The LPGA Tour gets its crack at Hazeltine National, the course with a recent history of surprising outcomes.
This is where Rich Beem, a former car stereo salesman, held off a charge by Tiger Woods in the 2002 PGA Championship. It’s where Y.E. Yang became the only player to come from behind and beat Woods in the final round of a major at the 2009 PGA Championship.
It’s where the Americans actually won a Ryder Cup in 2016.
Hazeltine also is an example of how much the second-oldest major in women’s golf has risen in stature since the LPGA Tour and PGA of America became partners to stage what is now the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.
“The magnitude of this event has gone up so high, and it’s neck-and-neck with the USGA and U.S. Open,” said Danielle Kang, who won the Women’s PGA two years ago at Olympia Fields, the course south of Chicago where Walter Hagen and Jim Furyk won majors. “It’s just when you get here and people talk so much about the golf course. ‘Oh, you’re going to play Hazeltine.’ They talk it up so much.”
And now it’s time to play it.
The field is the strongest of the year for the LPGA, with 99 of the top 100 on the money list. Sung Hyun Park won last year at Kemper Lakes (where Payne Stewart won the PGA Championship in 1989). The PGA of America has set it up at 6,741 yards on the card — long by LPGA standards — with plans at least once this week to play the signature 16th hole — with a green that extends into a lake — at 240 yards as a reachable par 4.
“I think it’s actually harder as a drivable par 4 because you’re putting the water into play a bit more on the right side,” Nelly Korda said. “So I think that’s going to be a really cool hole and see how people play that down the stretch on Sunday.”
For the fifth straight year, KPMG staged a women’s leadership summit designed to inspire young women in the corporate world. Among the speakers this year was former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, soccer star Mia Hamm and executives from Target and Bank of America.
It sets up as a big week in a big year for the LPGA Tour, with the Solheim Cup scheduled for Scotland in September.
And being at Hazeltine makes it feel bigger.
“The name is obviously a big deal, I think more from a fan perspective and the attention of it that the guys have played here and people are familiar with this golf course,” Stacy Lewis said. “But it’s a property … you drive here and it feels big, from the clubhouse to the range to the practice areas. It feels like a major championship, and that’s ultimately what we wanted to do.”
When this LPGA Tour and PGA of America relationship began, the major was taken to Westchester, Sahalee, Olympia Fields and Kemper Lakes, all courses known to the golfing public from men’s majors or big events. Next up is Aronimink and Congressional, two more storied courses that add to the cache.
“I think like any major championship, it’s going to test everything that you’ve got mentally and physically — shot making, everything — especially around here,” said Brooke Henderson, whose victory last week in the LPGA Meijer Classic gave her a record nine LPGA titles by a Canadian.
Lately, the LPGA majors have been more wide open regardless of where they’re played.
Ten women have won the last 10 majors dating to Kang’s victory in the Women’s PGA at Olympia Fields. Ko and Henderson are the only multiple winners this season.
One of them is Jin Young Ko, who is No. 1 in the women’s world ranking and won the first major of the year at the ANA Inspiration. Jeongeun Lee6 — known as “Six” because she added the numeral as the sixth player on the Korean LPGA with that name — won her first American title at the U.S. Women’s Open three weeks ago.
The last time South Koreans won the first three majors of the year was in 2013, when Inbee Park won them all.
Hazeltine also hosted a pair of U.S. Opens and U.S. Women’s Open, the last one in 1977 when Hollis Stacy beat Nancy Lopez. Inbee Park won the last LPGA major in Minnesota down the road at Interlachen in the 2008 U.S. Women’s Open.
Hazeltine is a different test — big and mighty, with rough that his lush but playable.
“Coming in here I’m always so excited because the venues are so historic and so many great memories from them from other events,” said Henderson, who won her Women’s PGA at Sahalee, site of Vijay Singh’s first major. “They’re amazing golf courses. They always play long and I think being one of the longest hitters on the tour that can kind of be an advantage.”