There is a duel within the duel for the United States Women’s Open at Lancaster Country Club this week, and it is a very Australian thing.
Nineteen-year-old Minjee Lee from Perth is the best young female player this country has produced in 20 years; after a strong start to her first LPGA Tour season she recently overhauled the veteran Karrie Webb as the top-ranked Australian in the world, the first time this has happened since the rankings began in 2006.
Lee goes into the Open ranked 16th in the world; 40-year-old Webb is No. 18. The pair are good friends – Webb has helped mentor Lee in the past two years – but they will be competitors this week. Both have a chance to win the most prestigious women’s tournament in the world, and while they have crossed paths at the course as the preparations begin, Lee said Webb "hasn't mentioned it''.
Of course, the younger player has higher aspirations; many people believe she can go to an elite level, perhaps into the top 10 and challenging for No. 1, sooner rather than later. "I am really excited to be Aussie no. 1,'' she told golf.org.au from Pennsylvania today. "To represent Australia is such a great honor, and I want to work even harder to keep my ranking as long as 'Webby' did.''
The Western Australian said she was primed for this week. "You never know when it's going to be your week, so I'm going to take one shot at a time and play smart golf,'' said Lee. "I want to enjoy the atmosphere and most of all have fun!
"I feel like I've been doing the best preparations for the coming week so hopefully come last nine of Sunday I'm in contention. The course is in really great condition despite the amount of rain they have had, so it's going to be a good test, especially on the undulating greens at Lancaster.''
Queenslander Webb, a seven-time major winner and arguably Australia’s greatest-ever golfer, is playing her 20th consecutive Women’s US Open, the most of an active player. She won the Open in 2000 and 2001. Lee, the two-time Australian amateur champion, is playing just her second. She was tied-22nd at Pinehurst last year, playing as an amateur.
Since then she has turned professional and already won the Kingsmill Championship on the LPGA Tour. The rave reviews about her play have proven to be correct, and she is in the mix to win the rookie of the year award, currently third behind South Koreans Sei Young Kim and Hyo Joo Kim in a white hot crop of young players on the richest tour in the world.
There are six Australians in the field – Webb and Lee, Victorians Breanna Elliott and Su Oh who both passed through qualifying, and LPGA regulars Katherine Kirk and Sarah Jane Smith from Queensland.
The Open is worth $US 4 million but the world No. 1 ranking also goes up for grabs, with New Zealander Lydia Ko having a chance to replace Korean Inbee Park at the top if she can win.
Ko went to No. 1 last year for the first time, but was recently usurped by Park, who won the most recent major, the KPMG PGA Championship to take her haul of majors to six.
“I had that ranking for longer than what I had expected,’’ Ko said today. “Obviously there was pressure coming along with it, but it was fun. I think the greatest memory for me was playing in my national Open, New Zealand Open, in front of the home crowd, being the world No. 1. That was a special moment for me. But obviously it does motivate me to play better, be a little bit more consistent. But when the other girls are playing great and I feel like I'm still playing good but Inbee is playing better, then I can't do much about it.’’
American Michelle Wie is the defending champion this week, having won her first major at Pinehurst last year. “It’s great being called that,’’ she said. “It doesn’t get old. It’s pretty amazing. I think the first couple of months it really didn’t sink in. It didn’t really feel like reality. It still felt like a dream. It’s slowly starting to sink in, I think.’’