Kohler gears up for July's U.S. Women's Open
Whoever wins the 2012 U.S. Women's Open next month at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wis. will not only have to live up to golf's first golden rule, "hit 'em straight," but will also have to hit 'em long.
"The course is going to play officially just over 6900 yards," said Jim Richerson, general manager and group director of golf at Kohler Co. "It will be the second longest golf course in U.S. Women's Open history."
The longest track for the event was last year's 7000-yard plus layout at the Broadmoor in Colorado, but at 6400 feet elevation, balls rocketed through the thin mountain air.
"We would be the longest course at sea level," Richerson added, "A very long golf course."
And as the world's top-ranked women's players dial in for long distance, they best not miss any connections for accuracy.
"What we're working on as we gear up for the Open Championship is the firmness of the fairways and the approaches, mowing the heights for the fairways for both the first and second cuts and as we get closer and closer to the event, the firmness and the speed of the approaches and the greens, which is usually quite a bit different for the U.S. Open than it is for our every day play."Firm fairways and slick, undulating greens surrounded by all kinds of nastiness penalizing errant swings will result in balls bouncing into unforgiving roughs, bunkers and other hazards if shots are not true.
"Obviously for a national championship, you typically have to be pretty accurate with your shots off the tee and your approach shots," Richerson said. "I think it will be a full test mentally and physically when they come in July."
Blackwolf Run opened in 1988 and hosted the Women's Open in 1998, a legendary battle between two 20-year olds; South Korean professional Se Ri Pak and Duke University student Jenny Chuasiriporn, an amateur, who forced a Monday playoff with an unforgettable 40-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole. Pak prevailed after 20 holes the following afternoon.
The then record crowd of 123,000 may not recognize the course today.
"Since that time, obviously the course has matured," Richerson said. "The setting here on the river's edge on the Sheboygan River, we have a lot of tree-lined holes so the trees have really matured. I think the rough and especially some of the native grasses, which would be in our second and third cut has really matured and thickened."
Blackwolf Run underwent major maintenance in 2009 and 2010 to upgrade the drainage and irrigation systems, which have since helped to create a superior blend of bent grasses.
"That gives us the ability to play the golf course just as firm and fast as we want to."
As challenging as Blackwolf Run appears, it may be no match for a 23-year-old from Taiwan. Yani Tseng has three wins and eight top ten finishes this season and is lapping the field on the LPGA circuit.
"She's already won five major championships, a host of tournaments and championships worldwide and she's only 23 years old," Richerson said.
But Tseng is an old woman compared to one of her most intriguing rivals, 17-year-old Floridian Lexi Thompson, who first qualified for the Open when she was 12, became the youngest LPGA winner last September at 16 and while most of her high school friends are hustling up babysitting gigs to earn mall money this summer, Thompson has pocketed over 159,000 bucks on the pro tour in 2012.
Fellow Americans Paula Creamer, ranked 13th in the world and Natalie Gulbis who has two recent top ten finishes should also challenge Tseng, along with Pak, now enshrined in the World Golf Hall of Fame, who returns to the scene of her greatest triumph.
Richerson says ticket sales for the event have been brisk sparked by special offers (fans 17 and under are admitted free when accompanied by a ticketed adult) and affordable prices, 15 dollars for practice rounds (which start July 2nd) and 45 dollars for championship rounds (which start July 5th).
"It's a great opportunity for families to experience the best golfers in the world for very reasonable prices and very reasonable packages."
States that have hosted recent U.S. Women's Opens have done economic impact studies and estimate the event brings in between 15-20 million dollars for the local and state economies.
And the event is another chapter in the improbable story of how Wisconsin, which not long ago merited nothing more than a passing glance out of the window seat from top pros flying from Pinehurst to Pebble Beach, is now a major player in the game of golf.
"Our first modern championship was our event in '98. Now we're here about to host our fifth major golf championship at Kohler and the state has had a couple of major USGA amateur championships."
"They had the U.S. Amateur last year and they'll have the men's open in '17. We're going to have the PGA Championship back in '15 and the Ryder Cup in '20.
"It's really remarkable that Wisconsin, as such a seasonal golf state has become such an important player. But the fans are so passionate about it about the game of golf in the state of Wisconsin, with the state golf association, the Wisconsin State Golf Association, the Wisconsin PGA Association are such strong associations that the national groups the USGA and the PGA of America see these as very viable events to bring to Wisconsin because they've got great venues to host the championships on and they've got great passionate fans in Wisconsin that really support the events."