[PHOTO: Patrick Smith]

“If they put the pins here, I’m going to start crying.”

Those were the words of 15-year-old Asterisk Talley, describing her initial thoughts about the setup at Lancaster Country Club during a practice round for the US Women’s Open. Her other main reaction?

“These greens are stupid.”

Talley was laughing – she shot a 70, then followed that up with a 71 to earn a spot in the top 10 heading into the weekend – but she was serious, too. She called some of the pins “brutal” and “crazy hard”, and described a moment when an eight-foot putt seemed so difficult that she only wanted to avoid a three-putt.

And she’s one of the fortunate ones. When the dust settled on Lancaster after the second round, only four players finished under par, and two of those did so by just a single stroke. Wichanee Meechai, the 36-hole leader at four-under, shot an impressive three-under 67, and Andrea Lee (69) trails her by two.

Minjee Lee within striking distance of a second US Women’s Open title

If those numbers aren’t shocking enough, consider this – the last time they played the US Women’s Open at Lancaster in 2015, the 36-hole leader was Amy Yang at seven-under, and the cut fell at five-over. That was considered a difficult test. This year, the lead is four-under and the cut came at eight-over. In every respect, the difficulty of Lancaster has outpaced itself from nine years ago.

Or how about this: exactly one hole was averaging under par after two rounds, and that was the par-5 13th, averaging 4.95. As far as difficult holes, the par-3 12th – home to Nelly Korda’s ruinous 10 – was the star of the show, with a 3.620 average, meaning it was more likely for a player to make bogey than par through two days of play.

Ask some top players in the world – the 12th hole in US Women’s Open has been a nightmare

Or this: on day one, eight holes at LCC played 397 yards (363 metres) or longer. At the Mizuho Americas Open, the LPGA tournament held just before the US Women’s Open, that number was listed at four, and the winning score was 14-under.

That gives you a taste of one component of the difficulty here – length. The others are very much characteristic of a classic US Open setup, but somehow even fiercer than normal. For instance, the thick rough, cited by numerous players, or the slope. Another is the greens, which shook up Talley in the practice rounds and played a starring role in the most notorious moment of the first two rounds, Korda’s 10 despite her not hitting her tee shot in a hazard. Everything that happened next, from the sand shot across the green into the water to the two pitches that found the same destination, owed itself in part to the slick, contoured greens. They are both fast and pitched and are attracting the lion’s share of attention.

Four things that make US Women’s Open week harder than any other on the LPGA Tour

“The greens are so quick, and you have so many hard-breaking putts,” Sophia Popov said on day one. “Some of the pin positions are very finicky. I would say 12 is one that comes to mind… it is so sloped and you have to be so careful. You can barely touch your downhill putts.”

The great irony, which Popov recognised, is that she was in an early wave – she knew the greens were only going to get harder throughout the day. Pia Babnik, who finished her first round at even-par, compared the greens to Pine Needles, saying “those were even crazier than here, which is hard to think”.

The quotes kept coming.

Jodi Shadoff: “The greens are significantly tough out there, especially on the back nine.”

Minjee Lee: “There’s much slope on the greens, too, and the rough is up, as US Opens should be.”

Adela Cernousek: “You want to be on the fairway on every shot to be able to stop the ball on the greens because the greens are so firm, and they have so many slopes.”

Megan Schofill: “The greens definitely as the day went on, too, got pretty firm. They were already really fast. But as the wind started picking up, I felt like they were releasing more. I found 18 really hard to hold with a mid-iron coming in.”

You get the idea. Several players pointed out that the harsh greens put a premium on hitting the fairway, because without that, there’s so little chance to hold an approach. And all of these things work in tandem; when there’s a premium on hitting the fairway, the narrowness of the landing areas and the thickness of the rough aggravate the situation. And when the green is hard to hold, the players clearly want as short an approach as possible, so they chase distance, which is aggravated by the length of the course, and on and on and on.

Sophia Popov putts on the eighth green during the second round of the US Women’s Open. [Photo: Sarah Stier]
Shannon Rouillard, the USGA’s senior director of championships, takes the lead on course setup, and she said on Friday that the workers in scoring were telling her the same story over and over as players made their way in after their rounds: they’re tired. Physically, mentally, and sometimes emotionally. Rouillard herself spends the day watching the TV broadcast – she can observe more that way than out on the course – and comparing what she sees with ShotLink data, along with scatter plots for drive zones, and where the bogeys and birdies are being made.

“For example,” she said, “11th hole. Anybody so far that has missed the 11th hole left of the green has made a bogey.”

Rouillard knew the course would play hard when the week began, but expected more scores under par at this point.

“It is several shots harder than 2015, but Mother Nature always gets a seat at the table,” she said, referring to the wind gusts during round one especially. “And we are seeing more birdies [during round two], but the golf course is holding up. It’s going to expose any weakness, and you have to strategise, be patient, and play from within yourself.”

Rouillard kept most of the setup plans for round three to herself, including how much they might water it down to soften conditions and slow the greens, but she did say that the course would be shorter.

As for the 12th, the hardest hole on the course and the scene of Korda’s early nightmare, Rouillard thinks there’s an element of psychology at play in the continued struggles in round two.

“There’s a fear with the hole in general,” she said. “I mean, there were 52 balls in the water yesterday. And even though the wind was down this morning, players have become nervous over playing 12. Based on what I’ve seen, there’s some PTSD when they step up to the tee, and you really can’t afford to be tentative out there.”

When asked to pinpoint one particular point of difficulty that stood out from the others, Rouillard thought for a long moment before agreeing with the players.

“The greens are tough,” she said. “There aren’t many easy greens out here. You really have to be on the right side of the hole in relation to the hole location, and if you haven’t done your homework in the practice rounds and aren’t able to execute that plan and know where to miss it, it’s going to expose a weakness.”

To Rouillard’s credit, this is not a Shinnecock Hills scenario. There, in 2018, the men practically staged a revolt, with two infamous incidents that still resonate today: Phil Mickelson raking his own putt while it was moving and Zach Johnson making the ominous pronouncement that the USGA “lost the course”.

By contrast, every player quoted at Lancaster was respectful and in many cases appreciative of the setup, and there were multiple variations on the theme that, yes, this is how a US Open should be. The phrase “true test” is often employed in situations like these, and the one guarantee at a true test is that it will produce a true winner.