U.S. Women's Open
U.S. Women's Open 2021: Late tweaks to course setup allow Olympic Club to challenge but not embarrass top players
Lexi Thompson hits her tee shot on the eighth hole during the third round of the 76th U.S. Women's Open.
SAN FRANCISCO — With The Olympic Club’s fabled Lake Course hosting its first U.S. Women’s Open, much of the early week discussion—and concern—centered on how the USGA would setup the traditionally difficult layout to present a challenging but manageable test for the top women’s golfers in the world. Come Sunday, the consensus among players was that USGA officials met the moment.
“It’s really fair,” said Inbee Park, a two-time U.S. Open winner and seven-time major champ. “They set the golf course up really good, moved around a lot of tees.” Park was impressed with how the course forced players to “play smart” and “think about the shots.”
“It’s a great golf course,” Lexi Thompson said, the leader after 54 holes. “That’s how major championships should be. They should be longer, rough up thick and it's held up to its standards of being out there.”
Credit Shannon Rouillard, senior director of USGA course setup, for being willing to adjust during the week, making subtle changes to ensure the “tough but fair” mantra held true for the 156-player field.
The biggest alteration came when she decided to trim back the primary rough on the traditionally claustrophobic course. At the start of the week, it measured 3¼ inches and had players worried that no one would break par. But Rouillard and her team took it down to 2¾ inches before Thursday’s opening round.
Additionally, after saying as late as Wednesday morning that she would not have an intermediate cut on the course, Rouillard added one before play began on the par-5 first and par-5 16th holes.
On the remaining holes, however, Rouillard stuck to the decision not to include an intermediate cut, instead leaving fairways in place that were 10-15 percent wider—and even 20 percent on the fourth hole—than when men’s U.S. Open was played here in 2012
“I understand why it got a lot of chatter because we typically have an intermediate pass at this championship,” Rouillard said.
Overall, the concessions on the rough were appreciated by players without harming the integrity of the set up in the mind of the USGA. The premium on hitting fairways was still significant.
“When you miss the fairway it’s really tough,” 2018 U.S. Women’ Open champion Ariya Jutanugarn said. “Some other course, when you miss the fairway you have chance to make par or birdies. I think to me, this course the rough so tough.”
Where Rouillard and the USGA truly challenged players was in the variety of tee shots and clubs into greens they had to account for. The scorecard yardage for the week was 6,486 yards, but officials mixed in tee locations they showed the players during practice rounds and played cards they kept had been keeping close to their chest. The par-3 15th played at 99 yards Saturday with a tucked pin to the front of the greens was a surprise the players faced.
“That’s part of the test, being able to adapt to real time conditions and setup changes,” Rouillard said. “While we showed them some, we didn’t show them all. That’s part of the ‘in the moment’ mental test that we want to make sure we’re providing.”
The USGA added another twist on Sunday, moving the tee box forward on the par-5 17th to allow more players to go for the green in two, playing 441 yards instead of the scorecard yardage of 485.
Where the Rouillard and the USGA also shinned was with the way they handled the greens. For the week, players faced putting surfaces that rolled in the mid-12s on the Stimpmeter, quick but not excessive. After seeing the clubs players were hitting into greens, Rouillard decided to make sure they were slightly slower than the 13s the men faced in 2012.
“It has not been easy out there,” Rouilard said, some satisfaction in her voice. Yet the setup did what it was intended to: showcase the ability of the best players in the world an iconic venue.