Course Plays Tough, Players jockey for weekend position
Yuka Saso of the Philippines shot a relatively stress free 67 ( - 4 under), to take a 1-shot lead into the weekend over Jeongeun Lee-6, the 2019 U.S. Women’s Open Champion. Starting on the 9th tee box, Saso, got things rolling early, birdieing the par-4, 10th before giving it back on the next hole with a bogey. Then she rebounded, going -3 under for the next six holes to finish the nine-hole stretch with a 33. She then made the turn onto the front nine, playing steady golf until the par-4, 4th hole, where she bogeyed it for the second day in a row. She rebounded from that setback to close her round with birdies on the par-4, 5th hole and the par-3, 8th hole; her finishing hole for the day.
As for her overall ball-striking today, Saso was not particularly outstanding. Her driving was sub-par, as she managed to hit only 6 of 14 fairways today, and her driving distance averaged only 226.5 yards. Her approach shots to the greens today were slightly better than yesterday, as she finished her round hitting 13 of 18 Greens in Regulation good for 72%. Where she stood out was on the greens with her putting, finishing with 27 putts today, one more than Thursday’s round.
Heading into the weekend, Saso will have her work cut out for her if she wants to hold on to her lead and win on Sunday. She will need to improve her driving; through 2-rounds so far, she has only managed to hit 14 fairways out of 28 in total. She simply cannot afford to keep missing fairways at Olympic Club as the rough is simply too thick and “sticky” and will only continue to get longer and thicker over the weekend. She has been fortunate so far in that she has been able to escape the thick fairway rough, but her luck may run out if she cannot keep the ball on the fairway.
On the positive side, Yuka Saso is only 19 years old and she seems to play without a sense of pressure as her nonchalant approach has served her well so far. She has the experience of playing in the previous U.S. Women’s Open in Houston along with her experience in winning two professional events on the JLPGA. She also has a “secret weapon” in that she has “consulted” Rory McIlroy on a regular basis, sharing that she used to watch Rory’s swing on YouTube for several years, modeling her swing after the former world no. one player in men’s golf. She still consults Rory’s swing on YouTube, most recently at the Masters earlier this Spring. “The last time I watched it was Masters. I was just watching his golf and swing for like one hour, maybe more.”
Jeongeun Lee – 6
The 2019 US Women’s Open champion has a solid history of playing well at this event with her worst finish being a share of 17th in 2018, to go with a T-5 in 2017, and a T-6 last year. Her round on Friday was a model of consistency, or rather as much as it can be said of a U.S. Women’s Open course. Starting on the first hole, Lee stumbled early, recording a bogey on the par-4, 2nd hole after hitting her second shot 131 yards to the first cut of rough, just to the back and left of the green. With 10 yards to the hole, her chip shot came up short, leaving her with a putt of 6 feet 10 inches for par. Her par putt missed, but she converted the remaining 2 feet for bogey.
That would be the only blemish on Lee’s scorecard as she played the rest of the round to near perfection, recording birdies on the par-4, 6th and par-4 11th, before she went on a birdie run of three consecutive birdies on holes 15 thru 17. On her final hole, she had an 11’ foot birdie putt to put her into a tie with Saso for the lead. Her putt came up just short of the hole for a tap-in par. After her round, she said that her strategy of staying patient and focused on playing one shot at a time were keys to her play.
But as a past champion, she enters the weekend with some confidence, knowing that she has met the pressure and has been able to deliver solid performances. “I gained a great confidence because I win the championship, throughout the U.S.. And for this course I think I need a lot to focus on that course, because the course is not that easy. However, with my focus and with my attention and efforts, I think I can do better.”
There are several players in Korea that share the same name as Jeongeun Lee, so in order to distinguish the players, she added the “6” to the end of her name as she is the 6th player to play on the KLPGA with the same name. It is a practice that has carried over to the LPGA. While she will probably keep the “6’ at the end of her name, should she win on Sunday, she would be in elite company that would set her apart from not only her professional compatriots in Korea, but from other players worldwide. She would become a multiple winner of the U.S. Women’s Open which is a major accomplishment, but she would only be the second player from Korea to become a multiple champion of the U.S. Women’s Open, joining Hall of Fame player Inbee Park.
As for a potential weekend match up between the two players, Jeongeun Lee has been striking the ball very well. She is 22nd in driving distance this week, averaging 257 yards compared to Saso’s 244 yards, and in accuracy, Lee is ranked 17th in Fairways Hit while Saso is only 123rd. Where they match up closer is when it comes to play in and around the greens. Both players are consistent with 25 (Lee) and 24 (Saso) Greens In Regulation and with their putting as Saso has taken 53 putts the past two days with Lee taking 56.
Yuka Saso will need to improve on her ball-striking, she needs to hit more fairways so that she can have better opportunities for reaching the greens in regulation. As the rough continues to grow, it will become even more penal, putting immense pressure on Saso’s short game and her ability to get “up and down” consistently. Should Saso lift the trophy on Sunday, she would equal Inbee Park as the youngest players to ever win this Championship and she would be the first player from the Philippines.
Regardless of the head to head comparison, both Saso and Lee6 need to be mindful that this is the U.S. Women’s Open and they can just as easily give up strokes and get passed by those behind them. And that wouldn’t come as a surprise as contenders like Shanshan Feng, Lexi Thompson and Inbee Park all lurk within 3-4 shots of Saso. If these first two rounds are anything to judge by, it will definitely make for some entertaining golf this weekend.