How the U.S. Women’s Open at Lancaster became such a tough test

LANCASTER, Pa. — The creek in front of the 12th green at Lancaster Country Club now owns more than 83 new golf balls, including three that once belonged to the world No. 1. It’s only Friday.

Welcome to the U.S. Women’s Open: This is how it’s supposed to feel.

The 8-over-par cut line at Lancaster is the highest since Pinehurst in 2014. Only four players are under par for the championship through two rounds. There have been 1,438 bogeys, 240 double bogeys, and 41 “other,” uglier scores.

How are the biggest names in the women’s game handling the test? Most of them are leaving the state. Nelly Korda, Rose Zhang, Brooke Henderson, Lexi Thompson, Leona Maguire and Lydia Ko are among those who ejected themselves from the tournament and missed the cut by several shots.

Lancaster’s second time hosting the U.S. Women’s Open has been nothing short of a bloodbath.The carnage is far from over. Wichanee Meechai leads at 4 under par, one of only four players who are not over par through 36 holes.

“Pars and birdies feel like gold right now,” said former U.S. Women’s Open champion Minjee Lee, who is tied for third. “It’s tricky. The rough is up. The greens are fast. That’s what I expect for a U.S. Open.”

The course is firm, fast and borderline torturous if you let your focus slip, even momentarily. Mike Whan, the CEO of the USGA, said it best Tuesday — the U.S. Women’s Open has welcomed competitors with a complete test of golf this year, both a “mental” and “physical” one. Some players love it. They welcome the challenge. Others shiver at the sightlines from Lancaster’s elevated tee boxes or the pins perched on slanted surfaces.

“The pins they had on the practice round, I was like, if they put the pins here I’m going to start crying,” said 15-year-old amateur Asterisk Talley, who finds herself in contention at her first major championship.

There’s no denying that this year, the U.S. Women’s Open looks like a U.S. Open. It’s grueling. It’s not embarrassing the players, but yes, it’s testing their limits. Everyone plays the same brutally tough golf course: The challenge is fair. But how did the beastly setup at Lancaster Country Club come to be, and what can it tell us about another USGA championship approaching on the calendar?

Behind the true U.S. Open setup

Leading into the week, no one foresaw a U.S. Open test quite this difficult. But the tournament organizers did prioritize one detail in particular when setting up the course, which probably should have given us a hint. According to the USGA’s senior director of the U.S. Women’s Open, Shannon Ruillard, the championships team specifically emphasized allowing the classic architectural elements of the William Flynn design to shine through.

The defense mechanisms built into the golf course — the curvature in the greens, the disruptive fairway bunkers, the meandering creeks, etc. — were all utilized by the USGA to their fullest extent, wherever possible.

The slick green speeds (ranging in the mid-to-upper 11s) have made the severe tilts on the putting surfaces incredibly apparent, and their firmness challenges players to be precise with their approach distances. The total course yardage (6,526 — exactly 100 yards longer than it played in 2015) put those treacherous fairway bunkers perfectly within reach. The USGA’s placement of tee boxes, both in terms of length and angle, took into account the penalty areas on each hole. These choices are always intentional, and focusing on them might seem self-explanatory, but the USGA executed the job perfectly this week.

“We want to make sure the architectural features come into play for this group of players,” Rouillard said. “I can’t control how a player chooses to play the golf course. But we can interpret the architecture to help provide a path for how to play the course in the best possible way.”

The USGA’s interpretation of the Flynn design was complemented by the innate construction of the course routing itself. Lancaster is built on the side of a hill, and frequent elevation changes make it extremely difficult to judge the wind. Plus, no two holes at Lancaster face the same direction. The USGA didn’t have to worry about making things more challenging in that respect — the questions Lancaster CC asks of a golfer are omnipresent.

Rouillard insisted that the USGA does not have a winning number in mind or a score-to-par benchmark for the championship. When the tournament was held at Lancaster in 2015, In Gee Chun won at 8-under par, for context. But when asked if the course is playing how they intended for it to play, the response was much clearer than any data-based answer.

“Absolutely,” Rouillard said, “The course is showing its teeth.”

Why Lancaster is perfect for a U.S. Women’s Open

We’re seeing a prime U.S. Open test unfold before our eyes, but that has been made particularly possible because of the style of play that comes with a women’s championship.

The longest hitters on the LPGA drive the ball an average of 277 yards. At Lancaster, even when certain tees are placed on the farthest back boxes, the architectural features require each player to pause and consider tee-shot placement. There is no bombing and gauging at this tournament.

There are three nine-hole courses on the Lancaster property, and the two that make up the original 18-hole layout measure 6,949 yards from the tips. A men’s U.S. Open could not have been played at this course — it simply doesn’t have the length.

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Lexi Thompson shot 13-over at what could be her final U.S. Women’s Open. (John Jones / USA Today Sports)

The championship has displayed a true U.S. Open massacre because the women cannot overpower the golf course, and there’s something beautiful and interesting about that. The bunkers that are meant to be in play, are in play. The two par 5s on the golf course are true par 5s — No. 7 has a 5.03 scoring average and No. 13 stands at 4.9. The greens are repelling off-line approach shots because oftentimes they are hit with longer clubs that are more difficult to spin, especially out of the rough. The Flynn design has not been rendered obsolete in any way.

This is exactly why the list of future U.S. Women’s Open sites is nothing short of epic. Next year the women will visit Erin Hills, then Riviera, Inverness and Oakmont. More of the great American classic golf courses are available for this championship because the women, unlike the men, cannot simply hit the ball over trouble and hit a wedge shot into the green.

What does this mean for Pinehurst?

The championship teams for the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens always maintain an open dialogue. Although Lancaster and Pinehurst No. 2, site of the men’s U.S. Open in two weeks, could not be more different in terms of design and layout, there is always room to learn from the mistakes and the adjustments the U.S. Women’s Open team made during the tournament.

“We collaborate quite a bit,” Rouillard said. “There is always an opportunity to share different nuggets of information. If you’re doing it by yourself, you only have your own perspective. You learn from the dialogue.”

Suppose Lancaster is any indication of where the USGA mindset is right now around its premier championships. In that case, the USGA setup at Pinehurst will provoke the groans and sighs from players we desperately missed last month at Valhalla during the PGA Championship — Xander Schauffele’s winning score broke the major championship low-scoring record at 21-under-par.

The U.S. Open at Pinehurst has a history of being purely diabolical. Martin Kaymer won the previous U.S. Open at Pinehurst in 2014. He finished at 9-under but was one of just three players who ended the tournament under par. In 2005, Michael Campbell won at even-par for the tournament, and in 1999, Payne Stewart emerged victorious at 1-under.

The Donald Ross design does not lend itself to birdies. The signature turtle-back-shaped greens will reject shots even slightly offline and the native grasses that line the fairways will demand minuscule misses. If Lancaster has been any indication, the USGA will ensure that scoring opportunities are few and far between, more akin to a typical U.S. Open test than Los Angeles Country Club was a year ago.

How it’s supposed to be.

(Top photo of Aine Donegan: Patrick Smith / Getty Images)

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