This week's U.S. Women's Open at Blackwolf Run Golf Resort in Kohler, Wis., will have tight fairways, thick rough and some of the fastest greens the players will face all year.
If the setup sounds familiar, it should. The USGA likes to challenge the world's best women golfers, just as it tests the men.But there is at least one significant contrast between recent U.S. Women's Opens and men's U.S. Opens: American men have been more adept at winning their national golf championship than have American women.
Foreign-born women have won the past three U.S. Women's Opens, as well as five of the last 11. On the men's side, South Africa's Ernie Els has won two of the past five titles, but those are the only U.S. Open wins by a foreign-born player in the last 17 years.
As the oldest tournament in women's professional golf (it began in 1946, nine years before the second-oldest event, the McDonald's LPGA Championship), the U.S. Open also is the most prestigious, for American and foreign players alike.
"Even if you try and pretend like it's not, there's something special about it," said Sweden's Helen Alfredsson, runner-up to Lauri Merten in the '93 U.S. Open. "Growing up, you know it's something special. The emotions you get that week, you really don't get any other week."
The foreign stranglehold invasion is one of several trends to watch when the 53rd Women's U.S. Open commences Thursday on the par-71, 6,412-yard Black-wolf Run course:
- Will this be the year that Nancy Lopez breaks her U.S. Open frustration? Last year, the 15-foot putt she missed on No. 18 at Pump-kin Ridge Golf Club left her one stroke short of winner Alison Nicholas of England.
Lopez has 48 LPGA victories, but hasn't won a U.S. Open in 21 tries.
- Will the majors' drought continue for Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb, the LPGA's most dominant players of the past two years? Neither Sorenstam nor Webb have won of the last six majors.
At least Sweden's Sorenstam has two major titles among her 13 LPGA victories. She won the '95 and '96 U.S. Opens. Australia's Webb, 23, does not have a major championship among her nine LPGA victories.
It is not, however, as though the LPGA's foreign contingent needs Sorenstam and Webb to stretch its U.S. Open streak. Four of 1998's top six money winners are foreign-born - No. 2 Liselotte Neumann of Sweden, No. 3 Webb, No. 4 Sorenstam and No. 6 Alfredsson.
Add No. 9 Lorie Kane of Canada, No. 10 Se Ri Pak, the 20-year-old rookie from Korea (who al-ready has won one major, the McDonald's Championship), and foreign players account for six of the top 10 money-winners.
Neumann, 32, has finished among the top 10 money-winners three of the last four years. But this year's U.S. Open marks the 10th anniversary of her first, and most memorable career win: the 1988 U.S. Open at Baltimore Country Club.
"It really changed my life," Neumann said. "The year before, in '87, I was out watching (England's) Laura Davies win. I think she gave me a big boost, that it was possible for a European to come over and make it big and win the U.S. Open."
Prior to Davies' win in '87, only four of the previous 40 U.S. Women's Open champions were foreign-born.
In many respects, Davies' win sparked the foreign invasion into the LPGA. At the same time foreign players began coming to play the LPGA, the European women's tour began to shrink in stature. Today, the top foreign-born players play only a handful of European events each year.
"I think all the Europeans feel like we want to do everything we can to get the European tour back on its feet because we all love to go back," Alfredsson said. "But this (America) is where the top players in the world are every week."
Just as Davies' 1987 U.S. win paved the way for European players, Neumann's win the following year did likewise for Swedish players in particular.
"Hopefully, it kind of opened the doors a little bit for them," Neumann said. "Just for them to know I grew up in a small town, with a nine-hole course, realizing you don't have to have the perfect conditions to become a top golfer."