The South Fork’s newest golf course, Sebonack Golf Club, received its coronation into the halls of celebrated tournament hosts this week, showered with praise from television commentators, U.S. Golf Association officials and even, in their frustrations, the players who competed in the 68th U.S. Women’s Open.
And the par-72 course showed its teeth in a way that silenced those who had doubted it would stand up to the best golfers under tournament conditions.
The history-making play of champion Inbee Park in the four-day tournament, held from June 27-30, obscured somewhat the fact that nearly every other one of the 156 golfers who teed it up for the tournament struggled mightily to tame Sebonack.
Ms. Park and fellow South Korean golfer, I.K. Kim, seemed to have figured out some secret code to Sebonack’s complicated greens and elusive birdies. But the rest of the field, all but one of whom were over par for the tournament, bore true the predictions of course owner Michael Pascucci that, despite broad fairways and fewer hazards than typical U.S. Open courses, even the top players in the world would have a hard time scoring well at Sebonack.
“The girls were hitting 100-percent of fairways but the average score one day was still 77, so it was clearly about hitting the greens,” Mr. Pascucci said in looking back at the trickery of the course. “This is a second shot golf course.”
Mr. Pascucci has said in numerous interviews that when the course was being designed by Jack Nicklaus and Tom Doak, he asked them to build a course that was not too punishing for average players but still challenging for the pros. The two golf legends approached that mission by crafting a course with broad fairways and greens that required pinpoint precision for even the greatest putters in the game to have a chance at birdies. And when the USGA made those greens hard and fast and Mother Nature threw in a little bit of wind, Sebonack became a difficult place to make a living as a golfer.
“You’re just standing there and you’re, like, you don’t know what this ball is going to do,” said Jessica Korda, who finished tied for sixth place. “It’s pretty mentally draining out there.”
Ms. Park, 24, proved herself over the four days of competition to be a master with a putter. On a course that made her peers look mediocre, she had more than 20 one-putts on Sebonack’s undulating greens and built such a healthy lead by Sunday morning that even a pedestrian 2-over par round on the final day could not put her eventual hoisting of the U.S. Women’s Open trophy in much jeopardy.
She became the first woman in more than 50 years to win three straight major championships, and if she wins next month’s British Women’s Open, she would be the first golfer, man or woman, to win all four major professional championships in the same year.
“It feels great to put my name on this trophy twice,” Park said after her second U.S. Open win on Sunday, the gleaming silver trophy sitting on a table next to her. “I just hope this is not a dream. I don’t want to wake up tomorrow and play the final round again. Yes, it was a very good day and I’m just very glad that I can put my name in history.”
Ms. Park’s win, and accompanying $585,000 paycheck, comes amid a stunning string of victories since re-emerging after nearly vanishing from professional golf. After winning the 2008 U.S. Women’s Open at the age of 19, Ms. Park’s game disintegrated. She didn’t win a single tournament for four seasons and spent nearly two years off the LPGA Tour altogether. She sought the help of a sports psychologist and a new swing coach, Gi Hyeob, who is also now her fiancé.
And now she’s back, with a vengeance. Last July she won her first tournament in 72 months. Since then, she’s won 10 others, including the last three tournaments she’s played in. Other golfers, limping in after being battered by Sebonack’s greens marveled at Ms. Park’s accomplishments last week.
“She’s one of the best putters I’ve ever seen, she literally makes everything,” said Paula Creamer, the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open Champion, who tied this year with Angela Stanford for fourth place and the best finish by Americans. “When you go against somebody like that, it’s tough to beat.”
Creamer was among the chorus of golfers who were often left ruminating over how to get the golf ball close to Sebonack’s flag sticks. Deep dips and devilish mounds on the course’s greens forced some to putt or chip sideways in hopes of ending up somewhere closer to the hole than a more direct route would allow.
“[Sebonack was] one of the most difficult golf courses I’ve played on tour,” said British golfer Jodi Ewart Shadoff, who started the final round in third place but quickly fell out of contention with bogeys early in the day. “This golf course will beat you to your knees if you don’t … get going quick and I definitely didn’t get going quick today.”
Despite disappointing ticket sales, possibly due to forecasts that called for showers on nearly ever day of the competition but never materialized during play, the USGA estimated that nearly 100,000 people visited the tournament over the seven days of practice rounds and competition. Fans were bused in from parking lots south of County Road 39, using Sebonac Road and Magee Street, and Southampton Town Police reported no major difficulties or traffic tie-ups due to the tournament.
Along with national television commentators who gushed about Sebonack’s visual aesthetics during Saturday and Sunday’s broadcasts, USGA officials said the tournament went off without a hitch, helped by more than 3,000 volunteers and Sebonack’s grounds crews.
“They said it was the best conditioned golf course they had ever held a championship on,” Mr. Pascucci said. “They paid tremendous accolades to our superintendent, Garret Boddington. He had 130 guys out there at 3:30 a.m. and not leaving until 9 p.m.”
Mr. Pascucci was cagey when asked about whether there had been any discussion during the week about another professional tournament coming to Sebonack in the future. But he said that he, personally, would probably be open to it eight or 10 years down the road. He said the disruption to members’ use of the course means that another tournament will not happen anytime soon, but also noted that the course proved to be so well suited to the logistics of a major event that he thought for sure the USGA would be eager to return.
“They were able to do everything on-site,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of open space, so everything fit very nicely and easily out of the way inside the property.”
Scores on the first day of the competition were the best, largely because USGA course managers had expected stiff winds and storms. Trying to keep the first round the most benign, they set tees well forward, slashing 300 yards off the 6,800-yard planned length, which left the par-four 4th hole just 265 yards long (14-year old Nelly Korda made eagle after hitting her tee shot to about 6 inches from the cup). They also left the greens relatively soft, to make it easier for golfers to stop the ball near the hole. The winds didn’t materialize and women took advantage: 36 shot par or better.
The USGA quickly put the clamps on, pushing the tee boxes back and firming up the greens and when the winds started to blow Friday afternoon, scores started to climb. By the time the field was cut to 68 players early Saturday morning, after fog cut Friday’s rounds short, just 17 players were at even par or better.
“They went a little softer on the first day, thinking there was going to be more wind but days two, three and four they got it 100-percent right,” Mr. Pascucci said.
And just right on Saturday apparently meant nearly impossible. Park was the only golfer in the field of 68 to play the third round under par. By the start of the day on Sunday, just five golfers were at par or better and, at the turn, all were back in the black for good. Just three golfers, Park, Kim and another South Korean, So Yeon Ryu, were under par.
The struggles left Mr. Pascucci smiling, his golf course vindicated after the first day’s assault.
“The USGA wanted to identify the best golfer, and they did,” he said. “It proves that you don’t have to play championships on fairways that are 26-yards wide.”