CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA | Long before the first score was posted, the champion had already been named. It was Country Club of Charleston, the course most of the contestants in the U.S. Women’s Open learned to respect and admire in the three practice days leading up to Thursday’s opening round. The 1925 Seth Raynor design (this is the first major championship ever contested on a Raynor course) is more than the pre-tournament favorite: it’s the hands-down winner.
But the process of accepting something new (most of the players had never set foot on a Raynor course) was an evolutionary one. On Monday, they weren’t so sure. “The fairways seem really wide and there’s not a lot of rough,” 2011 U.S. Women’s Open champion So Yeon Ryu said. “That’s not like a U.S. Open course.”
“It seems like it could favor the longer hitters,” said Daniel Taylor, caddie for and husband of Pernilla Lindberg. “The bunkers are set up so that if you fly it 250, you can cut off a lot of angles and have wedge in your hand a lot. That’s going to make a big difference.”
As the early days of practice progressed, initial criticisms softened. The more time players spent around the Raynor greens, the more they said, “Oh, now I get it.”
“It’s really a sectional golf course,” Lydia Ko said. “You get in the fairways and you think you have plenty of room but you have to be on the correct side or in the correct section to be able to get at some of these pins. If you’re on the wrong side or out of position just a little, it makes it almost impossible to get your approach shots close. And the greens are firming up and could be really difficult by the end of the week.”
Raynor’s genius was his art of deception. Bunkers that are almost perfect rectangles (a far cry from the scruffy and meandering traps created by his contemporaries like Tillinghast, Ross and MacKenzie) frame shots from the tee. But the angular mounding around them creates a series of optical illusions. Standing on the fourth tee, the tee-shot line appears to be well right of the first fairway bunker. But a shot over that left bunker leaves the player with a short iron into an elevated green.
“If you’re hitting it good, you’re going to be tempted to go after some of these pins. And that’s the kiss of death.” – Pete Godfrey
The same is true at No. 10. The left fairway bunker makes you want to play out to the right. But the correct play is to fly the left half of the first bunker to leave a shorter approach. Drive it too far left and you’re blocked by trees; too far right and you’re in another bunker, hidden from sight from the tee.
There are also bunkers 10 yards in front of the 10th green, which, from the fairway, appear to be greenside. That gives players the visual sensation that the hole is shorter than it actually plays.
The 11th is the signature hole: a 175-yard par-3 with the green perched on the only real hill on the course. What makes the hole so special is the fact that half the green is a severe false front, a giant green wall pitched at about a 20-degree angle. From the tee, it looks straight up. The remainder of the green slopes slightly away, keeping players off balance about how far to fly their tee shots.
What they know they don’t want to do is hit it left. Finding the left greenside bunker, a full 12 feet below the putting surface, makes double bogey more than a possibility.
Ben Hogan said of the place, “Your greens are beautiful but what you need for the 11th hole is about five sticks of dynamite.” Hogan then added, “I guess it’s not too bad, but who wants to take 12 strokes on a hole when he’s going pretty good.”
When asked how she used to play the 11th hole growing up at Country Club of Charleston, World Golf Hall of Famer Beth Daniel said, “I laid up.” One-time amateur great Jay Sigel said he did the same, calling the 11th the only par-3 where he didn’t wait for the group ahead to leave the green before hitting his tee shot.
“The right play is just to get it toward 12 tee,” said Katherine Kirk, the Australian pro who’s among the competitors this week. “As long as you’re on the right level, you should be OK. And if you miss it (onto 12 tee) it’s a pretty straightforward up and down from there.”
After 11, several holes can be reached with short irons or wedges if players put their tee shots in the right spots.
“It’s nice to play a golf course that’s a good, fair U.S. Open test without having to be tricked up,” Jane Park said after three days of warm-ups. “The more you’re on it, the more it grows on you.”
Park’s husband, Pete Godfrey, who caddies for defending champion Ariya Jutanugarn, said, “The problem is, the wide fairways lull you into a false sense of security. You think, ‘I can hit it out there anywhere.’ No, you can’t. You’d better be on the correct side.
“The other problem is, if you’re hitting it good, you’re going to be tempted to go after some of these pins,” Godfrey said. “And that’s the kiss of death. Because if you miss it a little, just a few feet, you’re going to hit those (famous Raynor) runoffs and shoot a hundred.”
Maybe not that high. Three-time U.S. Women’s Open winner Hollis Stacy predicted 11 under as the winning score, which would be the perfect sweet spot for this championship, not too low but not a par-fest, either.
No matter the winning number, the USGA hit a home run when it added this course to the major championship roster. Country Club of Charleston is a winner in every respect.
The dramatic 11th hole at the Country Club of Charleston should play a key role in the U.S. Women’s Open. Photo: John Mummert, Copyright USGA
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