There’s been massive momentum behind plugging the gender gap in sport in recent years but whatever about paying lip service to that mission, the USGA and ProMedica put their money where their mouth is last January when announcing revolutionary plans for the U.S. Women’s Open.
From a decent prize pot of $5.5 million in 2021, the new partnership provides worthy pickings for the stars of women’s golf, almost doubling the fund for 2022 to $10 million with the USGA also announcing a commitment to raise the purse to $11 million and then $12 million over the next five years.
“For more than 75 years, the U.S. Women’s Open has been the one that every little girl, in every country around the world, has dreamed of winning,” said Mike Whan, CEO of the USGA.
“This partnership with ProMedica allows us to substantially grow the championship in every way, from its purpose, to its purse, to the places that host the event.”
The tournament will visit some legendary venues in the coming years, including Pebble Beach in 2023, Riviera in 2026 and Oakland Hills in 2031, providing a fitting stage for the depth of talent shining bright across women’s golf.
However, first up is the small matter of Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club from June 2-5. The North Carolina country club is one Leona Maguire visited in her college days, the now LPGA winner who wore the crown of the game’s best amateur for a record 135 weeks atop the rankings during her dominant spell just an hour up the road at Duke University.
“I’ve missed out on the U.S. Open by one spot the last two years and I wanted to make sure I qualified for Pine Needles,” Maguire said having ticked off one of her big goals for 2022.
“It’s somewhere we went in college. Coach used to bring us during spring break to Pinehurst No 2 and Pine Needles.
“I only had a vague recollection of the course. It’s a Donald Ross design and there’s quite a few Donald Ross courses in North Carolina that we would’ve played in college so I’m used to run-offs around the greens and that sort of set-up.
“But it’s a U.S. Open, it’s a good test. It’s probably not your traditional U.S. Open test in that there’s not the really long rough and it’s not a beast of a golf course. But I think you’ll have to plot your way around, and definitely into the greens, on the greens and around them is where I think it will be won or lost this week.”
It’s no wonder North Carolina has a special place in Maguire’s heart. At Duke, she became only the second ACC golfer to win the ACC Individual title three times. She was a four-time All-American, an ANNIKA award winner, and her 87 rounds of even par or under, and 32 rounds in the 60s, are the most in NCAA history and helped Duke to 14 team titles.
What’s more, when Maguire turned pro, she picked up her second victory on the then Symetra Tour by five strokes at the Symetra Golf Classic, which happened to be played in North Carolina at River Run Country Club.
“This one is special, being back in North Carolina. I had four incredible years at Duke and felt really at home this week,” Maguire said at the time.
Maguire will now be harnessing all that positive energy for a Major title tilt at the U.S. Women’s Open. The stars have aligned with it being played back in North Carolina, and for a prize purse dwarfing all that’s come before it in the women’s game; not that the new K Club touring pro is getting caught up in financials.
“I’m obviously not doing it for the money, I’m doing it because it’s what I love to do and I’m in an incredibly fortunate position,” she said.
“$10million is crazy money, it could be life-changing, but I’ll try and treat it like I would any other event. Still, it’s incredible to see the momentum behind women’s golf right now. I think it has been trending in the right direction for a while, and it is not just about the money.
“Some of the venues the USGA has pledged for the next 10 years, as have KPMG with the Women’s PGA Championship, are places that not that long ago we wouldn’t have dreamed of going to.
“To be able to compete at Congressional, Muirfield, we are going to Pinehurst, Riviera, Pebble Beach next year, they are iconic venues we grew up watching the lads play so it’s going to be great to test ourselves against some of the most revered designs in golf.”
Golf may still have a long way to go before finding true parity between the genders, but the U.S. Women’s Open is a massive swing in the right direction and an event any woman golfer worth their crust will be striving to compete in.
In fact, this year’s entry list was a tournament record with 1,874 hopefuls, including 12 champions and 24 of the top-25 players in the world, accepted by the USGA. Castlewarden’s Lauren Walsh fell short of qualifying but the steely grit of Stephanie Meadow made it two successful qualifying bids from two having played her way into Olympic Club last year.
The Jordanstown pro’s two-under par 36-hole total proved good enough to grab one of three qualification spots on offer into the record-breaking event when she took her chance at Gainey Ranch in Arizona.
And Meadow can now draw on fond memories having made her debut at the U.S. Women’s Open in 2014 at Pinehurst where she remarkably finished third.
“It was pretty surreal,” Meadow recalled. “I was a reserve for a long time and when I got the call to find out my pro debut would be at the U.S. Open – that in itself was exciting.
“I was playing great but I was riding along on the fact that this was what I’d dreamed about my whole life and worked towards and to go to Pinehurst and play well was just a blur.”
To achieve a podium finish on debut was practically unprecedented but the highs she so briefly felt were brutally put into perspective by the loss of her number one supporter and dad, Robert, after a short battle with pancreatic cancer.
“Obviously it was a massive shock,” Meadow said. “The biggest thing he taught me was to never give up. He expected me to do everything to the best of my ability.
“There was a time when I was younger that it might’ve annoyed the crap out of me, but he really instilled that in me and I don’t think a lot of people ever really get through to kids the way he did for me. For him to see me turn pro and to go so well at the U.S. Open, even at the ANA when he was sick and I finished Top-20 and he got a mention on Golf Channel.
“He was sitting there on chemo in pain and he’s getting admired on TV. That was pretty cool and I can’t thank them enough. I’m just happy we had the time that we did and that he got to see it.”
No doubt Robert will be looking down from the best seat in the house as Meadow looks to make her mark back on a Major stage once more after what’s been a bright beginning to her 2022 campaign.
Thursday tee-times (Irish time)
- 6:14 p.m. – Stephanie Meadow, Annabell Fuller, Bronte Law
- 7:09 p.m. – Lizette Salas, Leona Maguire, Jeongeun Lee6
- Full scoring HERE