it," Lewis said. "It was a little bit of a wake-up call for everybody."
That said, Lewis thought the Americans were on the verge of a lot of success before the Solheim. After all, she had just won the Women's British Open. Still, the disappointment the U.S. players went through after not performing well in the team event was, perhaps, a necessary stimulant.
"I've always said the Solheim Cup has helped many players be able to break through and know they could win," said Meg Mallon, who was the U.S. captain last year and is a two-time U.S. Women's Open winner. "Because they see then how to handle the pressure. And you have to be able to do that to win the U.S. Open."
Getting to know them
The signs that 2014 might be a star-spangled year on the LPGA Tour started with the first event, as Korda won in the Bahamas in late January. Like Lewis, she has won twice this year, with her other victory coming in Mobile, Alabama, in late May.
The six U.S. players who have won this season range in age from 19 (Thompson) to 29 (Lewis) and have a variety of backgrounds. Lewis and Salas played four years in college before turning pro and speak fondly about what their competitive experiences at Arkansas and UCLA, respectively, meant to them.
Creamer, Thompson and Korda all turned pro as teenagers. Wie did too, but then she went to college as a student only, getting her degree from Stanford in 2012.
Wie, Korda and Salas are all first-generation Americans. Wie's parents immigrated to Hawaii from South Korea. Korda's father and mother are former professional tennis players from the Czech Republic who settled in Florida. Salas' parents came to California from Mexico, and her father's work as a mechanic at a golf course led to her taking up the sport.
Creamer is a native Californian. She and Korda went to the IMG Academy in Florida before turning pro. Thompson is a Floridian who was home-schooled and grew up as one of three golfing siblings.
Lewis was born in Ohio, moved to Texas and is "claimed" by Arkansas as a Razorback alumna. She also had the most difficult physical path of not just this U.S. group but perhaps anyone on the LPGA Tour. Lewis battled scoliosis and spent nearly eight years wearing a back brace before a surgery that inserted a rod and screws into her back after she finished her senior year of high school.
Wie has had a high profile in the golf world for more than a decade because of her prodigy years, including playing in some men's events as a youngster. To say the least, she's experienced a lot of ups and downs -- and a good bit of criticism, some warranted and some not -- over the years. Yet she's still just 24 and won her third LPGA title, and first since 2010, in her native Hawaii in April.
Salas claimed her first LPGA victory in Virginia in May. And Thompson, who qualified for the U.S. Women's Open when she was 12, got her first major title at the Kraft Nabisco Championship in March.
Mallon said she could see any of those six winning a U.S. Women's Open title, although right now Lewis leads the pack.
"The only thing that would hold Stacy back is the fact that she wants it so much," Mallon said of the extra pressure Lewis has seemed to feel during the U.S. Women's Open in past years. "Although, that's not necessarily a bad thing. She's just had to learn to deal with that.
"Stacy's short game has improved tremendously. She was pretty frustrated after a few seconds and thirds this year. I talked to her and said, 'The next few weeks, work on the short game the whole time because you'll need it at Pinehurst.' And then she ended up winning in Dallas."
That was at the North Texas LPGA Shootout the first week of May. Then on June 1, Lewis won in New Jersey.
Her best finish at the U.S. Women's Open is a tie for third in 2008. The past three years, as Lewis has ascended to being one of the world's best, her U.S. Women's Open finishes have not measured up: ties for 34th, 46th and 42nd.
"If you get a bad break, it's going to happen," Lewis said of her approach this year to Pinehurst. "Just kind of roll on with things instead of letting it affect me so much. I think I've done a really good job of that this year.
"I want to play well, but I want to handle my emotions a lot better. Because I think that's kind of what has gotten me at the Open the last few years."
The American factor
Other Americans could compete for the title at Pinehurst too. Kerr won her U.S. Women's Open title seven years ago at nearby Pine Needles.
Morgan Pressel was 13 when she competed in her first U.S. Women's Open at Pine Needles in 2001. At age 19 in 2007, she was in the final group along with Kerr on the last day at Pine Needles. She ended up tied for 10th. Pressel's best U.S. Women's Open finish was a tie for second in 2005.
Also tying for second in '05 was Brittany Lang, who played two seasons collegiately at Duke, about an hour's drive from Pinehurst.
Kerr, Pressel and Lang were all on last year's Solheim Cup team, as was Brittany Lincicome. She has three top-10 finishes in the U.S. Women's Open, including a tie for ninth last year.
South Korea's Inbee Park took the 2013 title at Sebonack in Southampton, New York. In fact, Koreans have won five of the last six U.S. Women's Open titles. But no Korean had won this year on the LPGA Tour until Park did June 8 in Canada, shooting a final-round 61. She definitely seems to be in gear heading into the defense of her title.
But the Americans are clearly going full-throttle this season. Entering the U.S. Women's Open, they have created the kind of buzz the LPGA longs for but can't force. It has to come organically, through players' results and their personalities.
While the tour embraces its global makeup, American success is understood by players from everywhere as a good thing.
"I've been saying that since I came on tour, that we needed the Americans to be some of the dominant players," said Australia's Karrie Webb, who won the U.S. Women's Open at Pine Needles in 2001 and has won twice this year. "I think one of the best things that happened in recent years is that Stacy Lewis won player of the year [in 2012].
"For the health of the tour's events in the U.S., we need to have the American players doing well."