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U.S. Women's Open - Contenders Prepare for Thursday

Yuka Saso, Lexi Thompson, and Jin Young Ko share their thoughts

 

The 77th edition of the U.S. Women’s Open is scheduled to commence on Thursday, and for some players, it has been on their minds for quite a while now. For Jin Young Ko, it has involved some very thorough and intense practice and preparation at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club – site of the USGA’s national championship. While perennial favourite Lexi Thompson sees a return to the site where she competed in her first US Women’s Open as a 12-year old.

Defending Champion

However, kicking off Media Day today was the defending Champion – Yuka Saso. She spoke of her year as the US Women’s Open champion and what it meant for her to be called “champ” or to see her face and image plastered in public, such as the hotels in Southern Pines, North Carolina where this year’s event is being held. However, her most memorable experience came from returning home to the Philippines for the first time in two years due to the pandemic and the strict quarantine requirements for international travel. But it wasn’t just being able to return home to visit family and friends – it was being able to bring the U.S. Women’s Open trophy to the Philippines for the first time ever.

“It’s awesome. I got to visit very famous places with the trophy. It’s the first time the U.S. Women’s Open trophy (went) back to the Philippines. It was awesome, and bringing (trophy) back to my home club and seeing my friends back home after two years, and especially with the trophy. It was just awesome.”

This time last year, Saso was competing under the flag of the Philippines, but the dual citizen had to make a declaration as to which nation she would become a permanent citizen of as she approaches her 22nd birthday. This season she has been playing under the Japanese flag, declaring herself a Japanese citizen – the home of her father. Playing on an international tour like the LPGA that plays in many countries, the benefits of the Japanese passport are obvious for a professional player as her travel becomes far less complicated, allowing her to travel without a visa to many countries.

In speaking to her preparations for defending her U.S. Women’s Open crown, she discussed the course, its setup, and what aspects of her golf game that it would test. Saso believes that in order to defend her title, all aspects of her game must be solid. Saso made some headlines last year at Olympic Club when she let it be known that she likes watching swing videos of Rory McIlroy on YouTube, so quite naturally that topic arose once again. For Saso, she has been studying McIlroy’s swing work recently, noting that she observed him working on a fade with his tee shot in an effort to eliminate misses to the left. It’s something that resonated with her.

“I think in the U.S. Open you need everything, not just one part of your game. I think everything has to be good.”

“I see some of his shots (McIlroy). He’s trying to hit fade with his driver to be more consistent. I think that’s a good way of seeing it . . . you have to be long, but at the same time, you have to be consistent and off the tee, I think I’ve been learning a lot from him recently.”

 
Lexi Thompson standing with her golf bag during a practice round
Lexi Thompson during her practice round © USGA/Darren Carroll
 

Lexi Thompson – Where it all began

Another one of the marquee players is American Lexi Thompson with whom Yuka Saso was paired with in last season’s final round. One of the questions that is bound to be asked of Lexi is how much will last year’s finish at Olympic Club factor into her play this week. While she has since parted ways with her former mental coach, she is happy with the progress that she has made this past 12-months with her swing coach both on the physical and mental side of the game.

“Having Martin Hall on part of my team, helping with my golf swing, but other than that just being such a positive influence in my life. Having him around has helped me tremendously in just getting through the past year of ups and downs and just going through the whole process with me.”

With this year’s U.S. Women’s Open, it marks the fourth time Pine Needles has hosted the event and its only natural that there are so many storylines coming into the week. One of the more memorable of these was the anniversary of Lexi Thompson who played here in Pine Needles as a 12-year old in 2007. On media day, there were some questions about how Lexi has grown as a person and a player since she was a 12-year old competing here in 2007 and she responded with a couple of laughs when she was reminded that her favourite TV show at the time was The Suite Life of Zack & Cody.

“Yeah, times have changes. It (the tv show) might be my favourite, maybe second. I was 12 years old then and just have grown as a person and as a player and have learned a lot of things about myself. It’s just been a great experience.”

As the week progresses, we will get a look at how well Lexi has prepared herself both physically and mentally. She has a recent history of playing very well in the U.S. Women’s Open so it would not be unexpected to find her in the thick of things once again come Sunday.

Jin Young Ko swings her driver
Jin Young Ko watching her tee shot - © USGA/Darren Carroll

World No.1 Player Focused on Playing her Best

No major championship goes by these days without some reference to Jin Young Ko. Her astounding 5-win season last year while being the Rolex Women’s World Ranked No.1 for a career total of 129 weeks and counting makes her an automatic pick to win. As she comes into the week, she has been preparing herself methodically and with purpose. She came to Pine Needles last week in order to get some work in on her game, bringing her coach with her to assist with her practice and game plan. Practicing for 5-five straight days, Ko and her coach have been working on her backswing as well as her game plan. In addition to her practice sessions, she will have played the course 4 – four times having practice rounds on 4 out 5 days before teeing off on Thursday morning.

“My coach came here for five days and I practiced with coach every day. I practiced a lot last week and I found something in my swing and it works, but we’ll see. I practiced a lot with my backswing. It’s pretty good so far, but I need to see.”

As for her strategy, Ko spoke about the way that architect Donald Ross designed the course and the challenges that it presents. “I played this golf course last Saturday, Sunday, and today. I like the shot shapes I like to play – greens are bigger, but landing area is small, so it feels (like) smaller greens so I like that.” As for Ko she identified her iron game as being important to her to scoring well, “Iron shots because greens are – looking bigger, but landing are is smaller, so we need like dart irons.”

 
Jin Young Ko striking a pure iron shot from the fairway
World No.1 Jin Young Ko during her practice round at Pine Needles. © USGA/Darren Carroll
 

As the world number one player, Jin Young Ko has become accustomed to being the standard to which the other players measure themselves. In many respects, they have a “bulls eye” on their back, bringing additional pressure to major competitions and there is no bigger competition in women’s golf than the U.S. Women’s Open. As for the inevitable questions about a budding rivalry with Nelly Korda who is returning to competition this week, Ko was having none of it, smartly talking about her focus being on her own game.

“I’m just trying to focus on my game better, and I know in this Tour we have a lot of good players so I don’t think I have only one rival – I have lots of rivals in this Tour.”

Jin Young Ko and Lexi Thompson tee off at 8:39 a.m. off the 9th tee box. Yuka Saso is off at 8:32 a.m. from the 1st tee. All three players will then be in the afternoon field on Friday.

 

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