Americans hope to break drought
SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- There was a time when the U.S. Women's Open, like the LPGA Tour itself, was about as all-American as the Fourth of July. Different times, different tour.
Consider that over the past 20 years, seven Americans have won the biggest prize in women's golf. Four of them are retired. One is still playing, but turned 53 Monday. That's Juli Inkster, who won in 1999 and 2002.
That leaves two past Women's Open champs from the United States who are still in their playing primes. Cristie Kerr, 35, won this title in 2007; Paula Creamer, 26, won it in 2010. Inkster, Kerr and Creamer are all in the field for the Women's Open, which starts Thursday at Sebonack Golf Club.
Kerr considers New York City one of her home bases in the United States; she said she and her husband spend 50 to 60 days a year there.
"Winning the U.S. Open, especially pretty close to home for me -- it would mean everything, just the world," Kerr said. "If I have a chance on Sunday, I'm going to have to kind of win that battle within myself not to get ahead and not get too emotional."
Will Kerr indeed be in contention? She's got some things going for her.
"Cristie has a great U.S. Open experience, which is very much in her favor," ESPN commentator and Hall of Famer Judy Rankin said of Kerr's 2007 win at Pine Needles in North Carolina. "I'm not quite sure that she is the kind of ball-striker that I would necessarily choose for a links-style course. I don't see Cristie as being a bump-and-run type of player, if that becomes necessary. That doesn't mean she won't be, though."
Kerr is friends with Sebonack owner Mike Pascucci, so she's played the course -- which opened in 2006 -- more than most of the other competitors here this week.
"I think experience counts for a lot, but you still have to play good, solid golf," Kerr said. "Obviously, nobody's ever teed it up here in a tournament before, so there is going to be a little bit of a learning curve."
The fact that Sebonack is expected to require players to work hard to make the right choices on every hole -- or pay the price -- is a plus for Kerr.
"I really like a challenge mentally where you have to save shots around the course, and it's not just a birdie fest," said Kerr, who's had seven top-10 finishes in her 17 Women's Open appearances. "I enjoy those types of courses, and that's why I've done so well at the Open in years past.
"You can really save shots with your mind, but you have to be incredibly patient. You have to know when you can take advantage of the momentum at the Open."
That requires having that momentum to begin with, though. Which is something that the Americans don't possess right now in major championships.
The last U.S. player to win a major was Stacy Lewis, who took the Kraft Nabisco Championship in the spring of 2011. Americans have gone nine consecutive majors without a winner, the longest stretch ever.
But that's not because the Americans are lacking talented contenders. It's just that the global nature of the tour -- led by world No. 1 Inbee Park of South Korea -- has made it all the more difficult to get victories.
"With the depth we have now, so many people can win on our tour," said Brittany Lang, who has two top-five finishes at the Women's Open. "Other countries weren't represented anything like this in years past, and they are now.
"All the Americans, that's the one we want to win. It's the toughest test, mentally and physically. The crowds at the Open do get behind the Americans, and it's exhilarating."
Lizette Salas said the U.S. players also get behind each other.
"There is this unspoken bond," said Salas, a 23-year-old who the past two years played well at the Women's Open for three rounds but didn't close on the final day. "We see an American flag on top of the leaderboard, and we're rooting for them, regardless of if we know them personally or not.
"It does give us an extra adrenaline rush when we're playing the U.S. Open. It's in our own territory."
Then Salas added with a laugh, "The last one we won was Paula at Oakmont, and I think we're overdue."
Creamer's 2010 title at the famed Pennsylvania course is also the last time she won on the LPGA Tour. This will be Creamer's 11th appearance at the Women's Open; along with the win, she has three other top-10 finishes.
"If you get a golf course where the ball runs out a little more, that should favor Paula," Rankin said. "She's pretty accurate, but she could always use just a little more length. That could give her a boost, and her game has kind of been in a place where she needs a little boost."
Even though it's been three years since a victory, Creamer calls her career a "marathon" that she thinks will be going on for quite some time.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm 26 going on 35 out here," Creamer said, chuckling. "I'm lucky I have a great team around me. It's not just playing golf, but a lot of behind-the-scenes things with your sponsors, trying to give back to junior golf. Basically, I've had the same people with me since I turned pro -- the same caddie, the same manager, the same coach. I'm very much about consistency."
And that quality is usually quite important for the Women's Open. You'll often hear it said that "plodders" -- those who can just keep grinding away with pars and even the occasional good bogey -- are best for Open courses.
Morgan Pressel, who tied for third at the LPGA Championship earlier this month, has two top-10 finishes in her 10 Women's Open appearances. Pressel is an emotional competitor, but she also has a grinder's mentality.
"There are players that we always say are USGA players -- they rise to the occasion in those events," Rankin said. "Morgan is very much one of those kind of players. They thrive on the difficult set-up. I think the LPGA Championship was really good for her, to come back and start being in contention again. She might have gained enough confidence to make a difference."
Pressel also has a lot of Women's Open experience, even though she's just 25. She qualified for her first when she was 12. It's a similar situation for Lexi Thompson, who will be playing in her seventh Women's Open even though she's only 18.
Thompson was in contention at the Women's Open after three rounds in 2010 and last year, but she didn't play well on the final day either time, finishing tied for 10th and tied for 14th, respectively.
Thompson and Brittany Lincicome, who has two top-10 finishes in nine Women's Open appearances, have the same potential weakness at this event. They're more explosive-type players who are not necessarily geared to the par parade that the Women's Open often requires. Lincicome, especially, has that quality of high risk/reward to her game.
"The Open is four long days of extreme patience," Rankin said. "Brittany is someone who can go really low, but she can also make some mistakes. She's not what you'd generally call a 'plodder.'
"Sometimes the person who just keeps whittling away at it is the one who wins the U.S. Open. That absolutely happened with Justin Rose. Very early, he was not in the conversation. But he kept plodding, until by late in the day on Sunday, he was the last man standing."
For any of the Americans to be the last woman standing this Sunday, it will take a formula of persistence, patience and some good luck. Lewis, who is ranked No. 2 in the world, has just one top-10 finish in six Women's Open appearances. But she's optimistic entering this one.
"Last week, I was just a couple putts away from winning the tournament," Lewis said of finishing tied for fourth at the NW Arkansas Championship. "So I'm really excited about my game. I love this golf course.
"This is the trophy you want to have. It's definitely been my nemesis the last few years. I think more of the emotional side of it I haven't handled very well. So my No. 1 goal is to see how level I can remain all week."