Celebrating 75 years

The 18 most memorable U.S. Women's Opens, ranked

As the premier event in women's golf is played for the 75th time, we look back at the championship's iconic moments
December 02, 2020

It is a landmark U.S. Women’s Open, No. 75, beginning next Thursday on the two courses at Champions Golf Club in Houston. And this year’s is certain to be among the most memorable Opens in the 75-year history of the premier championship in women’s golf, given its unique December date courtesy of a pandemic.

In celebrating the milestone, it felt right to reflect on the championship and spotlight the moments that have helped define the event through the years. There have been a variety of winners—from phenoms and Hall of Famers to dark horses and unknowns—winning in all sorts of ways. There have been tears of joy shed, and tears of heartbreak, too.

We recount it all in our countdown of the 18 most memorable U.S. Women’s Opens, a ranking that is likely to inspire some debate. Before we begin, however, here are a few interesting historical facts about the championship.

• It was not a USGA event initially. It was started by the Women’s Professional Golfers Association, which held it for three years. Then the LPGA was formed and it staged it the next four years. In 1953, the LPGA asked the USGA to take it over.

• The first Women’s Open in 1946 had a field of only 39. Entries have topped 1,000 every year since 2004.

• Mickey Wright and Betsy Rawls share the record for most U.S. Women’s Open victories, with four.

• Forty-five of the first 74 Women’s Opens were won by those in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

• Among those who never won the Women’s Open: Kathy Whitworth, Nancy Lopez, Lorena Ochoa and Beth Daniel.

OK, on to the countdown.

18. Annika goes back-to-back (1996)

Annika Sorenstam had formally announced her arrival in women’s golf the year before at The Broadmoor, but began to forge her legacy as the dominant golfer of her generation by winning the Women’s Open for a second straight year. This one came at Southern Pines, a convincing six-stroke victory over Kris Tschetter after shooting a closing 66 to break the Women’s Open 72-hole scoring record with a eight-under 272 total. “It’s a wonderful feeling to win this championship,” Sorenstam said through tears. “Once was wonderful. To win it twice was more than wonderful.” In 2006, she would add a third Open victory to her distinguished record of 72 LPGA titles and 10 majors.

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17. No Open for Nancy (1997)

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Craig Jones

Nancy Lopez reacts to a missed par putt on the 17th hole at Pumpkin Ridge that, in part, kept her from finally claiming the Women's Open title.

She was 40 and at the end of her reign, with 48 LPGA victories but none of them the U.S. Women’s Open. Yet Nancy Lopez was tied for second after the second round at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club outside Portland, Ore., and solo second after the third, trailing by three. Lopez outplayed England’s Alison Nicholas in the final round (69 to 71), but ultimately came up one stroke short after two bogeys in her final four holes and missing a 15-foot birdie to force a playoff on the last. Finishing second for the fourth time in the national championship, Lopez knew she had missed her last best chance at victory: “This should have been the one, darn it.”

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16. Grand Slam bid stymied (1986)

Pat Bradley had won the first two women’s majors that year, the Nabisco Dinah Shore and the LPGA Championship, but her try at a third straight, in the Women’s Open at NCR Country Club, came up three strokes short as she finished in fifth place. Bradley, 35 at the time, would go on to win the du Maurier Classic a few weeks later, becoming the first and only player to win three legs of the Grand Slam in one year in the modern era. History will note that the other major winner in 1986 was Jane Geddes, who prevailed over Sally Little in a playoff at NCR to win the Women’s Open, the first of her two career major victories.

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15. A legend in a landslide (1949)

The Women’s Open in ’49 was played at Prince George’s Country Club in Landover, Md., a par-75 layout that was mastered by only a single player. Louise Suggs played 72 holes in nine-under-par 291 and won by a record 14 shots over Babe Zaharias. Suggs would win 61 tournaments, including a second Women’s Open in 1952 that helped her claim 11 majors in her Hall of Fame career.

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14. First time on TV (1965)

The final round of the Women’s Open at Atlantic City (N.J.) Country Club was nationally televised and it produced a worthy champion. Future Hall of Famer Carol Mann won by two, the third of her 38 LPGA wins and second of two majors. The Women’s Open has been televised every year since.

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13. A playoff and a penalty (2016)

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Jonathan Ferrey

Rules officials explain to Brittany Lang (right) the two-shot penalty that Anna Nordqvist had just been assessed during the playoff at CordeValle.

Tied at six under at California’s CordeValle Golf Club after 72 holes, Brittany Lang and Anna Nordqvist continued on in a three-hole aggregate playoff. On the second extra hole, the 17th at CordeValle, Nordqvist inadvertently and unknowingly touched the sand with her club in a fairway bunker. The infraction was caught on TV, and Nordqvist incurred a two-stroke penalty, which she was told about while playing the next hole. Lang would go on to the win the playoff by three. “Just focusing on hitting my shots, and apparently I touched the sand,” Nordqvist said afterward. “It wasn't on purpose. And just one of those things. I have to deal with the consequences. Unfortunately it happened, but it's not the end of the world."

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12. One sweetheart victory (2010)

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Scott Halleran

Paula Creamer's celebration after winning by four at Oakmont was emotional.

One of the game’s most popular players, Paula Creamer had eight LPGA victories prior to arriving at Oakmont Country Club but was still in search of a major title to help validate her status as one of the top players. In the months preceding the Open, the 23-year-old nursed a hand injury that still bothered her throughout the week, and wasn’t exactly conducive to playing in Oakmont’s gnarly rough. She prevailed nonetheless, winning by four and posting a 72-hole score of three-under 281.

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11. The very first champion (1946)

The inaugural U.S. Women’s Open was a match-play event that had a 39-player field to start, with the final coming down to two future World Golf Hall of Famers, Patty Berg and Betty Jameson. Berg, who won 36-hole stroke-play qualifying by seven shots, prevailed in the 36-hole final, 5 and 4, at Spokane (Wash.) Country Club. The 28-year-old, who four years later would be one of the founding members of the LPGA Tour, claimed a first prize of $5,600 in war bonds. The following year and from then on out, a 72-hole stroke play format was used.

• • •

10. An amateur beats the pros (1967)

France’s Catherine Lacoste, 22, made history with her two-stroke victory at The Homestead, becoming the first and only amateur to win the Women’s Open. That said, it didn’t come without some nerves; Lacoste, daughter of tennis star Rene Lacoste, took a five-stroke lead into the final round and shot 79, but hung on for the title. In 1969, she went on to win the British Ladies Amateur (a title her mother won in 1927) and the U.S. Women’s Amateur, but by 1970 she had all but retired from competitive golf, never having turned professional. No other amateur has been able to match Lacoste’s feat, though others have come close, notably Morgan Pressel and Brittany Lang finishing tied for second in 2005 and Nancy Lopez tying for second in 1975.

• • •

9. Annika begins her reign (1995)

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J.D. Cuban

A second straight U.S. Women's Open title help solidify Annika Sorenstam's burgeoning place in women's golf.

Big things were expected from Sorenstam after she became the first international player to win the NCAA title in 1991 and finished runner-up at the 1992 U.S. Women’s Amateur. But after joining the LPGA in 1994, she had failed to post a victory prior to arriving at The Broadmoor, and didn’t look as though she would do it in Colorado, either, entering the final round trailing leader Meg Mallon by five. But Sorenstam closed with a 68, Mallon a 74 and Annika had the first of her 72 LPGA victories and 10 majors.

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8. An unexpected champion (2003)

Hilary Lunke’s brief career had one shining moment when she shocked women’s golf by winning the Women’s Open at Pumpkin Ridge, defeating Angela Stanford and Kelly Robbins in a playoff. At 24, the Stanford grad was the first winner who had gone through local and sectional qualifying to play her way into the field. It was her only victory in an otherwise lackluster career, and she retired five years later after only seven seasons on the LPGA Tour. In 24 career major starts, her next best finish was a T-37.

• • •

7. The ultimate birdie for Birdie (2005)

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Christian Petersen

Birdie Kim celebrates after holing a bunker shot for birdie on the 72nd hole at Cherry Hills.

Morgan Pressel, then a 17-year-old high schooler, was trying to accomplish the improbable at Cherry Hills Country Club in Denver and become the second amateur to win the Women’s Open—and the youngest ever winner of a major title. She was tied for the lead on the 72nd hole, standing in the fairway and watching the other co-leader, Birdie Kim, play her third shot on the par 4 from a greenside bunker. The 23-year-old South Korean proceeded to shock everyone—particularly Pressel—when she holed the tricky sand shot for a birdie. “I was never a good bunker player,” Kim said. “Finally, I make it.” Pressel couldn’t regroup, bogeying the hole to allow Kim to win by two, her only LPGA victory.

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6. A costly mistake (1957)

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Bettmann

A dejected Jackie Pung (left) sits during the prize ceremony as Betsy Rawls is awarded the Women's Open trophy at Winged Foot.

Jackie Pung had the championship at Winged Foot Golf Club won by a stroke over Betsy Rawls, then lost it when it was revealed she had signed an incorrect scorecard. She made a bogey 6 on the fourth hole of the final round, yet her playing partner, Betty Jameson, marked Pung down for a 5. Pung, incidentally, made the same error on Jameson’s card and both were disqualified. "Winning the Open is the greatest thing in golf," Pung, 35, said at the presentation ceremony. "I have come close before. This time I thought I'd won. But I didn't. Golf is played by rules, and I broke a rule. I've learned a lesson. And I have two broad shoulders ..." Herbert Warren Wind, writing for Sports Illustrated, noted: “You will probably never see an unhappier group of people at a golf championship than was gathered at the Winged Foot Golf Club.” Indeed, the members had become fond of Pung during the week, and after the mistake raised $3,000 among them to present to her, or $1,200 more than she would have earned with the victory.

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5. The phenom delivers (2014)

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Scott Halleran

Michelle Wie's win at Pinehurst silenced those who doubted whether she would live up to her hype as a junior phenom.

Expectations had been exceedingly high for Michelle Wie throughout her career, not long after having qualified for the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links at 10 and missing the cut by one in the PGA Tour’s Sony Hope in Hawaii at 14. Yet these expectations went largely unfilled until she won the Women’s Open, defeating Stacy Lewis by two, at Pinehurst No. 2, the week after Martin Kaymer had won the U.S. Open there in the USGA’s memorable back-to-back Opens. The 24-year-old’s reaction told it all: “Oh, my God, I can’t even think straight. I’m so happy right now. I’m just unbelievably happy. I’m so honored to have my name on the trophy. Just so grateful for everything. I'm just really happy. I’m really thankful, just everything, feeling every single emotion I can right now.”

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4. A Hall-of-Fame career fulfilled (1999)

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LUKE FRAZZA

Juli Inkster was able to win her first Women's Open without too much worry, in the process breaking the USGA scoring record in relation to par.

A three-time winner of the U.S. Women’s Amateur, Inkster seemed certain to one day claim a Women’s Open title when she embarked on her Hall of Fame career. Yet in her first 19 starts in the championship she had only two top-10 finishes (including a painful playoff loss in 1992 when Patty Sheehan birdied her last two holes to force the extra round, then won by two shots). At age 38, in her 20th start, however, Inkster put together a stellar performance at Old Waverly Golf Club, shooting a USGA record 16-under-par score to win by five strokes. “The hardest part was it really was my tournament to lose. No one had the pressure on except me. I had no one to blame but myself,” Inkster said, having started the final round up by four shots. It was the 20th of her 31 career LPGA victories, and the first of two Women’s Open titles (she’d win again in 2002 at Prairie Dunes). “This is the ultimate tournament,” Inkster said. “No one can take away from me that I’m a U.S. Open champion.”

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3. A win that inspires a nation (1998)

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Craig Jones

Se Ri Pak's victory at Blackwolf Run inspired a generation of golfers in South Korea.

She was only 20, still mostly an unknown outside of South Korea who’d surprised American fans by winning the LPGA Championship six weeks earlier. Yet Se Ri Pak probably would have been considered an underdog in the playoff at the Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run had it been not for the person she was facing. Jenny Chuasiriporn, a 20-year-old Duke undergrad, made a 40-foot putt on the 18th hole to force extra holes and was trying to write her own “can you believe this” story. Tied still after the 18-hole playoff, the pair went another two holes before Pak pulled out the victory with a birdie. The championship was televised in South Korea, and Pak’s victory ignited a movement that has resulted in South Korea’s LPGA dominance. “Back then, there was not the communication there is today,” Pak said when recalling the win. “It wasn’t until a week after I won that I learned that all of Korea was watching. It was unbelievable to me.” Following Pak’s lead, 46 more South Korean golfers have won LPGA Tour titles and all told 18 South Koreans have combined to win 33 majors. “At that moment,” said 2011 U.S. Women’s Open winner So Yeon Ryu of Pak’s win, “just golf is my hobby and violin my dream. But now violin is my hobby, golf is my dream, my job. So totally changed.” Pak went on to win 25 LPGA events, including five majors, before retiring in 2016. She is in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

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2. Comeback from cancer (1954)

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Underwood Archives

Babe Zaharias' comeback was inspirational to her and others dealing with cancer.

Fifteen months after undergoing cancer surgery, Babe Zaharias, at 43, became the oldest player to win the Women’s Open, running away with the title by 12 strokes at Salem (Mass.) Country Club, her third Women’s Open victory. “My prayers have been answered,” said Zaharias, who had missed the 1953 Open due to the surgery. “I just told the Lord to let me play again, and I’d take care of the winning. Today, we sealed the bargain.” Indeed, her performance was described in Golf World magazine as “the greatest sustained golf ever in a women's championship.” At year’s end, the Associated Press voted her the female athlete of the year for the sixth time. Zaharias would not have a chance to defend her title a year later, forced to miss the championship because of back surgery that revealed the cancer had returned. She died in September 1956, at 45.

• • •

1. The Open’s greatest champion shines once more (1964)

PGA of America Archive

PGA of America

Mickey Wright's connection to the USGA and the Women's Open will continue on after her death, thanks to her donation of her estate and possessions to the governing body.

Any U.S. Women’s Open list has to include Mickey Wright, who won the last of her four Women’s Opens at San Diego Country Club, the golf course on which she grew up alongside friend Billy Casper. “That was a very personal tournament,” Wright said years later. “It was my home. It was the first tournament that my mother and father had both seen me play in a tournament.” Wright beat Ruth Jessen, who also had San Diego ties, by two shots in an 18-hole playoff. “I hate to lose,” Jessen said, “but there is some consolation in losing to the greatest woman golfer in the world.” Indeed, it was Wright's seventh win of the season and she would add four more titles before the year was out. Wright eventually ran her LPGA victory total to 82, including 13 major championships. Wright’s connection to the Women’s Open will continue on past her death earlier this year at age 85; in Wright’s will she bequeathed her estate and possessions to the USGA, which announced that it has named the medal the Women’s Open champion received starting next week after Wright.