PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Mina Harigae has never seen Pebble Beach like this.
Last year’s U.S. Women’s Open runner-up was born in Monterey, California, attended the nearby Stevenson School and has played the course over 50 times. Of the 156 players in this year’s field, Harigae has perhaps the most knowledge of the course. And yet what she has seen so far this week and will continue to see throughout the week will be something different, in more ways than one.
“It was actually funny, in the practice round the last couple days it’s actually easier to pick targets because there’s more TV towers, grandstands,” Harigae said on Tuesday. “But the rough is gnarly. … It’s not a resort golf course anymore. This is championship golf.”
That observation is music to Shannon Rouillard’s ears. The USGA’s senior director of championships was the lead figure in transforming Pebble Beach from a course Harigae has seemingly known her whole life to something new, and most importantly, something that will test the best female players in the world starting Thursday.
“It’s really important for us to play at the cathedrals of the game,” Rouillard said. “We’re trying to marry the architecture with the skill level and presenting a USGA test of golf that’s going to test all aspects of their games along with really showcasing the golf course as well.”
Rouillard’s task was not a straightforward one. The challenge in the work can be traced as far back as golf’s history (“Courses generally aren’t designed for an elite female player,” Rouillard pointed out) and as recent as the game’s present, where the reality is that it has taken far too long for women to play at the same venues men have for quite some time.
On a practical level, that means no data to use as a starting point. As Rouillard explained, there’s no statistics telling her how the best women in the world play Pebble’s famous par-5 6th hole, or any hole at the course for that matter. Rouillard had no choice but to use other avenues (such as a talking to a 40-year Pebble caddie) as well as look at the data that men have produced, primarily at the most recent Open in 2019, to try and glean what she could for the women’s setup.
“We wanted to provide a similar presentation for the women as the men have had,” Rouillard said, noting that fairway lines and the rough around the bunkers were prioritized to be as similar as possible to what the men dealt with in 2019.
Both world No. 1 Jin Young Ko and No. 3 Lydia Ko said they watched highlights of that U.S. Open to try and figure it out, while a few other players said they also took to YouTube to watch Tiger Woods‘ historic win in 2000. All said they expect a tough challenge.
“Around the greens there’s some really nasty lies, especially around the bunker edges,” Annika Sorenstam said. “You might not even have a stance. I would say it puts a premium on your iron shots, and of course if the wind picks up here you need to be able to keep the ball low, have a little more ball control.”
Part of the intrigue this week lies in the different ways women will play a course the men play every year. Throughout the bag, women are normally shorter than men but they are usually far more accurate, and as several of them will tell you, Pebble’s miniscule greens will require every bit of that accuracy.
“Probably the smallest greens I’ve ever seen,” said Nelly Korda, who added that the weather has cut 7-10 yards from her distance. “I think it’s an amazing golf course. I think every part of your game really has to click.”
“I do love it that the greens are small,” defending U.S. Open champion Minjee Lee said. “I think the ballstriking is going to be really important, especially tee to green.”
Once on those small greens, the journey is far from over. As many players have pointed out, the poa annua grass on the greens makes for tricky putts, more break and bumpier surfaces as the day goes on. Short putts are tougher than usual and lag putts are crucial.
“You have to really concentrate out here, especially with the bouncy poa,” Korda said. “You don’t know what kind of first bounce you’re going to get, so just making sure that you’re taking your time over every shot, being very diligent with your routine.”
“There’s more slope to these greens than people realize,” Rouillard said. “The players that can be students of the greens and really study them will play well.”
For Rouillard, fitting the pieces of the Pebble puzzle began with those tricky greens, working backwards from there and asking what kind of shots each green was meant to receive and how that would lend itself to the women’s game, then through the fairway and back to the tee box.
Rouillard calls out the 509-yard par-5 second hole as an example of this exercise. The green on what is usually a par-4 for men during the latest U.S. Open at Pebble is a skinny, narrow cutting green that is surrounded by bunkers. Without any data to digest how women would play the hole as a par-4, Rouillard made a gut decision.
“It was a feeling that I had that this is going to be better suited to be a par-5,” Rouillard said. “We can play them all the way back where the men played it as a par-4, and it could be a good par-5. It’s going to be on the players to decide whether they can go for it.”
“I think all the par-5s out here, depending on the wind situation, but they’re true par-5s,” Michelle Wie West said. “I think 8 and 9 are two of the toughest holes out here, but they’re real good holes.”
Rouillard said she believes that the third and fifth holes will likely play more difficult this week than they did for the men at the 2019 championship. But when it comes to shots she thinks she’ll be watching the most beyond the par-3s, it’s hard not to pick the approach shot into the eighth hole over the steep cliff and cove below.
“I would anticipate that hole to be quite demanding,” Rouillard said. “Eight, nine and 10 are going to be a major challenge.”
The approach shot that Jack Nicklaus once called one of the best shots in the world usually hovers around the 170-yard range, which, for men, likely means a short iron downhill. For women, that means a longer club. During Tuesday’s practice round, Rose Zhang hit 5-iron while Wie West hit a fairway wood. Both hit the green.
The ninth extends all the way up to a 430-yard par-4 for the women and will likely be heavily affected by the wind off the right from the Pacific Ocean. Most players will likely hit two metalwoods — the latter off an uneven lie from a left-to-right fairway into a left-to-right sloping green.
“You have longer irons in, and I think the greens are going to be a lot firmer and quicker,” Zhang said, comparing the current version of the course to the one she shot a course-record 63 at during the 2022 Carmel Cup. “By the time it comes to Thursday, we are going to be having some quick greens, so that’s definitely going to change up a lot of how we’re playing this week and how we’re going to use numbers and figure out bounces.”
The eighth is one of several holes where the fairway lines have been heavily narrowed, somewhat going against what the architecture of the course intended, but placing a further premium on accuracy off the tee. Rouillard also said that presenting similar fairway lines to what the men had in 2019 also factored into the decision.
“Every hole was touched in some way regarding the fairway line,” Rouillard said.
Despite all the prep work and adjustments Rouillard also isn’t naive to the reality that, for all the setup work that has been done and will continue to be done throughout the tournament, some things aren’t in her control. On Thursday, during the USGA news conference, Rouillard acknowledged that she and her team may utilize different tees on some holes depending on how the wind, which could gust above 20 miles an hour at some point this weekend, affects the conditions.
“The patience that we always talk about at the majors is going to play an extra big role here,” Sorenstam said. “The conditions can change, so you need to know your distances really well, and you have to trust them, and you have to be accurate. I think it tests everything that you would ask of a major.”
On Thursday, Rouillard will sit back and watch as all the work she’s done over the past year comes to fruition. Given the novelty of the setting, the work hasn’t been easy, but as Rouillard put it, the puzzle has been fun to build. Now, it’s up to the 156-player field to go out there and try to piece it together.