PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — It has been 72 years since the best female golfers in the world played a competitive round at one of the most famous golf courses in the history of the game. The 1951 Weathervane Transcontinental Women’s Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links, won by Patty Berg, was the last LPGA event at the iconic venue, which is hosting the U.S. Women’s Open.
The significance of the women finally playing here is not lost on anyone. A venue that has hosted countless PGA Tour events and the men’s U.S. Open six times will now welcome the game’s top women to its grounds, providing a unique test that will give the golf world a different look at Pebble Beach through the shots of some of the best ball strikers in the world.
“I watched Tiger’s win at the U.S. Open, and Gary Woodland, he won the U.S. Open, so I watched everything,” world No. 1 Jin Young Ko said. “I’m really excited to play this golf course. I really wanted to play this golf course.”
From established stars to up-and-coming phenoms, no matter who emerges victorious, one thing is certain: A women’s event at Pebble Beach has been long overdue.
Here are four storylines to watch for this week:
Major droughts for major stars
The top three players in the world rankings — Nelly Korda, Jin Young Ko and Lydia Ko — all have earned their spots in those places, but it has been some time since each of them raised any major trophy of some sort.
Korda, who is perhaps the face of the women’s game at the moment, has three top-10 finishes at majors in the past two years, but her sole major victory came in 2021 at the Women’s PGA Championship. After returning from a back injury at this year’s PGA, Korda said she was 100% healthy but ended up missing the cut — her first missed cut at a major since the 2021 U.S. Women’s Open.
“I had a two-way miss at Baltusrol, and I was not making any putts, too,” Korda said. “I spent a lot of time on the range.”
Ko caught fire during the tail end of last season and finished inside the top 10 at three of the year’s last majors. She added three LPGA wins in 2022 as well, but missed the cut and finished 57th at her two major appearances so far in 2023. Her last win at a major? The 2016 Chevron Championship.
“I think that’s why it is so much tougher to win, because there’s just a bigger group of names that are in contention,” Ko said of the depth on tour while acknowledging her play as of late hasn’t been up to her standards. “I think it’s closer than maybe like a couple months ago … we’re moving in the right direction.”
Ko is the most recent winner of the bunch, having taken the top spot at the Founders Cup in May as well as the HSBC Women’s World Championship in March. Still, she hasn’t been able to add to her major total, which stands at two after winning both the Chevron and the Evian Championship in 2019. When asked Tuesday if she felt any urgency to win a major, Ko didn’t hesitate
“No,” she said. “I just want to spend good time with my family and friends. That’s my goal right now.”
It is a testament to the depth and burgeoning youth in the game (more on that in a bit) that the game’s best haven’t been able to add to their major total, and yet it is clear that these three players have been consistently a cut above the rest of the field. Even if there is no outspoken urgency to win another major, they have all elaborated plenty about the significance of playing this major at this venue. Adding it to their major resume would mean more than just a number.
Michelle Wie West’s last dance
Even though it felt like Wie’s departure from the golf world came during last year’s U.S. Open at Pine Needles, Pebble Beach will fittingly be the site of her true final competitive tournament as she retires following an 18-year professional career.
“It’s going to be strange because when I was done with Pine Needles, I was like, oh, but I have Pebble next year,” Wie West said. “There is no Pebble next year.”
The extended finality of her career has allowed Wie West to have ample amount of reflection and perspective about her time in the sport. And though she said she wants her final walk up 18 to be in the final group Sunday, she’s also acknowledged that a more realistic goal this week is to enjoy her swan song at a tournament that has also served to showcase her legacy and role as an ambassador for the women’s game.
During the lead-up to Pebble, Wie West has been front and center, touting not just the depth of the women’s game as well as some of its up-and-coming stars, but also advocating for and reiterating the importance of the women playing the same venues as the men. This year, the PGA Championship was held at Baltusrol, and the USGA will take the women’s game to places like Riviera, Oakland Hills, Oakmont and LACC over the next 20 years.
“I think being on iconic venues is a more sustainable improvement for the tour, because it increases the media value, and you have to increase media value to attain more money,” Wie West said. “The fans are the ones that are driving the media value. They love to watch TV and recognize the courses that we play at.”
Perhaps most notably, Wie West is now the host of a new LPGA event — the Mizuho Americas Open which Zhang won in her pro debut — that featured AJGA players who were given a travel stipend by the tournament. Wie West also said she’s in constant communication with LPGA commissioner Mollie Marcoux and willing to be involved in growing the women’s game as much as possible as she fully enters retirement.
“I’m just hoping to be a sounding board for whenever she needs it or whenever anyone on tour needs it,” Wie West said. “They all know that I want to help, and I’m just letting them come to me whenever they need.”
As far as what comes immediately after Pebble Beach, the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open winner is certain of at least one of them.
“I’m going to put my clubs in the darkest corner of my garage,” she said. “Let it sit there for a little bit.”
The Rose Zhang show
As Wie West waves goodbye, Zhang says hello. The most decorated amateur player in the history of the sport arrives at the U.S. Open with plenty of intrigue surrounding her after she shot a course-record 63 at Pebble during the 2022 Carmel Cup.
Two tournaments and one win into her professional career, Zhang has already made a first, second great impression and is the betting favorite this week. At Baltusrol during the PGA Championship, she nearly ran down the leaders and finished tied for eighth while not playing her best. The result added more fuel to the fire that it’s only a matter of time before she secures a major.
After watching Zhang dominate the amateur ranks and then translate that into a win at Wie West’s event, such notions don’t feel misguided. So far, it somehow appears impossible to both underestimate her and overestimate her. Her ceiling has yet to materialize, and her play has made the hyperbolic feel applicable.
Pebble provides not just a major stage, but also one that fits her game well. Though it will be interesting to see how she handles the length of the course (especially if the wind picks up), her consistency and accuracy will shine and give her the opportunity to hit Pebble’s small greens over and over again.
“I apparently hit all 18 greens [in regulation],” she said nonchalantly of that historic Carmel Cup round. “It was just a pretty dreamy week.”
Zhang’s even-keeled demeanor paradoxically runs counter to the attention and excitement that seemingly surrounds her. To hear talk about it, that’s a concerted choice.
“I’ve always already put that in my mind that professional golf is going to be very difficult,” Zhang said. “I already prepared myself for all scenarios of just being able to grind, not having the greatest luck and that puts me in a position where I can expect everything. When things come out good, I just roll with it.”
The evolution of that approach will be fascinating to watch, especially if she continues to win. Doing so at a place like Pebble at a tournament like the U.S. Open, could shift the hype train into overdrive if it’s not already there and cement her place as the sport’s next great star.
The youth movement continues
Though Zhang may be the headliner, if the last few majors are any indication, we might be in for another first-time major winner, especially a young one. Eight of the last 10 major winners have all been first-timers and six of those were 25-years-old or younger at the time of their victories.
“I love that all the major champions are so young,” Wie West said. “That means the next generation is here.”
For all the talk about Zhang, she’s far from the only one finding success at an early age. Ruoning Yin just took home the 2023 PGA Championship at just 20-years-old while the 2023 Chevron Championship winner, Lilia Vu, just turned 25.
Amari Avery, an 18-year-old whose stardom extends far outside the golf course, headlines a field of 28 amateurs this week, including Saki Baba, who won the 2022 U.S. Women’s Amateur and Anna Davis, who already has an Augusta National Women’s Amateur title to her 17-year-old name. Angela Zhang, who is 14, is the youngest player to ever compete in a women’s U.S. Open.
“They’re playing better than me right now,” Ko said of the younger players on tour. “I think it’s really cool to see different names coming up on the leaderboard. I think names that might not be that familiar to other people that are kind of new to the LPGA. It’s just great to have that diversity and variability between the players.”