June 11, 2014

Men and women will share Open stage

IS PLAYING THE U.S. Men’s Open and the U.S. Women’s Open on back-to-back weeks on the same course forward-thinking, or foolhardy?

IS PLAYING THE U.S. Men’s Open and the U.S. Women’s Open on back-to-back weeks on the same course forward-thinking, or foolhardy?

The United States Golf Association is doing just that the next two weeks at Pinehurst No. 2.

Is it an opportunity to promote the women’s game – the company line – or shoving the women to the back of the bus by scheduling their tournament second – a thought advanced by critics? Or, is this a money grab, thanks to eliminating expensive infrastructure at a second venue?

With the moment of truth fast approaching – the Men’s Open begins Thursday – the positives keep piling up.

“Will we get it perfect?” USGA executive director Mike Davis asked rhetorically during an April preview of the double Opens. “I can guarantee we will not get this thing perfect. I can promise you that. But the idea is we're going to try to have them play the same golf course.”

Davis calls the experience a two-week celebration of golf, and one USGA objective – more attention to the Women’s Open that will provide a stage for the LPGA stars to showcase their skills – has been reached. Never before – not in the days of Nancy Lopez or Mickey Wright or Annika Sorenstam – has the national spotlight beamed so brightly on women’s golf.

But what if ...

• The men’s tournament has a Monday playoff?
• Rain the first week forces the men into the women’s week?
• The women have to play out of too many divots?
• The greens get burned out during the men’s tourney?

Davis and the USGA can count on one ally – Vicki Goetze-Ackerman, a two-time USGA champion and president of the LPGA Player Directors.

“Personally, I think this is the coolest thing ever,” she said at Pinehurst in April.

Judging from reaction around the country, most of the LPGA players are buying into the concept – even if they don’t like the idea of playing second and wonder about the logistics of housing and practice time on the tournament course.

“From the LPGA players’ perspective, we can already see how this Women's Open is the most talked about and anticipated Women's Open yet,” Goetze-Ackerman said. “The increase in awareness and exposure for the event and women’s golf are significant positives for the LPGA Tour, as well as the game of golf. ... We feel that bringing the women's and the men's games together is not only innovative and open-minded, but a great opportunity to showcase the best of the best in the game of golf for both genders.”

That’s the idea, Davis said.

He remembers his predecessor, David Fay, first throwing out the idea of the men and women playing back-to-back weeks at the same course and his reaction: Have you lost your mind?

But Davis is a fan on the women’s game and repeatedly says that they don’t get enough credit for their skills. He thought about how the women played at Oakmont in 2010 three years after the men’s 2007 Open, and, he said, “They handled it beautifully. Same setup, same green speeds, same pin placements, and the women handled it beautifully.”

Pinehurst No. 2 will be play at about 7,500 yards for the men and 6,700 for the women with the goal of having both facing the same tee shots and approaches.

“On a given hole, if the men are hitting drivers, we want to see the women hit drivers,” Davis said. “If the men are hitting 6- to 8-irons for approach shots, that's what we want to see the women do. We want to test the same things for both championships, but there are differences in how men and women play the game.”

Divots, he said, are part of the game, but he does not anticipate a huge problem. Only on a couple of the shorter par-4s will the men and women be hitting approaches from the same area. Around the greens, divot-producing chips at Pinehurst No. 2 are rare.

And Davis rejected the suggestion that the back-to-back concept came from the idea of saving on infrastructure and, therefore, increasing profit. Rather, “This is all about comparing the world’s best men with the world's best women,” he said. “I’m convinced fans will be impressed with how well the women play the game.”

Perhaps the sorest spot for the women is playing second. Again, there is a reason: agronomics.

“We have a much better chance of getting the golf course right for both championships with the women playing second,” Davis said. “The reason really gets down to the putting greens. The first week, if Mother Nature is cooperative, they're going to be slightly firmer. ... Very firm greens to slightly – underscore, slightly – less firm greens that second week. And agronomically, it is much easier to do the second week than the first.”

Are the risks of the back-to-back championships worth the rewards? Davis and the USGA hope so.

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