OAKMONT, Pa. -- The only other time the U.S. Women's Open was played at Oakmont CC was 1992 when Patty Sheehan defeated Juli Inkster in an 18-hole playoff that was a battle of future Hall of Famers. This year promises to be one of the most challenging tournaments the women have ever faced: An extremely difficult golf course played under grueling heat and humidity. Here are 10 key questions going into the U.S. Women's Open
1. Will someone fail to break 100?
I have two words for you -- local qualifiers. There are 28 amateurs among the 156 players in the field and, frankly, some of them are nice single-digit handicappers who played well enough well through two rounds of qualifiers, but are no match for Oakmont. An embarrassing number could be posted by anyone who loses their focus. This is a course that penalizes mistakes severely. Remember, Aaron Baddeley shot an 80 at Oakmont as the final-round leader of the 2007 U.S. Open here. There may not be a triple-digit number this week, but several will begin with a 9.
2. What will the cut number be?
Of the 156 players in the field, about 120 have no chance of winning - nada, absolutely none, a snowball's chance in the Oakmont furnance. Look for a median number of 77 the first two days, that's six over par. So we are looking at a cut of 12 over par. Certainly, the record of 35-over-par 179 at Salem CC in 1954 is safe, but there will be a lot of 36-hole scores north of 179.
3. How will the heat and humidity take its toll?
Part of what a U.S. Open does is test patience and the ability to adjust to conditions. That's what Graeme McDowell did brilliantly on Sunday at Pebble Beach. He wasn't trying to make birdies, just pars, and was happy to settle for bogey when he had to instead of gambling and putting up the dreaded "other." The mid-90s heat and suffocating humidity will wear out players and that will lead to not just bad shots but bad decisions. There will be some real composure letdowns this week.
4. What will be the weirdest rules violation?
One of the wonderful quirks of Oakmont is that the ninth green extends into the practice green. There is a blue stake on either side of the practice green. The imaginary line between the two stakes separates it from the ninth green. If your ball accidentally rolls across the line onto the ninth green and you pick it up, you are fine. But if you putt your ball again after it crosses the line you are disqualified for practicing on the competition course. Has anyone told this to Michelle Wie?
5. Will Oakmont identify a great champion or will the grueling conditions produce a fluke winner?
The list of winners at Oakmont reads like a who's-who of golf: Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Ernie El and Patty Sheehan among them. A fluke is not likely. But that does not mean the winner won't be a very good player who is not a household name in the Pittsburgh area -- or anywhere else in America -- like KLPGA star Hee-Kyung Seo, or a talent ready to break through like Song-Hee Kim.
6. Will No. 17, the drivable par-4, be the key hole as it was in the 2007 U.S. Open?
Just the positioning of the 260-yard par-4 as the penultimate hole increases the chances it will play pivitatol role. Lay-up or go for the green? That's a decision someone is almost certainly going to have to make in the heat of battle on Sunday.
7. Will women be unfairly criticized if they struggle at Oakmont?
Of course they will. Those who like to bash the LPGA in particular and women's golf in general will be waiting to pounce if the scores soar, overlooking the fact that Angel Cabrera won here in 2007 with a five-over-par 285. The bottom line for judging the event should always be this: Was it a good finish and did a deserving player win? Par is an entirely arbitrary number. If it takes 294 to win, shoot 294.
8. Will anyone have more than four putts on a hole?
That depends: Are you including the chip back after someone putts off the green as a putt? Let's put it this way: Will someone hit the ball more than four times after it has first come to rest on the green? Yup. Right now, you can drop a ball on the second green and it will roll 30 yards off the green. The women are at a real disadvantage compared to the men when they get on greens like those at Oakmont. They never face any like these except in a U.S. Open.
9. What will the winning score be?
That depends a lot on what the USGA does with the pins. There is a chance that if the first two days are really bloody they will get more generous with the hole locations after the cut is made. Bogeys will pile up and there are simply not a lot of birdie opportunities at Oakmont with which to erase them. From what I have seen, I'd take six over par 290 and sit in the clubhouse drinking a cold Iron City beer.
10. Who will win?
Cristie Kerr has to be considered the favorite. She drives the ball straight and putts well -- two necessities for a U.S. Open champion. Kerr also comes in on a roll, winning two of her last three including the LPGA Championship by 12 strokes. Jiyai Shin also drives and putts well, but may not hit it far enough to hit the high approach shots needed to hold these lightning-fast greens. Paula Creamer is a grinder with an Open game -- if her surgically repaired left thumb is healthy. Yani Tseng is one of the few who could try to overpower Oakmont. Inbee Park won the 2008 U.S. Women's Open and was T-4 in 2007.
And don't count out veteran Karrie Webb if she gets confidence with the putter early. In fact, that's the one thing we know for sure about the winner - she will have a good putting week. Oakmont is all about staying out of the bunkers and having touch and imagination around the greens. But no matter who win, it will be an entertaining -- tough, perhaps at times painful to watch -- tournament. That's what a great course like Oakmont produces.
-- Ron Sirak