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End of an LPGA era and start of a new one: 5 takeaways from US Open

Minjee Lee raises the trophy after winning the U.S. Women's Open by four strokes Sunday. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Minjee Lee ran away with the 2022 U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles, becoming the first Australian to win the major championship since her mentor and LPGA Hall of Famer, Karrie Webb, did so 21 years ago at the same course.

Led by Lee’s historic feat, here are five takeaways from the second major tournament of the LPGA season.

1. Minjee Lee’s major run

Last Monday, Minjee Lee joked with her caddie that there would be plenty of room to practice with the various stations on the Pine Needles’ driving range. On Sunday, she was one of the last players off the range ahead of the final tee time of the 2022 U.S. Women’s Open.

Lee protected her three-shot lead to win by four strokes, shooting an even-par 71 on a course that gave up only two under-par rounds Sunday. Outlasting second-place finisher Mina Harigae, Lee set the 72-hole scoring record while accomplishing a lifelong goal.

“It’s been my dream since I was a little girl,” Lee said. “This is the one I always wanted to win.”

Whatever nerves she was feeling subsided on the first holes, as Lee started birdie-birdie to extend her lead to five strokes. She all but solidified her victory on the 12th hole when she landed her approach shot 6 feet from the hole and made the putt for birdie. She joins Australian legends Jan Stephenson (1986) and Webb (2000, 2001) as U.S. Women’s Open champions from the country.

“I think this will be huge for all the little girls, and even the boys and the children watching,” Lee said. “I know there’s been a really big boom in [Western Australia]. The girls have been a lot more interested in playing, so hopefully they watch me on TV and I can be a good role model to them and they’ll start getting more involved.”

Lee has now won two of the last four LPGA majors (2021 Amundi Evian Championship, 2022 U.S. Women’s Open), a feat last achieved by World No. 1 Jin Young Ko at the ANA Inspiration (now the Chevron Championship) and Evian Championship in 2019.

2. Lydia Ko builds toward third major championship

When a player relinquishes the No. 1 spot in the Rolex World Rankings, they can end up in a battle for survival. Yani Tseng, for example, dropped off in 2012 and never recovered.

The last world No. 1 before Nelly Korda and Jin Young Ko, Sung Hyun Park, displayed her talent over the first 36-holes at Pine Needles this week, sitting at four-under par and T-9 after two rounds. The 2016 U.S. Women’s Open champion then faltered down the stretch, ending up at five-over par for the week and T-28, and still in search of her first top-10 finish since the 2019 AIG Women’s Open.

Lydia Ko last held the World No. 1 ranking in 2017 and has recorded only one victory from 2017-20, at the 2018 Mediheal Championship in San Francisco.

The 17-time LPGA winner fell as far as 55th in the world rankings in 2020. Now, the World No. 4 as of Monday, Ko has displayed remarkable consistency in her last 13 events, finishing inside the top 25 of every tournament since last September. Ko won twice at the 2021 LOTTE Championship and 2022 Gainbridge LPGA at Boca Rio. Her caddie, Derek Kistler, credits her recent success to her ability around the greens.

“She’s got the best short game in golf, pretty much when you talk about chipping and putting,” Kistler said. “She still can get loose with her driver a little bit, but it’s improving. I don’t think it’s anything crazy. She’s just consistent.”

Even when Kistler felt Ko didn’t have her best driver game at the Founder’s Cup in May, she still posted 24 birdies for a T-12 finish. This week, Ko posted her third top-10 finish in her last seven major starts. The Kiwi finished runner-up at the 2021 ANA Inspiration, T-6 at the 2021 Amundi Evian Championship and in fifth place at the U.S. Open on Sunday.

Firmly back in the hunt, the 25-year-old is aiming for her third major title and first one in six years.

“I think we all try and peak at the majors,” Ko said. “You’re just trying to play the best golf you can and, at the same time, not think of it any more differently than any other event. But to play solid, I think it just shows what point my game is at, and I know there are things to improve, but there’s still a lot of good from there.”

3. LPGA’s parity era continues

From 2002-16, a player won multiple times on the LPGA Tour by the 10th tournament of the year. In four of the last six seasons, it’s taken more than 10 tournaments for the first multi-time champion to emerge, showcasing the increasing depth of the field.

Minjee Lee’s wins in 2022 came in the 11th and 13th events on the tournament calendar. In 2017, it took until the 17th event for So Yeon Ryu to become the first player to win multiple tournaments. In 2018, Ariya Jutaugarn did it in the 14th event, and in 2021, Nelly Korda got there by the 14th event, too.

This weekend at the U.S. Open, runner-up Mina Harigae finished four strokes off the mark in her first top-10 in 46 career major starts over her 11-year career.

“I’m not going to lie, my stomach hurt the last couple holes coming down,” Harigae said. “I was really stressed out, but I was really just focusing on one shot at a time, making solid contact and just hitting good putts.”

4. Michelle Wie West and Annika Sorenstam exit the stage

There are few sports where a 51-year-old could return to the major stage for the first time in 14 years and still be expected to perform. Annika Sorenstam, 72-time LPGA winner and three-time U.S. Women’s Open Champion, faced just that in her return to Pine Needles, where she won the championship in 1996.

“The curiosity for me isn’t how she’s going to make the cut this week, because she is going to make the cut,” former Golf Channel commentator Jerry Foltz said leading up to the tournament. “She doesn’t know how not to. Unlike my playing career, Annika doesn’t make plane reservations on Saturday morning in advance.”

Paired with 2011 U.S. Women’s Open winner So Yeon Ryu and amateur Ingrid Lindblad (who won low Am honors this week), Sorenstam felt she had to score under par Friday after an opening-round 74 to advance to the weekend. Instead, Sorenstam posted a 10-over par 81, including a seven-over 43 on the back nine, to finish outside the cut — her 12th missed cut in 310 career starts.

“It was a disappointing final round, actually final nine,” she said. “But it’s been great to be here. You know what Pine Needles means to me and my family and everybody. We made a lot of different memories in different ways.”

Michelle Wie West, meanwhile, exited Pine Needles with a smile after almost making a long bomb from the front fringe on her 36th hole to get to three-over par and a possible spot in the weekend’s competition.

The 32-year-old ended up finishing at five-over par through two rounds, missing the cut and officially moving on to her next adventures around golf. The 2014 U.S. Women’s Open champion didn’t disclose those plans specifically, but she did share earlier in the week that LA Golf — a golf equipment company for which she leads the women’s partnership initiative — is providing full healthcare for sponsored athletes, featuring mental health days and paid maternity leave.

“This is just the beginning,” Wie West wrote in an Instagram post. “We are excited to create a dialogue.”

Michelle Wie West played in her second-to-last tournament at the U.S. Open this weekend. (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The Stanford graduate plans to let her clubs gather some dust before preparing for her final start on the LPGA Tour, the 2023 U.S. Women’s Open at Pebble Beach.

5. The gold standard

Harigae’s agent, Alex Guerrero, may have put it best Saturday afternoon on how much this week has done for his client, a 13-year LPGA veteran.

The $10 million purse and first-place check of $1.8 million, introduced this year at the U.S. Open, are new records in the women’s game. Harigae earned the first runner-up check worth over a million dollars in women’s golf history (her biggest payday previously was $268,657 for a T-3 finish at the 2021 CME Group Tour Championship). NBC also featured seven hours of live coverage of the tournaments on its national network, a marked increase from past years.

“My player is in the final group back-to-back days,” Guerrero said of Harigae. “That’s more national TV exposure than she’s gotten over her whole career.”

The USGA aims to expand the purse to $12 million over the next five years and continue to hold the major championship at some of the sport’s most iconic venues. Pebble Beach, one of the most historic courses in the country, will host the 2023 U.S. Women’s Open.

Behind Heather Daly-Donofrio, the LPGA’s former Chief Operations Officer (and former LPGA player) hired in April as the USGA’s Managing Director of the Athlete Development Program, will lead a $50 million initiative to grow the talent pool and lower barriers to access in women’s golf.

“USGA can assist families who have children with the talent to continue,” Whan told The Pilot. “Mexico does it, Canada does it, other countries do it. We are going to do it.”

Kent Paisley is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering golf and the LPGA. He also contributes to Golf Digest. Follow him on Twitter @KentPaisley.