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Fair or foul? Did the US Women’s Open course set up cross a line?

Punishing, brutal, “a beast” – there are plenty of adjectives to describe Lancaster Country Club this week. But does that mean it’s unfair?

 

Nelly Korda’s tournament was all but over before it had really begun. It wasn’t the fairytale ending Lexi Thompson was seeking.

All too many dreams of the world’s best women lay broken and battered on Lancaster Country Club’s brutally sloping greens.

Jenny Shin was lucky. She survived, but she summed up the mood of a halfway cut which left so many of the game’s stars sitting at home for the weekend.

“This leaderboard is shocking,” Shin wrote on X. “I find it sad to see some of the best players with a double digit score.

“This course punishes in an odd way, difficult to explain. I played great yesterday and today wasn’t that far off. Hit too many fairways and greens for my outcome to be 8 over par.

“When I play poorly, I will admit it, take my loss, but it certainly didn’t feel like bad golf today. I’m somehow playing in the weekend so I’m grateful for the opportunity. Can’t wait to experience heart-wrenching brutality again.”

Was that the emotion spilling out of a championship dream in tatters? Or had the worst instincts of the USGA struck again?

Remember, this is the governing body twice accused of turning the men’s Open at Shinnecock Hills into a circus. The organisation accused of going too far in the pursuit of even par.

Were they on the hook again in Pennsylvania? There were plenty queuing up to say so after the opening day.

Central to the detractors was the spectacle of the par-3 12th, where Korda made double figures on the first day. Sure, you could argue she played the hole badly.

But Mariajo Uribe also wrote nine on her scorecard. Forty five players made double bogey or worse on a hole that played nearly an entire stroke over par (3.8).

So was it just an outlier, and what went into the US Women’s Open course set-up? Did it go over the edge?

US Women’s Open course set-up

US Women's Open course set-up

What did the USGA aim for?

Firm and fast. It’s what they go for at all their championships and, as USGA director Shannon Rouillard told journalists at the governing body’s traditional pre-tournament press conference: “the Women’s Open is no exception”.

They were targeting green speeds of around 11.5, which commentators thought were getting up to 12 during the third round, and they measured the control of water onto the course in the run-up to Thursday.

Rouillard said the USGA team had agronomy meetings every day to collect firmness and moisture data, along with green speed data, and they were looking at that “multiple times a day”.

“We’ll see where we end up, but we feel like we’re in a really good place,” she said ahead of the tournament, before adding: “Our eye is constantly on the ball to ensure that we are providing that proper test”.

What makes Lancaster Country Club such a challenge?

You’d expect a USGA set up to prioritise watchful and patient over bombastic. This isn’t always necessarily the case – Xander Schauffele and Rickie Fowler tied the all-time men’s major scoring record on the same day at LA Country Club last year and three of the last seven US Women’s Open winners have been double digits under par.

But discipline has been key so far at Lancaster Country Club. The changes in elevations are extreme, the greens are severely contoured.

We’ve got creeks winding their way through the course, waiting to trap any errant strike, evil bunkers placed right in the landing zones, and the rough is the snarling, ball-burying, stuff you’d expect from a USGA venue.

At 6,629 yards, and a par 70, it’s may not be the longest course ever seen in this event but it’s far from short.

Then add in the swirling wind the players experienced on Thursday and you’ve got a tough layout. Korda, in particular, buckled under the breeze in that first round 80.

“Everything,” the amateur Adela Cernousek replied when asked what the most difficult part of the golf course was. “I think you have to hit the ball really well because the roughs are so thick.

“You want to be on the fairway on every shot to be able to stop the ball on the greens because the greens are so firm and they have so many slopes.

“Yeah, and have the right distances on every shot. The putting, also. There were so many slopes and how fast they are. I think it tests every aspect of your game.”

US Women's Open course set-up

Why green speed is more than just a number

Zeroing in on that green speed number is an obsession for most of us, but it only tells part of the story. 11.5 compares with 13 or 14 at the Masters and the men’s US Open, but The R&A, by contrast, have a maximum green speed target of 10.5 at The Open. And when the wind blows, it’s dialled back even further.

Without context, though, these are just digits. Whether 11.5 is too quick at Lancaster depends on those contours, the grass type (in this case bent), and the skill of the golfers playing.

What’s made those Lancaster curves all the harder to negotiate has been their firmness. The length sees players hitting longer clubs into the putting surfaces, something Korda remarked on pre-tournament. That lower trajectory means holding a swift, hard, green requires arrow-like precision.

That kind of accuracy is hard to replicate when millimetres on a clubface can be the difference between well-struck and well offline. When you know mistakes usually mean big numbers the pressure only builds.

This is a mental, as well as a physical, test.

nelly korda 10

So is the US Women’s Open course set-up unfair?

Plenty lined up to batter Lancaster earlier in the week, lots of their attention focused on the 12th. There is definitely an argument that the first day wind, combined with the water, a difficult quick green that sloped back to the liquid, and the shaved banks on either side, contrived to produce a par 3 that was right on the edge.

But the same hole also played half a shot easier in the second round, while the course itself was three quarters of a shot lower between round 2 and round 1.

At 5.2 and 4.5 strokes over par over the first two days, it’s remains very difficult but, let’s be clear, it’s not the Massacre at Winged Foot.

The wider question is: What do we want from our major championships? Do we want the same as we see week-to-week on tour, or do we want to stretch the talents of the very best?

Mel Reid probably summed it up best on Golf Channel. “It is a beauty, but it is a beast,” she said. “We play LPGA events most weeks where 20, 25 under is leading. If you make a bogey, it condenses the field and you are dropping 30 or 40 shots. It’s that tight.

“I truly believe that one or two times a year, we should have really, really, tough tests. It’s the US Women’s Open and it’s the Women’s British Open. They’re the two tests.”

She added: “We need tournaments like this. Obviously it’s hard, but it’s supposed to test every single part of your game – especially the mental side.”

(Images courtesy of the USGA)

Now have your say

What do you think? Was the US Women’s Open course set-up tricked up, or is it a perfect major test? Let me know by leaving a comment on X.

Steve Carroll

Steve Carroll

A journalist for 25 years, Steve has been immersed in club golf for almost as long. A former club captain, he has passed the Level 3 Rules of Golf exam with distinction having attended the R&A's prestigious Tournament Administrators and Referees Seminar.

Steve has officiated at a host of high-profile tournaments, including Open Regional Qualifying, PGA Fourball Championship, English Men's Senior Amateur, and the North of England Amateur Championship. In 2023, he made his international debut as part of the team that refereed England vs Switzerland U16 girls.

A part of NCG's Top 100s panel, Steve has a particular love of links golf and is frantically trying to restore his single-figure handicap. He currently floats at around 11.

Steve plays at Close House, in Newcastle, and York GC, where he is a member of the club's matches and competitions committee and referees the annual 36-hole scratch York Rose Bowl.

Having studied history at Newcastle University, he became a journalist having passed his NTCJ exams at Darlington College of Technology.

What's in Steve's bag: TaylorMade Stealth 2 driver, 3-wood, and hybrids; TaylorMade Stealth 2 irons; TaylorMade Hi-Toe, Ping ChipR, Sik Putter.

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