Feature | Golf

2020 U.S. Women's Open - Five things to look out for

In-form Kim Sei-young leads a powerful Korean team at the year's final major being staged on two courses in Houston, Texas.

By Rory Jiwani ·

Starting Thursday (9 December), The U.S. Women's Open is the last golf major of 2020 and takes place at Champions Golf Club in Houston, Texas.

With the Evian Championship cancelled due to the Covid pandemic, the three majors so far this year have all gone to first-time winners - Germany's Sophia Popov and Korean pair Mirim Lee and Kim Sei-young.

Rio 2016 Olympian Kim is strongly fancied to claim back-to-back majors after her success in the Women's PGA Championship in October.

The tournament is another opportunity to earn world ranking points, counting towards qualification for next year's Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

With at least two players comfortably inside the world's top 15, Korea and the United States will almost certainly have a maximum four players in the 2021 field at Kasumigaseki Country Club with hosts Japan on the cusp of doing the same.

Can anyone stop Kim Sei-young?

For some time, Kim Sei-young had the unfortunate tag of 'best player without a major title'.

But after 10 LPGA Tour triumphs - including a tour scoring record of 257 (31-under) to win the 2018 Thornberry Creek Classic - and six top-five finishes in 28 major starts, Kim finally broke her duck at the Women's PGA Championship in suburban Philadelphia.

It was a convincing victory, too as she shot a closing 63 - the best round of the week - to beat reigning Olympic champion Inbee Park by five strokes.

Ranked two in the world behind yet another Korean, Ko Jin-young, Kim followed up that win with success in last month's Pelican Championship in Florida.

The 27-year-old is in superb form and says music helps her get into the zone.

She told CNN after her Women's PGA win, "I usually listen to a lot of emotional music and watch funny videos, but during tournaments I tend to listen to and watch stuff that motivates me.

"I listened to the song 'Dynamite' by BTS a lot this time! If I want to calm myself, I listen to IU."

Kim has also followed a certain men's golfing legend by always wearing red trousers for her final round.

"Tiger Woods wore red shirts, so I wanted to copy him, but red trousers worked better than a red shirt!

"When I wear them, I play well. So, now people call it my trademark. It feels like I've become a character!" - Kim Sei-young

Koreans lead the way

You have to go back to 2010 for the last year there was no Korean winner of a women's major, and their dominance is as strong as ever.

World number one Ko Jin-young claimed her first two major titles last year, but has spent most of this year at home due to the Covid pandemic.

She did not make her seasonal LPGA Tour debut until last month's Pelican Championship where she finished tied for 34th.

But Ko showed that she is more than capable of being competitive with fifth place in last week's Volunteers of America Classic.

Defending her U.S. Women's Open title is Lee Jeong-eun, also known as Jeongeun Lee6 to avoid confusion with five other golfers of the same name.

Lee has played just twice on the LPGA Tour since its resumption in August and finished tied for 16th at the Volunteers of America Classic.

But when it comes to sustained excellence, look no further than Inbee Park.

While her last of seven major victories came in 2015, she has no fewer than 10 top-10 finishes in the last five years including second to Kim in October's US PGA Championship.

And, of course, she won gold on golf's return to the Olympic Games at Rio 2016.

She has timed her return to form perfectly in order to defend that title in Tokyo next year.

Park is currently ranked fifth in the world and third among Koreans with a maximum of four teeing it up at Kasumigaseki Country Club in early August.

The 32-year-old warmed up nicely for Houston, tying for second with compatriot Ryu So-yeon at the Volunteers of America Classic.

Ryu is 14th in the world rankings but, with no fewer than six Koreans above her, needs some strong performances to get into the Tokyo mix.

Kim Hyo-joo is ninth in the world but staying at home for the season while 10th-ranked Park Sung-hyun is without a top-10 finish in six LPGA events this year and in danger of slipping out of contention, such is the competition for places in the Korea squad.

Park wins women's golfing gold

Korea's Inbee Park wins gold in the women's individual stroke play final in...

The home challenge

It's now over two years since the United States had a women's golf major winner, courtesy of Angela Stanford at the 2018 Evian Championship.

Last week, Stanford claimed her first title since that triumph at the Volunteers of America Classic in The Colony just north of Dallas to move up to 46 in the world rankings.

The 43-year-old was tied for sixth at last month's Pelican Championship and could make a late charge for the Olympic Games.

Third-ranked Nelly Korda makes her return to action having had to withdraw during the first round of the Women's PGA Championship.

Speaking to media on Tuesday at Champions Golf Club, the younger of tennis Grand Slam winner Petr Korda's golfing daughters - Jessica is also a winner on the LPGA Tour - revealed why it was her own fault.

The 22-year-old said, "I just did something stupid. I tried cracking my back and my back went into spasm.

"My body does not do well in cold weather. It gets really tight and I just made a little oopsie, which turned into a little bit longer of an oopsie."

Korda has three LPGA Tour wins and lost out in a playoff to Mirim Lee at the year's second major, the ANA Inspiration.

But she is tempering expectations this week, saying, "I'm just really grateful to be out here, and I'm just going to take it step by step."

Right behind Korda in the rankings is Danielle Kang, who won the first two tournaments when the LPGA Tour resumed in August in consecutive weeks.

Coached by Tiger Woods' former mentor Butch Harmon, Kang first qualified for the U.S. Women's Open as a 14-year-old in 2007.

After earning full LPGA Tour status in 2013, she took four years to gain a title - and a major to boot - in the 2017 Women's PGA Championship.

Now 27, Kang is a fierce competitor and was second on her last outing in Reynolds Lake Oconee in late October.

Rio 2016 Olympian Lexi Thompson is 11th in the world rankings and on track to make her second Olympic appearance.

Thompson made headlines around the world in 2007 when she qualified for the U.S. Women's Open aged just 12.

Now 25, she is a familiar face on the tour with her sole major triumph coming at the 2014 Kraft Nabisco Championship (now called the ANA Inspiration).

After parting company with caddie Benji Thompson (no relation) in September, her brother Curtis was on the bag at last month's Pelican Championship where she finished tied for 27th and had a hole-in-one.

Curtis will be back for next week's season-ending CME Group Tour Championship, but this week she will be accompanied by Tim Tucker who caddied for Bryson DeChambeau when he won the U.S. Open in September.

The rest of the world

Shibuno Hinako may be Japan's last major winner at the 2019 Women's British Open, but their best hope looks to be Hataoka Nasa.

Ranked seven in the world, the 21-year-old is a regular contender with five top-10 finishes from eight LPGA Tour appearances this year including two runner-up finishes.

Hataoka was tied for 11th last weekend, seven shots behind winner Angela Stanford, and should challenge in Houston.

Canada's world number six Brooke Henderson is the model of consistency with four top-six finishes in her last four outings including a share of second place with Nelly Korda at the ANA Inspiration.

The 23-year-old is seeking to add to her sole major win at the 2016 Women's PGA Championship and improve on her seventh place from Rio 2016.

Spain's Carlota Ciganda has found some form of late, finishing tied for third in the Women's PGA Championship to equal her best performance in a major.

The highest European in the world rankings at 13, Ciganda is seeking her first LPGA Tour win for four years and can take inspiration from her third place in the 2018 U.S. Women's Open.

After winning her first LPGA Tour title in October, Mel Reid could be a big contender in Houston.

A golfing prodigy, her form slumped after her mother Joy died in a car crash in Germany while on her way to watch her compete in 2012.

This year has seen her reach new heights in her career and, while she struggled last week, the Englishwoman looks set to be right in the mix for majors in the future.

Despite being down at 40 in the world rankings, former world number one Lydia Ko is showing signs of returning to her best.

The New Zealander was tied for fourth in the Pelican Championship to make it three top-10s in succession.

Still only 23, the two-time major champion has not won a title since April 2018 but is almost certain to make Tokyo 2020, where she will aim to add to her silver medal from Rio 2016.

Ko will play alongside Kim Sei-young and Brittany Altomare on Thursday and Friday.

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One tournament, two courses

Golf is normally a summer sport with the LPGA Tour usually finishing in still-warm Florida in November after a month-long Asian swing.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the bulk of the LPGA Tour did not start until August, with the Asian tournaments cancelled.

This 75th U.S. Women's Open, originally scheduled for early June, is being held in Houston, Texas where the hours of daylight are 7am to around 5.30pm local time.

With a field of no fewer than 156 players, organisers came up with a radical solution to ensure players can complete their rounds before sunset - using two courses at Champions Golf Club.

For the first two rounds, the golfers will take on the Cypress Creek course - originally scheduled to host the tournament - as well as the Jackrabbit course which checks in at 180 yards (165m) shorter.

It is the first time two courses will be played in the tournament's history. Both are par-71.

With rounds starting at the first and the 10th for the first two days, there should be no problems with fading light ahead of the halfway cut, with the weekend action solely on the Cypress Creek track.

That has meant more intensive practice than the norm for the players who have to strike a fine balance between learning the courses and staying fresh for four rounds of championship golf.

Tournament favourite Kim Sei-young said on Tuesday, "I played 18 holes yesterday, 18 today, and I plan to play nine tomorrow, and certainly I'm not used to having two courses at a major tournament. The preparation has been different, but also trying to conserve energy for the week as well."