Before I get into which pairings to watch on Thursday and Friday, I want to mention a great tool over at GolfObserver.com: a history of performances in U.S. Opens by everyone in the 2007 field, organized by average finish. (The Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index, the Rolex Rankings, and the LPGA official money list all provide different and valuable perspectives on who's likely to play well this week, as well.)
I also want to say a little bit about the course: Pine Needles is a Donald Ross design, so in addition to the usual slick greens and heavy rough at any U.S. Open, this year's field will often face severely-banked greens, lots of false fronts disguising them, and few approach shots that won't be flying sharply uphill or downhill to them. The fairway bunkers will put pressure on the shorter hitters, while the trees and rough will put pressure on the longer hitters, so I believe driving is a wash. It's iron play, scrambling, and short game that will decide this tournament. And of course who's best able to stay calm, focused, and patient in adversity.
OK, on to the players and the three biggest storylines on them that the golf media ought to be following this week.
- Probably the biggest is whether world #1 Lorena Ochoa can get her first major at Pine Needles: with only 1 top 10 in her 6 tries at U.S. Opens, some would argue she's swimming upstream, but that metaphor makes me think of salmon and since I can't think of anyone on the tour fresher or better seasoned, she has to be my favorite. I would expect bombers like Jee Young Lee, Brittany Lincicome, and Suzann Pettersen to be in the hunt on Sunday, along with veteran superstars like Mi Hyun Kim, Se Ri Pak, and Karrie Webb, proven performers like Jeong Jang, Cristie Kerr, and Paula Creamer, and rising young stars like Seon Hwa Lee, Ai Miyazato, and Angela Park. But I think Ochoa will get her first major this week.
- I would say the next biggest story is the role injuries will play on fan favorites and media magnets like Annika Sorenstam (back and neck), Michelle Wie (wrists), and Natalie Gulbis (back), as well as on golfers playing light-years better than they have been this season, such as Mi Hyun Kim (knee), Sarah Lee (back), Stacy Prammanasudh (thumb), and Meaghan Francella (rib muscle). Out of all these players, I don't expect to see anyone but Kim contend.
- For me the third biggest story is the test this U.S. Open presents to JLPGA and KLPGA stars like Ji Yai Shin, Mi-Jeong Jeon, Shiho Oyama, and Sakura Yokomine, among others (the top 3 money winners from each tour get invited to play in every U.S. Open). How will they stand up against the most competitive field in the world? I predict top 20s but not top 10s for them, as well as for a few other people I haven't yet named--most likely a Juli Inkster or a Pat Hurst or a Shi Hyun Ahn or a Morgan Pressel or a Catriona Matthew or a Rachel Hetherington.
So which pairings should you follow (whether at the course, on tv, or online)? My top pick for Thursday is the 8:17 am Ai Miyazato/Stacy Prammanasudh/Lorena Ochoa group, followed by the 8:17 Brittany Lincicome/Suzann Pettersen/Se Ri Pak group (going off the other side, of course), 1:14 pm Mi Hyun Kim/Meaghan Francella/Paula Creamer group, 7:33 Cristie Kerr/Sarah Lee/Angela Park group, 8:06 Karrie Webb/Morgan Pressel/Nicole Castrale group, and 1:36 Juli Inkster/Silvia Cavalleri/Jee Young Lee group. These groups maximize your chances of seeing people playing well. But if you like train wrecks, by all means follow the other 8:06 am group of Christina Kim, Natalie Gulbis, and Michelle Wie! (If anyone from this group makes the cut, I'll be [pleasantly] surprised. But if Gulbis or Wie are healthy enough to do so, expect a top 30 finish.)
For more on the U.S. Women's Open, be sure to check out the Mostly Harmless Take Your Blog to the Course Carnival page. Me, I'm just hoping my friend Moira Dunn makes the cut and rooting for Ai-chan to win!