U.S. Women’s Open sets up nicely at Lancaster Country Club

The U.S. Women’s Open kicks off on Thursday, marking the biggest event on the LPGA schedule and the most prestigious championship of the year for that tour. A year ago saw an interesting change, with the USGA putting the Women’s Open the week following the U.S. Open on the same golf course, and change continues to be the theme this year as the championship sets up shop at Lancaster Country Club for the first time.

What is Lancaster like? Natalie Gulbis, competing in her 14th U.S. Women’s Open, says, "It’s classic. Very different from our past few Opens at Pinehurst, Sebonack, Blackwolf Run and Oakmont, which are tricky golf courses. This course is out in front of you, and puts a premium on fairways and greens and hitting really solid shots."

Considered by some the third-best golf course in Pennsylvania behind Merion and Oakmont (some heavy company there), Lancaster is sure to be the type of test that not only brings out the best, but keeps the players happy.

"The players actually love it," Gulbis said. "It’s in perfect condition, the greens couldn’t roll any better, and the course is a little wet, which is different than (U.S. Women’s Opens) of past years."

Jim Furyk, who was born in local West Chester, Penn., told Philly.com that Lancaster is the type of course that will favor the player with the most confidence on the greens, saying, "The ladies will have a lot of putts, even from short range, that have a lot of break in them."

So now you know the 6,850 yard, par-70 course that the players will be on, but who is going to win this thing?

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The favorite has to be Inbee Park. Already with three wins this season alone, including her third straight KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, Park has finished in the top 18 in every event she has played this season except the last one (Walmart NW Arkansas Championship), where she missed the cut. A winner of five of the last 12 LPGA majors, Park has eclipsed everyone else on the LPGA as the best player by a large margin, and comes in ranked fifth in greens in regulation and fourth in putts per greens in regulation (which means she hits a ton of greens and makes a ton of putts, a recipe I’m told works well in this crazy sport).

Inbee is looking to add a third U.S. Women’s Open title to her trophy case, but she’ll have to outlast a host of big names, some who have been there before and some hoping to make Lancaster a first of many.

The name that gets the most buzz at these majors is Lydia Ko. It’s crazy to think, but Ko is the best player in the world, LPGA or otherwise, to not have a major title on the resume, and despite coming in one of the top-two favorites, her season has stalled since her victory at the Swinging Skirts in late April.

Stacy Lewis, one of the most consistent players over the last five years, hasn’t always played this championship the best, but her second-place finish a season ago might help with the confidence that she can win one of these.

Besides those three, names like Hyo-Joo Kim, So Yeon Ryu and Min Jee Lee should be on your radar.

Michelle Wie comes in the defending champion, but the 25-year-old is without a top-10 this season, battling all sorts of injuries that has forced her to make, as she told USA Today, "the biggest swing change of my career."

Lexi Thompson has played a lot better than Wie this year, but is still looking for her first win in 2015, with her form improving as evidenced by a third-place finish at the Women’s PGA Championship last month.

The craziest stat you’ll hear all week about the last two names comes courtesy of Alex Myers, who points out that Wie, at 25, is playing her 12th U.S. Open, while Thompson, at just 20, is playing in her ninth (!!).

If the PGA Tour is trending younger, the LPGA has been there for years.

So what should we expect this week at Lancaster? Look for the winning score to be somewhere around 3- or 4-under, and I expect players that can carry the ball a long way in the air to have some success considering the uphill landing areas off the tee on a lot of the holes.

A sneaky pick to have a good week, despite her lack of distance off the tee? Morgan Pressel. A feast-or-famine last four starts (two missed cuts, two top-5s), Pressel has four top-fives this year and has been rolling the rock great all season long. If she can focus on finding the fairway off the tee, something she surprisingly struggles with at times, I think Pressel could have a great U.S. Open and possibly get revenge for the championship she had one hand on in 2005.

All in all, it should be a great week on a traditional-style golf course that will be opening itself up to the world for the first time. Gulbis said, even in the practice rounds, "the crowds are large."

It’s one of the coolest things the LPGA has done over the last few years, with the focus on events being at a bit smaller markets in hopes of bringing out all sorts of people excited for a sporting event in their backyard.