The 73rd U.S. Women's Open will take place at Shoal Creek Golf Club in Birmingham beginning tomorrow through Sunday with the highest stakes in women's golf on the line and the premier players in the game competing for the most coveted major in golf. Who will capture this year's Open. I spoke with Shoal Creek Golf Director Eric Williamson to preview this year's penultimate major at this supreme golf course, and which players he thought were the favorites entering play. The course will be playing 6,693 yards and is a par 72. The defending champion is Sung-Hyun Park, the 24 year old from Seoul, South Korea, who was victorious at Trump National Club in New Jersey last June. It's been very rainy in the Birmingham area early this week but the forecast looks better going into tomorrow and through the weekend. With highs in the high 80's and low 90's. There are chances for rain on Thursday and a slight chance on Sunday, but otherwise pretty good weather. The course is wet from 2 1/2 inches of rain on Tuesday, due to Tropical Storm Alberto, but the grounds crew at Shoal Creek is doing everything possible to make this a marquee event this year. Fox Sports 1 will televise Thursday and Friday from 2 to 7 PM CT, and FOX will take over Saturday and Sunday from 1-6 PM CT. Here is my conversation with Williamson.
DW: How have preparations gone for the U.S. Open?
EW: I would say there are a couple of fairways that are still thin, 6 and 17 particularly, but overall, the course is in great shape. We have significant rough. They'd like it 2 inches and the majority of the course is 2 inches. The girls don't miss many fairways but I think they'll have a difficult time if they're out of the fairway in some spots.
DW: Is that standard to have a 2 inch rough in the Open?
EW: Yes. I say it's standard, it depends on the location. If you have a fescue grass maybe it's a little higher, but a Bermuda rough is penalizing. You can't control it. They'll go progressive. They'll have 2 inches, then 2 3/4, then let it go (first cut, second cut will be 2", then the next cut is 3", then the next cut is how it grows). That is pretty accurate I can tell you that.
DW: Do you have a scorecard?
EW: I don't have an official scorecard, but the distances are pretty accurate. It's basically a chairman golf course (which means they'll play the 3 star and 4 star tees; the par 4's from the 3 star tees or the 6600 tees, and the 4 star tees from the par 3's and 5's, which measures 6,800). Number 1, 375, par 4; Number 2, 370 par 4; Number 3, 510, par 5; Number 4, 420, par 4; Number 5, 150, par 3; Number 6, 475, par 5; Number 7, 425, par 4; Number 8, 150, par 3; Number 9, 380, par 4; Number 10, 400, par 4; Number 11, 470, par 5; Number 12, 445, par 4; Number 13, 170, par 3; Number 14, 370, par 4; Number 15, 375, par 4; Number 16, 175, par 3; Number 17, 495, par 3, Number 18, 405 par 4.
The par 3's are pretty accurate, but they'll fluctuate the tees.
DW: What does this mean for Shoal Creek?
EW: It means that we're taking steps in a direction we'd like to go, which is to be a championship golf course for major championships as well as a golf course for our members, which is the intriguing thing about Shoal Creek, is you can have a championship golf course, where the best in the world play, but yet every member can come play and enjoy it. To host the Women's Open is the biggest women's event in the world, so to do that is pretty instrumental. It's instrumental for Shoal Creek, for Birmingham and for the state. (Williamson said you get that kind of experience at Augusta National and Quail Hollow as well. I would say Olympic in San Francisco is in that company. My daughter lives and works in San Francisco, and I visited her a month and half ago and a member out there asked me to play. It was an amazing experience, a spectacular golf course, a more than hospitable pro shop, and one heckuva challenging track. The bunkers were intensely deep. Very memorable).
DW: It's a huge impact for the city and state.
EW: It is. We're going to get worldwide coverage for 4 solid days. To have Fox Sports to be here will be really neat.
DW: What makes this course such a true test of golf?
EW: I think the fact that, I call it sneaky difficult, because you have to be accurate off the tee which all these girls are, so that won't be their problem. Around the greens is extremely difficult. The surfaces are very firm. A lot of the hole locations require a lot of spin and require a high second shot, so your approach is very important. The greens tend to run away from you and the ball tends to run away from you more since the redo (in 2016, Jack Nicklaus who did the original design, also did the redo). The nice thing is that you can get to the hole locations if you hit a precise shot, but if you're off, the ball will move away from the hole location. If you hit a precise and an intended, accurate shot, the ball will move toward the hole. But if you're off , the ball will move away from the hole. The greens surround (areas around the greens) will be difficult.
DW: Can they spin it?
EW: Not as well as the men. They can spin it. The long hitters, Michelle (Wie) Lexi (Thompson), Inbee Park, can spin it enough. For example, going into 4 green, it's hard to hold the green for any player. There will be some holes where they'll have to play away from the pin if they're smart and take a 2 putt and move on. Like on 5 for example. Wherever the pin is, you need to hit it away from the pin and get out if there with a 3 (a par). Because if you're long the ball is going to chase away from you and it becomes a lot more difficult. (It's a very difficult up and down from behind the green at 5 with thick grass behind the green and a bunker).
DW: What will the greens be stimping at?
EW: 11 1/2 to 12. (The stimpmeter is a device course superintendents use to put a ball on a known force rolling on the green and determine how many feet the golf ball rolls on the green. Anything 11 or over is very fast. 12 is cookin. 13 and 14 are men's U.S. Open speeds, outrageously fast.)
DW: That's pretty quick.
EW: i don't think you can make it any faster than that due to the undulation. But the undulation of our greens will make it difficult. (There are many slopes in the greens at Shoal Creek, making reading the greens and determining your line and speed extremely challenging.)
DW: Tell me about the difficulty of chipping around the greens.
EW: When you miss the green, like I said, the ball will run away from you. The pins will be tucked away in corners. So you can short side yourself very easily. There are a lot of situations where the hole will be above you, so you'll have to hit a very precise flop shot or pitch shot or chip it (Bump and run). You'll have a lot of options. So if you short side it, the green will be running away from you, the greens will be very fast, and getting up and down will be very difficult.
DW: Let's go through some holes. Tell me about number 1 and what challenges that hole presents (375, par 4).
EW: The nice thing about the first hole is it's a nice, easy tee shot, so you can gather yourself getting into the round. The downside is if you miss the green long or left or right, you've got a very difficult up and down on your first hole. I like to tell players to play to the middle of the green to give yourself a chance to make a nice par. Typically the girls will have a six or 7 iron hitting in. The green has some movement to it. It's got a peninsula to the right where the hole location will be one day. You have to go over the bunker if it's on right if you go for the pin. Same thing on the left. You'll have to carry a bunker. And it's got some movement in the middle of the green, as well. The green typically slopes back to front. It's very important to keep every approach shot in front of you and have the pin in front of you, you can stay in good shape. But if you get aggressive and hit it over, you're going to get in trouble, it's a bogey.
DW: What makes number 2 so challenging (a 370 yard slight dogleg right par 4).
EW: Number 2 is difficult if you miss the fairway. The green and the green surrounds can create difficult scenarios. There are a lot of shoulders off the greens where the green and fringes run away from you. Long is very tough and the green itself is tough to putt due to the severity of the contours (a lot of sloping on the green, so speed and line are paramount).
DW: Number 3 looks like a classic U.S. Open hole with the bunkers surrounding the green. Tell me about that one (510, par 5).
EW: Number 3 is a great risk/reward par 5. The layup (2nd shot) for your approach (3rd shot) is very important as you want to have the best angle to attack the pin. If you choose to go for the green (on your second shot), you have to miss your second shot in the right place. The greenside bunkers are penalizing and deep, and it is tough to get the ball close out of them. The green has significant contours and great hole locations.
DW: Tell me about Number 4. That's a heckuva hole. (420, par 4)
EW: It is. No hazards, and still one of the hardest holes on the golf course. It's straight, right in front of you. The green sets it apart. It has a huge false front. The green is one of the biggest greens on our golf course around 5500 square feet, but it plays a lot smaller than that because of the false front. The back right hole location is very difficult because it's a narrow landing area back there. Really any hole location on that green is difficult. There are hole locations on the left that you can get your ball to. But if you're long, again, it's extremely difficult to get up and down.
DW: Tell me about number 7, another challenging par 4. (425 yards, par 4).
EW: You have to avoid the fairway bunker on the right side off the tee because it's very deep. It's tough to get your ball on the green from that bunker. The green itself slopes from back to front and left to right for the most part. Depending on where the hole is, that's another hole you should get away with a par. The only hole location that is accessible is back left, but again, on these greens, you want to play it safe.
DW: Let's go to number 9. (380 yards, par 4, number 1 handicap hole).
EW: The hardest hole on the course. Honestly, I don't think that the girls will have as hard of a time as we do. They'll play it shorter, I think, for a day or 2. They'll hit a driver or a 3 wood and have a 160 to 170 yards in. The girls are so accurate and that green is a little longer than most of our greens so they can spin it more. A middle left, back left is pretty tough, so you don't want to go for that pin, just play for par. And a front hole location is very difficult on that green because the green slopes from back to front (So balls above the hole will be cookin down the hill).
DW; The second shot is tough over water.
EW: Yes the second shot is tough. What makes that shot so difficult is the wind. Players can't feel the wind. Unless you have local knowledge you can't figure out the wind. So it's a very difficult shot because you're carrying it over all water and the green sits out there like it's on an island somewhat. You can't feel the wind without local knowledge and it's always blowing harder than you think. It makes it very difficult.
DW: What about 12. (445, par 4).
EW: I think they'll have a very difficult time with that hole unless the pin is back left. The interesting thing about 12 is that's probably our most penalizing rough on any hole. It's extremely lush. So they'll find the fairway with their tee shots, though it's a pretty narrow fairway. Depending on where the hole location is, that can be an extremely difficult shot on your second shot. The last thing you want to do is put it in the back right bunker, the only bunker around the green, because it's an almost impossible up and down. If you play it up to the right, the ball will chase down to the hole (if it's a back left hole location). If the hole is up front, it's more difficult to hold.
DW: Where do you think the pin will be Sunday.
EW: Back left.
DW: What about No.14. That's kind of a heckuva hole after the redo.
EW: Oh, yeah, 14 used to be one of our easier holes. Now I think it's one of our more difficult holes. You've got to hit a precise tee shot. If you miss the fairways and you're in the bunkers or the rough, i don't know if you have a chance of hitting the green. It's very difficult. You've got to start by getting your ball in the fairway off your tee shot. So from there, they'll have anywhere from 160 to 130 to an extremely narrow green that is always firm, firmer than most because it sits up a little bit (getting more sunlight and drying it up), and if you're long you won't make par. When Nicklaus was re-doing that hole, he said, 'if you hit it long, I don't want you to make par." You'll have a 15-20 footer in order to get up and down out of the bunkers. You used to able to attack your second shot. Now you can't.
DW: What's made the second hole so much tougher?
EW: The green is more narrow. It's more narrow by 20%. There is more slope in the middle, so the ball based on where it lands will move one direction or another. The bunkers behind the green are deeper. The back bunker is extremely deep and the green runs away from you if you're in one of those bunkers, so it makes it tough.
DW: Finally, let's go through 16, 17 and 18
EW: Sixteen is a great par 3 where you can't be aggressive. The middle of the green is the play. It'll be a long tee shot anywhere from 175 to 190. The girls will be hitting a longer iron. The hole plays downhill, which is nice. But that green is always one of our firmest greens on our course. So long there is difficult depending on where the pin is. If you hit it in one of the 3 bunkers, unless it's the back bunker, it's not that bad of a shot. But a great par 3 that requires extremely consistent iron play. You gotta hit it pretty straight.
DW: Seventeen is a pretty cool par 5. (495 yards, par 5).
EW: It's a great second to last finishing hole because you can make a pretty good score on that green, though now the green is more difficult. It's got an elephant's back in the middle, so the ball will run away from you. But you can use the slopes on the green to feed the ball in there (on the player's third shot), based on where the hole is. I can't see many of the women going for that green because it's very difficult to hold and you have to carry it over a hazard (a small lake). Unless they play the tees up, I don't think many will go for that green. But long is tough, like any hole out here.
DW: Eighteen is quite a finishing hole.
EW: It is. They will probably place the tees where the fairway bunker on the right will come into play. So you'll have to navigate your way around the fairway bunker. Once you navigate your way around the bunker, every hole location on the green is difficult.
DW: it's a tough green to read.
EW: It is. There is a lot of movement around the green. But again you can feed your ball to the hole if you hit an accurate (approach) shot. If it's back left, you can hit it on the right and feed it in. I think the front hole location is toughest to get it close because it's a small landing area and you'll have to have a lot of spin on your ball to make it stop.
DW: And long is pretty tough.
EW: Long is trouble like every hole out here is.
DW: What kind of player can win out here. How does she have to play this course to win a U.S. Open?
EW: I think it's got to be a player who can read our greens, number 1. I think it's a player that plays smart and doesn't try to be too aggressive and picks and chooses when she needs to attack a pin. And I think it's a player who hits a tee shot fairly accurately. Most of them do, but if you start hitting it in the rough and your driver is off a little bit, you've got no chance. And lastly, I think a high ball hitter, to be able to hold the greens, to maybe be able to go at one of two other pins that others can't will be beneficial. It's a second shot golf course to me. It always has been. If you've got accurate iron play and you can putt and read a green, you'll have a chance.
DW: Who do you like as favorites?
EW: The obvious right now would be S.H. Park (Sung hyun). She's the defending champion and she hits it long and high and she can cut it which a lot of these players can't do. So whenever you're cutting a shot, it'll come in a little softer. So I think she'll be a favorite. Lexi (Thompson) will right there. If she can putt, she'll be a favorite. She hits it long and high. I think Brooke Henderson, for sure. She hits it long and high. Ariya Juntangarn. She's very good. And she's long, long enough. Austin Ernst. She hits it long. LSU graduate. Emma Talley, who won the individual national championship for the University of Alabama in 2015 has a shot.
DW: What kinds of crowds do you expect?
EW: I'd say 120,000, which would be a great success. Four days of 25 to 30 thousand would be a big success. That was our best year for the Regions (Tradition) and if we have good weather, I bet we'll have that.
DW: How much are you looking forward to this.
EW: Really excited. USGA events are all about golf. It'll be a way to showcase our course to the rest of the world and we're excited about that.
White's World prediction
I'm going to take the defending champion. She just won a month ago in Texas. I like her to repeat at Shoal Creek.