PINEHURST — Not long after Stacy Lewis arrived, she ran into Pat Bradley -- the No. 1 womens golfer in the world paying her respects to one of the games legends. Bradley, 63, had a huge grin, unable to contain her excitement.
No one would know any better than Bradley just how ground-breaking it is to have the women play the same U.S. Open course as the men immediately afterward, especially one as historic as Pinehurst No. 2.
Shes like, Is this not the coolest thing ever? During my generation this would have never happened, Lewis said. I think thats what a lot of the young girls dont realize, what an opportunity this is.
Womens golf will never have a better showcase than this. In addition to the relentless promotion by NBC, ESPN and the Golf Channel during their U.S. Open telecasts, many of the best players in the mens game talked openly about watching the Womens Open to see what happens. The two groups rarely cross paths like they have this week.
With a growing number of talented and telegenic young American players and an 11-year-old in the field -- cheerful, pigtailed Lucy Li -- this is a real chance to attract attention to a sport that has, despite a recent spike in growth, largely failed to keep pace with the PGA Tour.
To fully capitalize, it will likely take some Sunday drama on the back nine (unlike the men) and a winner whom American audiences can appreciate. That doesnt necessarily have to be an American -- defending champion Inbee Park speaks excellent English and has an outgoing personality -- but it would certainly help.
If Michelle Wie, by far the tours best-known player, is ready to win a major, there would never be a better time than this.
If nothing else, being able to attend the U.S. Open in person opened some players eyes to just how popular the men are and how far the women have to go to catch up. Envy can be a powerful motivator.
If we want to get up there, if we want 400,000 people watching us, if we want this many more sponsor tents, it really puts it in perspective of where we want to get to, Wie said. I think it definitely pushes us a lot harder when we see that.
The LPGA already is making progress, from increased television ratings to major changes to one of the tours majors, the LPGA Championship. In partnership with the PGA of America, it will now be known as the Womens PGA Championship, mirroring the mens tournament.
The tournament will move from its traditional home in Rochester, N.Y., to rotating sites in the New York City area, starting at the prestigious Westchester Country Club in 2015. The purse will increase from $2.25 million to $3.5 million, and it will join the Womens Open as the only womens tournaments on broadcast television thanks to a new deal with NBC.
I think were finally earning the respect that we can play good championships on great golf courses, Suzann Pettersen said.
The Womens Open, which saw a purse increase from $3.25 million to $4 million this year, will move permanently to the weekend after Memorial Day in 2018, a date that will allow for a wider range of courses. This tournament has clearly become a higher priority for the USGA, as these unique circumstances only underline.
I think any time Rickie (Fowler) and Phil (Mickelson) and those guys are talking about womens golf, I think its a great thing, Lewis said. Thats really what we accomplished last week. For them to say theyre going to watch us play, thats huge.
Theyll be watching, as will others. Its up to the players to make the most of this audience. Theyll never have a better chance to show off what they can do.
DeCock: firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947