As perplexing a puzzle as Blackwolf Run is to solve, this U.S. Women’s Open venue seems an unlikely one at which to figure out how to get back into the winner’s circle.
Thursday’s 8:06 a.m. CDT grouping of Eun-Hee Ji, Paula Creamer and So Yeon Ryu represented the last three winners of this championship. Yet as learned as they are at passing such a stern test, each of them arrived searching for a return to winning form.
None of the three players has won since their respective U.S. Women’s Open titles, combining for a winless streak of 119 starts on the LPGA Tour. Ji, who won the 2009 U.S. Women’s Open at Saucon Valley Country Club, has gone 62 starts since winning, followed by Creamer (43) and Ryu (14).
"It's frustrating," said Creamer, 25, who won at Oakmont Country Club in 2010. "At the same time it's motivating. I'm trying to learn how to channel the energy that I have from being frustrated into making it positive, and it's been hard. It's been very difficult. I set such high expectations for myself, and to not have won since 2010 is kind of crazy to me, but it is reality, and I've been working very hard."
Considering that even-par 72 is respectable, none of the three players was overly concerned with their first-round scores of 73 (Creamer), 74 (Ryu) and 76 (Ji).
"Disappointing yes," said Ji, 26, of Korea. "It was really hard today to focus on my game. I played pretty good until that last hole when I just didn’t think right."
Ji, whose only other LPGA win came in another major (the 2008 LPGA Championship), arrived at the 385-yard, par-4 ninth hole – the grouping’s 18th – at one over par for the round. After missing her only fairway of the round, Ji had 150 yards to clear the creek fronting the green and 160 yards to the hole. Going against her caddie’s advice, Ji drew her approach shot into the water en route to a triple bogey.
That finish aside, Ji believes her game is on the uptick. After 59 consecutive finishes outside the top 10, Ji tied for 10th at the ShopRite LPGA Classic and tied for second at the LPGA Championship before missing the cut at last week’s Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
"I have been working on my swing a lot," Ji said. "I was not comfortable with it last year or the year before, but it’s getting better right now."
While Ji’s form has been mysterious, Ryu’s winless streak is a bit less alarming.
Prior to winning last year’s Women’s Open at The Broadmoor, Ryu had won seven times on the Korean LPGA Tour, the last one coming just a month before winning her first major in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Ryu’s playoff victory over Hee Kyung Seo earned the 22-year-old Korean playing privileges on the LPGA Tour for 2012. There has been a slight adjustment period to life in the United States, but her rookie season has been stout with six top-five finishes, including a tie for second at the Australian Open.
As for Thursday’s opening-round 74, Ryu faltered late, bogeying three of her final four holes.
Afterward, Ryu wanted to go eat Korean food and dissect the problem.
"It's not a technical problem," she said. "I think it's a mental problem. I just want to be more focused on the game."
On a day in which the heat index pushed well past 100 and the temperature and humidity climbed each hour, the trio managed to find respite under sun umbrellas and the occasional bench, such as on the par-3 13th as they waited for the teeing ground to clear.
During the wait, talk turned to the weather, to which players sweat a lot and proper apparel if these conditions continue through the week.
"[The weather] is such another element … you're not thinking 100 percent clearly all the time," said Creamer. "I think that's the hardest fight and battle out there, trying to just be in the shade as much as you possibly can. I'm not the biggest sun umbrella fan, but I used it almost every hole."
While her fellow competitors bogeyed the final hole, Creamer was leaving the Kohler premises on a positive. She made a 6-foot birdie putt on No. 9 to close out the 73.
Who knows, that might also be the first step to winning again.
"It's going to happen," said Creamer, who has had 10 top-five finishes in her drought. "I'm not too scared about that. It will come around, and, you know, it's just a battle of fighting through all this."
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work has appeared previously on USGA websites.