The five most important things to watch at the U.S. Women’s Open

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PINE NEEDLES, North Carolina — The U.S. Women’s Open is back at the Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club in Southern Pines for a record fourth time with a purse of $10 million — more than double last year’s purse of $4.8 million — and plenty of storylines.

Between Michelle Wie West’s impending retirement, the return of three-time champion Annika Sorenstam, and the crop of young players at the top of the game, here are five things to keep an eye on this week:

Michelle Wie West’s last dance (sort of)

As one USGA staffer quipped on Monday afternoon, when Wie West arrives at a tournament, there’s a palpable buzz. On Monday it wasn’t there. Wie was supposed to play a practice round but couldn’t make it on time, so on Tuesday, as she stalked putts on the practice green and cycled through different putters, fans crowded around and watched as she prepared for her last tournament of the year.

Wie West announced last week that she would be stepping back from the LPGA Tour after this U.S. Open. She plans to play the 2023 tournament at Pebble Beach. In her Tuesday news conference at Pine Needles, she said the decision was “bittersweet,” but something she had been thinking about for a while.

“I would say I have zero regrets in my career,” Wie West said. “There’s always that inkling of wishing I had done more. But I feel like no matter what, no one’s ever going to be 100% satisfied. And I’ve definitely had an up-and-down career. But I’m extremely proud of the resiliency I’ve shown.”

The former U.S. Open champion, who won this tournament back in 2015 when it was held at nearby Pinehurst, said she’s managing expectations in part because she hasn’t had the practice routine she normally has leading into a U.S. Open, but “obviously the competitive side wants to win.” As she noted, if she hadn’t won the 2014 U.S. Open, she would not be stepping away and would still be chasing that title.

How will Nelly Korda fare in her first tournament back?

To hear Korda tell the story, she didn’t want to have the U.S. Open be her return to competitive golf after undergoing surgery for a blood clot in the subclavian vein in her left arm. But there she was Tuesday, wearing a compression sleeve on that left arm and talking about how she’s likely going to wear a sleeve on her right to avoid getting a bad tan.

“Once I was 100 percent, I was going to set eyes on what event I wanted to come back at,” Korda said. After this week, she’s defending victories at the Meijer LPGA Classic and the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. Despite missing the past few months, Korda is still the second-ranked player in the world.

“I’m not expecting too much,” she said. “Girls are already in the middle of their season, they have a lot of rounds under their belts.”

Korda detailed her rehab, which took place in California and involved a number of shoulder and back exercises. She was eventually allowed to swing at about 60 percent capacity before getting cleared to take full swings. The time away from competition was difficult, Korda said, and it made it hard to watch much golf. She caught only the last round at the Chevron Championship.

“I just missed it so much,” Korda said. “As I got closer to this week, I started hitting it a little longer. I think the juices started flowing a little bit more, but I’m so happy to be out here against everyone.”

Annika Sorenstam is back in the game

Nobody knows Pine Needles like Sorenstam knows Pine Needles. She’s the only player who has played this course as a U.S. Open venue three different times, including in 1996, when she won the whole thing. The 51-year-old retired in 2008 but made a comeback on the senior tour once she turned 50. Her 8-shot victory at the Senior U.S. Open last August earned her a spot in this week’s field. Since then, she has been trying to balance her family life and off-course endeavors with practicing for this tournament.

“She was practicing so much last year, I was like, ‘Uh-oh guys, be careful, the GOAT is coming up,'” said world No. 3 Lydia Ko, who practices at the same facility in Orlando, Florida.

As Sorenstam noted, there’s graduates from Sorenstam’s own academy in the field this week. One of those is 24-year-old Megan Khang, who played alongside Sorenstam in Tuesday’s practice round.

“I hit a shot [on the 15th hole] and it felt good, but I felt my body starting to stiffen up,” Sorenstam said. “Then Megan hit a shot, she ripped it and she goes, ‘Finally, I’m getting loose.’ I just told [husband and caddie Mike McGee], ‘I’m stiffening up and she’s getting loose.'”

Sorenstam said that approaching the green and working around it will be the keys this weekend. And while she acknowledged she can’t go for tough pin locations the same way she did earlier in her career, she did say her chipping game is probably as good as it has ever been.

“I know to play well here I got to max out my game,” she said. “I’m where I can be and we’ll see where that takes me.”

After losing a 5-stroke lead in the final round of last year’s U.S. Open, Thompson comes into Pine Needles with extra motivation and perspective. The 27-year-old said Tuesday she’s taken the time over the last year to focus on her positivity, including viewing last year’s loss as a learning experience, not a failure.

“I’m just enjoying life more, realizing that golf isn’t life or death,” said the sixth-ranked player in the world, who has been playing professionally since she was 15. “I think that’s more important than sometimes grinding on practice facilities. It’s more helpful just to get your mind to relax and your body a little time off.”

Thompson, who hasn’t won on the LPGA tour since 2019, said she is no longer working with a mental coach. She did credit her instructor, Martin Hall, for helping her get through the ups and downs of the past year and keeping her positive. He also helped her through some swing changes.

As far as her approach for this week, Thompson said the course, and especially the greens, call for being conservative and taking long putts instead of having the ball run off the green after chasing a pin.

Rose Zhang leads the amateur field

Following her team and individual victories at the NCAA championships, golf’s rising star is having to spend her week at the U.S. Open finishing up essays and projects for her freshman year at Stanford. Zhang’s last few months have been a whirlwind, but she keeps winning. Just last week, as she turned 19, she received the Annika Award, given to the top female U.S. collegiate golfer.

“It’s been crazy,” Zhang said after a range session Monday. “I had to move out of my dorm. … I’m still in class, but [the school year] is basically over and I’m at another event, so I feel like it’s been hectic.”

Zhang has also been busy off the course, signing name, image and likeness deals with Callaway, and most recently this week with Adidas. She is the company’s first NIL student-athlete.

“It’s just another step to the real world where you’re able to kind of get used to having agents, having contracts,” Zhang said. “It shows me a little bit of the real world.”

The U.S. Women’s Open presents Zhang with her toughest challenge yet. Players of all ages and levels have pointed out the tough greens that have a lot of runoff, and Zhang emphasized the importance of her short game as well.

Zhang’s group is a fascinating one given it includes two other teenagers. She will be playing alongside Lucy Li, who is also 19 and once played this tournament at 11, as well as 16-year-old Anna Davis, who won the Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship. There are a total of 30 amateurs in the field.

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