NOT LONG AFTER Stacy Lewis arrived, she ran into Pat Bradley – the No. 1 women’s golfer in the world paying her respects to one of the game’s legends. Bradley, 63, had a huge grin, unable to contain her excitement.
No one would know better than Bradley how ground-breaking it is to have the women play the same U.S. Open course as the men immediately afterward, especially one as historic as Pinehurst No. 2.
“She’s like, ‘Is this not the coolest thing ever? During my generation this would have never happened,’ ” Lewis said. “I think that’s what a lot of the young girls don’t realize, what an opportunity this is.”
Women’s golf will never have a better showcase than this. In addition to the relentless promotion by NBC, ESPN and the Golf Channel during their U.S. Open telecasts, many of the best players in the men’s game talked openly about watching the Women’s Open to see what happens. The two groups rarely cross paths like they have this week.
With a growing number of talented and telegenic young American players and an 11-year-old in the field – cheerful, pigtailed Lucy Li – this is a real chance to attract attention to a sport that has, despite a recent spike in growth, largely failed to keep pace with the PGA Tour.
To fully capitalize, it will likely take Sunday drama on the back nine (unlike the men) and a winner whom American audiences can appreciate. That doesn’t necessarily have to be an American – defending champion Inbee Park speaks excellent English and has an outgoing personality – but it would help.
If Michelle Wie, by far the tour’s best-known player, is ready to win a major, there would never be a better time than this.
If nothing else, being able to attend the U.S. Open in person opened some players’ eyes to how popular the men are and how far the women have to go to catch up. Envy can be a powerful motivator.
“If we want to get up there, if we want 400,000 people watching us, if we want this many more sponsor tents, it really puts it in perspective of where we want to get to,” Wie said. “I think it definitely pushes us a lot harder when we see that.”
The LPGA is making progress, from increased television ratings to major changes to one of the tour’s majors, the LPGA Championship. In partnership with the PGA of America, it will be known as the Women’s PGA Championship, mirroring the men’s tournament.
The tournament will move from its traditional home in Rochester, N.Y., to rotating sites in the New York City area, starting at the prestigious Westchester Country Club in 2015. The purse will increase from $2.25 million to $3.5 million, and it will join the Women’s Open as the only women’s tournaments on broadcast television thanks to a new deal with NBC.
“I think we’re finally earning the respect that we can play good championships on great golf courses,” Suzann Pettersen said.
The Women’s Open, which saw a purse increase from $3.25 million to $4 million this year, will move permanently to the weekend after Memorial Day in 2018, a date that will allow for a wider range of courses. This tournament has clearly become a higher priority for the USGA, as these unique circumstances underline.
“I think any time Rickie (Fowler) and Phil (Mickelson) and those guys are talking about women’s golf, I think it’s a great thing,” Lewis said. “That’s really what we accomplished last week. For them to say they’re going to watch us play, that’s huge.”
They’ll be watching, as will others. It’s up to the players to make the most of this audience. They’ll never have a better chance to show off what they can do.