HOUSTON — “Brutal” and “crazy.” Those were just a couple of words players used to describe the conditions in the third round of the 75th U.S. Women’s Open at Champions Golf Club.
After heavy rains on Friday, course conditions were soggy throughout the day Saturday as players tried to make their way up the leaderboard to put themselves in position for the final round. But with a long, wet course and no shortage of mud balls, most players were unable to make nearly enough birdies to make a move.
“Between the three of us we probably had six mud balls apiece out there, and they definitely affected shots,” said Cristie Kerr, who shot a third-round 74 and now sits five shots behind Hinaku Shibuno’s lead heading into Sunday. “It was pretty muddy out there.”
At most LPGA events, saturated conditions can result in preferred lies — also known as lift, clean and place — but in a major championship this ruling is rarely implemented.
Players largely lauded the setup during the first two rounds of this two-course championship, crediting the USGA for preparing the Cypress and Jackrabbit courses evenly without giving players on one course too much of an advantage. But at least some of that goodwill took a hit during the third round.
“[The mud] was an extreme issue,” said Lindsey Weaver, who shot a four-over 75 on Saturday and, at two over, is now six off the lead. “I’ve never played golf having this many mud balls. I didn’t even know what to expect … Sometimes it was a major factor, and sometimes it was okay, but it was brutal. Really, really brutal.”
After relatively benign conditions in the first two rounds, a cool, breezy and damp third round caused scores to soar. Just two players broke par on the Cypress Creek course, and the scoring average was a meaty 74.7 — nearly a full stroke harder than on Friday.
U.S. Opens are not meant to be easy, but with an already lengthy course and tucked pins, mud balls made birdies a rarity.
“In a way, it was hit it and hope,” said Sarah Schmelzel who played alongside Kerr and shot a third-round 76, which included four bogeys and a double. “It’s out of your control — it’s just luck what can happen to it.”
Schmelzel added that the demanding set-up was also a missed marketing opportunity, as the women’s game has the stage to itself this week with the PGA Tour off. The conditions, Schmelzel said, didn’t allow the players to showcase their best stuff.
“I think women’s golf deserves to be highlighted a little bit better than that,” Schmelzel said. “We want to see good shots on TV. We want our coverage to be fun for viewers. From my experience, and the experience of the girls in my group, it might not have been the most fair.”
Houston resident and Champions member Stacy Lewis shared a similar sentiment. Although Lewis has more experience than most players in the field on the Cypress Creek course, she struggled to a six-over 77, all but guaranteeing that she won’t win her first U.S. Women’s Open on Sunday.
Lewis appeared upset after the round and spent nearly an hour on the range as dusk settled in.
“We get on network TV, we get on this big stage — there’s no other golf events going on — you want us to look good on TV more than anything,” Lewis said. “Either they need to play the ball up or they need to adjust their setup. Mud balls combined with the way they set the golf course up today set us up for long rounds and bad golf.”
Hope as some of players may for preferred lies in the final round, historical precedent suggests that won’t happen. But with more messiness in the forecast for Sunday, the problem isn’t likely to go away, either.
“It’ll be interesting with the rain coming tomorrow,” Kerr said. “ [I] doubt the USGA will play it up, but they should consider it.”