By Brian Wacker
December marks the final month of the year and with it brings the final major of 2020 with this week’s U.S. Women’s Open at Champions Golf Club in Houston.
Originally scheduled for June 4-7, the USGA postponed the event in April because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Doing so means the tournament will be held in December for the first time. It’s also being contested on two courses—the Jackrabbit and Cypress Creek courses—during the first two rounds to help offset the reduced daylight this time of year and keep the championship on schedule.
This year also marks just the second time the championship is being held in Texas. The last was in 1991 at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, where Meg Mallon defeated Pat Bradley by two strokes to win her first of two Women’s Open titles.
As for the field, the defending champion is 24-year-old Korean standout Jeongeun Lee6, who captured the 2019 title at the Country Club of Charleston in South Carolina on her way to being named LPGA Rookie of the Year. It’s been nearly two decades since a player has successfully defended at the Women’s Open, with Karrie Webb the last to do so in 2001. There are also 42 players in the field making their U.S. Women’s Open debut this year. Only four players, however, have won the event on their first try, the last being In Gee Chun in 2015.
So who do we like this week in Houston? Here are eight players to watch and a pretty good longshot.
Sei Young Kim
One of just two players with multiple victories on the LPGA Tour this season, Kim arrives in Houston on a hot streak having won each of her last two starts. In October at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, the 27-year-old from South Korea pulled away from the field when she shot a final-round 63 at Aronimink to win by five over Inbee Park and capture her first major title. Two weeks later, a third-round 64 helped lift Kim to a three-stroke victory at the Pelican Women’s Championship. Only once, however, has Kim, ranked second in the Rolex Rankings, finished in the top 10 of the U.S. Women’s Open, tying for eighth in 2017 at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J.
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The other player with multiple wins during the abbreviated LPGA season is Kang, whose two victories came at the LPGA Drive On Championship and the Marathon LPGA Classic, the tour’s first two tournaments after it resumed play in July. The 28-year-old American has cooled since but did tie for 11th at the ANA Inspiration in September and finished second at the LPGA Drive On Championship Reynolds Lake Oconee in October. Ranked fourth in the world, Kang also has a major on her resume, having won the KPMG Women’s PGA in 2017.
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Jin Young Ko
The top-ranked woman in the world, Ko hasn’t won a tournament since October 2019 back on the Korean LPGA tour. That capped a year in which she also won four LPGA events, including two majors (the ANA and Evian Championship). Because of the pandemic, the 25-year-old has spent most of this year in her native Korean playing on the KLPGA, where she’s had four finishes of T-8 or better in six starts. Also of note: In each of the last three years at the U.S. Women’s Open she has finished in the top 20.
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The seven-time major champion—including wins at the 2008 and 2013 Women’s Opens—has been remarkably consistent in 2020. In 12 worldwide starts the 32-year-old has a win (at the ISPS Women’s Australian Open) and six other finishes in the top 10, which included the aforementioned runner-up at the KPMG Women’s PGA and a runner-up over the weekend at the Volunteers of America Classic. She also finished fourth at the Women’s British Open at Royal Troon.
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The younger of the sister duo is the highest-ranked American in the field at No. 3, but the last time we saw in action was at the KPMG Women’s PGA in October when she withdrew before the second round because of discomfort in her back. The 22-year-old was the favourite in that event after having lost in a playoff at the ANA in September. Before the WD, she’d been on a roll with three straight finishes in the top five.
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The 27-year-old had a share of the lead at the halfway mark last week at the Volunteers of America Classic but rounds of 72-76 over the weekend dropped her to T-19. In the start before that, she finished tied for sixth at the Pelican Women’s Championship. Like Nelly, Jessica is still searching for her first major title to go with five career LPGA wins. They’re one of two sets of sisters in the field this year, joining Ariya and Moriya Jutanugarn.
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Adding to her lone major title, the 2014 ANA, has been a focus of the 25-year-old, who has had her chances. At last year’s U.S. Women’s Open at the Country Club of Charleston, Thompson entered the final round just a stroke off the lead but bogeyed three of her first four holes before carding a 73 to finish two strokes back of winner Jeongeun Lee6 and in a tie for second with So Reon Yu and Angel Yin. This year, Thompson was two strokes off the lead going into the final round of the ANA Inspiration but shot 69 to finish two shots out of a playoff and solo fourth for what has been her only top 10 of 2020 so far.
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The 43-year-old Texan had quietly been playing well in 2020, with two top-10 finishes and four top 20s in her eight previous starts. The quietly part disappeared on Sunday when she stormed back with a closing 67 to win the Volunteers of America Classic outside Dallas, her seventh career win and first since her victory at the 2018 Evian Championship. The oldest winner in Women’s Open history is Babe Zaharias, who took the title in her comeback from cancer in 1954 at age 43 and seven days. It’s a record Stanford could break if she keeps things going in Houston.
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Unexpected winners have claimed two of the three women’s majors played in 2020, counting Sophia Popov (ranked 304th in the world) at the AIG Women’s Open in August and Mirim Lee (ranked 94th) at the ANA in September. Noh is 61st on the Rolex Rankings and making her Women’s Open debut. Yet the 19-year-old California native, who two years ago won the U.S. Girls’ Junior has already shown an ability to adapt to the pro game quickly. She shared the lead entering the final round of at the Volunteers of America Classic over the weekend and closed with a respectable 70 only to see Stanford come from nowhere to take the title. Noh’s runner-up showing comes after tying for third at the Cambia Portland Classic in September. A victory in Houston would also make her the youngest winner of the U.S. Women’s Open in the event’s history, surpassing Inbee Park, who captured the 2008 title at the age of 19 years, 11 months and 17 days.