So much fuss was made about Blackwolf Run being the toughest U.S. Women’s Open layout in the last quarter-century that players probably arrived in America’s Heartland this week frightened before striking a shot.
The field had every reason to have pre-championship anxiety considering the Pete Dye design produced one of the highest winning scores 14 years ago (6-over 290). Some players, including Hall of Famer Juli Inkster, said it was the hardest test she had faced in 32 Open appearances.
But outside of the stifling heat – temperatures again reached the 90s on Friday – the biggest story through 36 holes is a kinder, gentler Blackwolf Run.
It’s been more Fourth of July fireworks than Halloween haunted house.
Red numbers are replacing red faces.
Through two rounds on a par-72 layout that measured 6,799 yards on Friday, 40 sub-par rounds have been registered. That’s 22 more than the first two rounds in 1998, when Se Ri Pak eventually defeated amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn in a 20-hole Monday playoff.
Suzann Pettersen, seeking a second major title to go with her 2007 LPGA Championship victory, posted a second consecutive sub-par round, shooting a 4-under 68 (5-under 139 total) for a one-stroke lead over 2007 champion Cristie Kerr and former teenage wunderkind Michelle Wie.
Kerr, one of the first-round tri-leaders – with Brittany Lincicome (second-round 80–149) and Lizette Salas (73–142) – also went into the red again, shooting 71 for a 36-hole total of 140. Wie, who had broken 70 just once in 2012 and had never shot better than 69 in eight previous Women’s Opens, carded a championship-best 66, two strokes better than anyone shot in 1998.
Germany’s Sandra Gal, American Vicky Hurst and 2008 champion Inbee Park of Korea – all of whom shot second-round 70s – sit two strokes back at 3-under 141. Three strokes back at 142 are Salas and Mika Miyazato (71) of Japan. Teenager Lexi Thompson bogeyed her final hole for a 73 and is four back at 1-under 143 with Nicole Castrale (70) and Na Yeon Choi (71). Castrale, playing then as Nicole Dalkas, missed the cut here in 1998 as an amateur.
Defending champion So Yeon Ryu carded a 71 and is at 1-over 145, while world No. 1 Yani Tseng had a 72 and second-ranked Stacy Lewis shot 69 to sit seven back at 146.
The cut came at 5-over 149 with 62 professionals and three amateurs playing the final 36 holes.
"I probably shouldn’t say this … but the course is playable," said Pettersen, owner of three top-10 finishes in nine Women’s Open starts. "After seeing this course one time, I was trying to find out what was so hard to this course. Obviously they lengthened it 400 yards since ’98. But the rough is doable. The greens aren’t as firm as what they were back then, from what I understood, and it’s pretty straightforward. Off the tees … it’s probably as wide as the U.S. Open is going to get. If you like putting, you’re going to get a lot of good chances out here.
"[But] tomorrow they’ll probably make it impossible."
The comments from players who were here in 1998 and the reputation Blackwolf Run had attained put plenty of fear into the field, many of whom had only watched the Women’s Open contested here.
"You know it’s a tricky thing," said Wie, who had 13 one-putt greens. "Hearing it was the highest score to win the U.S. Open [in the last 30 years] you get scared. [But] I think it’s a golf course where you get rewarded if you hit good shots. If you don’t, you kind of get [penalized]."
Added Kerr, who finished 60th in 1998: "I think you are going to see some different pins on the weekend. I think [the USGA] has been pretty generous so far, and I can tell you I don’t think the USGA is going to like that there were so many low numbers the first couple of days. So you might see a different course this weekend."
Friday’s 26 sub-par scores might seem high, especially at Blackwolf Run, but it’s nowhere near a Women’s Open record. In 1999 at Old Waverly Country Club in West Point, Miss., 105 under-par rounds were registered the first two days, including 61 in Round One.
But with temperatures expected to cool this weekend, along with the added major-championship pressure, scoring might take a tumble as well.
One thing is for sure, Pettersen will make sure to set her alarm properly. She awoke an hour later than anticipated on Friday, making for a frenetic dash to the course for her scheduled 8:28 a.m. CDT starting time. Without time for a shower, the 31-year-old Pettersen grabbed a quick bite to eat and made the short drive to Blackwolf Run, getting in a quick warm-up before shooting her best Women’s Open score in 36 rounds.
Having finished around 8 p.m. on Thursday, Pettersen had a quick turnaround for Round Two, but mistakenly set the alarm for 6:45 instead of 5:45.
"When you oversleep, you cut breakfast," said Pettersen, who managed 15 minutes on the practice green before getting to the 10th tee. "I thought it was awfully light in the room when I awoke at 6:40, an hour late.
"For me, breakfast is my most important meal. I didn’t really have time [to get a full meal]. I thought it was more important to get stretched and loosened up. Even though it’s hot, it’s fine. Sometimes that’s a good thing. You don’t have time to think about stuff."
She planned to watch highlights of the Wimbledon semifinal between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, a four-setter won by Federer. Her own highlight film wasn’t too bad, either.
Pettersen hit 14 of 18 greens and took 28 putts. She had five birdies and a lone bogey at the par-4 fourth hole. Coming off a tie for second at last month’s LPGA Championship in Rochester, N.Y., and a tie for 14th last week in Arkansas, Pettersen felt her game was peaking for the Women’s Open.
"You know, I’ve been playing really good the last six weeks," she said. "I felt like I played really solid at the LPGA Championship. I was disappointed not to win that, having a chance on the back nine. But at the same time, my game is very solid. My ball-striking is good. My short game is good. And my putting has been good so far."
Not known for her putting prowess, Wie obviously found some magic on the greens Friday. Taking advantage of her immense length, the 22-year-old Hawaiian hit wedges into many of the par-4s and par-5s and was able to convert. The 23 putts was one of the best efforts of her career, which dates to when she qualified for the 2000 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links at 10. She debuted in the Women’s Open nine years ago and tied for third in 2006 at Newport (R.I.) Country Club.
But her 2012 season has been a major disappointment with six missed cuts, including three of the last four events with a T-68 mixed in at the Manulife Financial LPGA in Canada.
None of those recent results pointed to the 66.
"I know my stroke is good when I look at it on the cameras," said Wie, who graduated from Stanford University in June. "It’s perfect. I just have to trust it … and know that I am a good putter. It kind of got into my head a little bit.
"I have to say it felt pretty good to see my name on that leaderboard. I kind of like that spot up there. I’m really looking forward to starting out [on Saturday] with my name up there as well."
Kerr certainly is accustomed to seeing her name atop leaderboards, especially in the Women’s Open. Focusing on consistency, Kerr has positioned herself perfectly for a second USGA championship, given that the only other competitor among the top group with her name on the Women’s Open trophy is Park.
Kerr, a 34-year-old native Floridian who now resides in Scottsdale, Ariz., understands that getting ahead of yourself at this juncture can be counter-productive.
"Five under is leading after two days, which is nothing, comparatively," said Kerr, whose streak of bogey-free holes ended at 28 with a double-bogey 6 at No. 11. "I mean if it was really low scoring, 10 or 11 under would be leading, but it’s not. It’s an Open. We’re very close to par still, and this course will show its teeth this weekend."
Now that’s a scary thought.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.