LPGA ready for major challenge of Olympia Fields

SHARE LPGA ready for major challenge of Olympia Fields
SHARE LPGA ready for major challenge of Olympia Fields

In hindsight, it might have made more sense to play the Women’s PGA Championship at fescue-laden Erin Hills, a marvelous but new course that produced a U.S. Open that left many golf fans unsatisfied. Erin Hills wiped out a cache of superstars before the weekend, then yielded low scores to relative unknowns.

But hats off to the USGA for thinking outside the box and taking on another new venue, rather than returning the U.S. Open to Olympia Fields, where Jim Furyk won in 2003.

Meanwhile, the KPMG Women’s PGA will begin Thursday at historic Olympia Fields. And good for the women. They’re excited to be on a course that has hosted four men’s majors. And golf fans should be intrigued.

“Having the history of the men playing here, it’s a big deal for us to be here,’’ said Stacy Lewis, who, like Phil Mickelson, has a sponsorship agreement with KPMG, an auditing/tax advisory firm. “That was one of the stipulations I gave KPMG. We need to be on golf courses we historically have not played. Sahalee last year was unreal. It was probably one of the hardest setups we had all year. It truly tested all your game. And I’m sure we’ll get that again this year.’’

The Women’s PGA will be played at Kemper Lakes in 2018 and at Hazeltine in 2019, two more courses that have hosted men’s majors.

Will Chicago embrace the women’s game this week? We’ll find out.

Olympia Fields is more spectator-friendly than rugged Erin Hills. It’s also closer to the potentially huge golf-fan base of Chicago.

This is a big year for spectator golf in the Chi-waukee corridor, with the Women’s PGA sandwiched between Erin Hills and the BMW Championship, coming up in September.

The field here is as good as it gets. The top 100 players on the LPGA money list all will be competing at the 6,588-yard, par-71 Olympia Fields North Course.

Lexi Thompson, who has won once and finished second three times in her last six LPGA starts, has been set as an 8-1 favorite by Ladbrokes.com.

That streak began with the year’s first major, the ANA Inspiration (formerly known as the Dinah Shore), which she lost in a playoff March 30 after a controversial four-stroke penalty for marking her ball improperly.

Thompson declined pre-tournament interviews this week, and her agent said her mother is battling uterine cancer. After winning the Kingsmill Championship on May 18, Thompson addressed the penalty situation, saying, “I’m so over it. It’s in the past. It’s unfortunate what happened, but it’s time to move on.’’

Ariya Jutanugarn (10-1) is second on the Ladbrokes odds list, followed by So Yeon Ryu and Lydia Ko at 12-1, and In Gee Chun and In Bee Park at 14-1.

Others of note include Stacy Lewis and Brooke Henderson and at 25-1, Michelle Wie (33-1), Cristie Kerr (40-1) and Cheyenne Woods (1,000-1). Henderson, 19 — who won last year’s Women’s PGA at Sahalee and won her last start, the Meijer Classic, on June 15 — is part of a -serious youth movement in women’s golf.

It’s a group that includes Thompson, 22, who won her first major at 19; Lydia Ko, 20, who won her first major at 18; and Ariya Jutanugarn, 21, who won her first major last year.

Jutanugarn, Ko and Thompson are ranked second through fourth in the world, behind the top-ranked Ryu.

Henderson is 12th. A 5-4 dynamo from Smiths Falls, Ontario, she has become a fan favorite with her unorthodox free-swinging mechanics. Think John Daly. Or Kyle Schwarber, circa 2015-16.

From Thompson’s big penalty to Henderson’s big swing to the youth movement to the continued success of Asian players, the LPGA has more than its share of storylines.

Many of them will be play out this week at Olympia Fields — including how much attention Chicago pays to the exploits of women’s golf.

Follow me on Twitter @HerbGould and at TMGcollegesports.com.

AT A GLANCE

Course: Olympia Fields Country Club.

Yardage: 6,588. Par: 71.

Purse: $3.5 million (first prize: $525,000).

On TV: Thursday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Golf; Saturday-Sunday, 2-5 p.m., Ch. 5.

Defending champion: Brooke Henderson.

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