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Women's Open at Pinehurst: Curiosity abounds as golf holds its first doubleheader

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PINEHURST, N.C. - This already is a U.S. Women's Open like no other, the first time in history it is played on the same course as the men just one week later. That's why Juli Inkster was only mildly surprised when the tee times were published.

Inkster is 53 and playing in her 35th Women's Open. Lucy Li is 11 and playing in her first.

"I thought for sure I'd be playing with her," Inkster said, referring to the USGA's habit of making a statement with the groupings in the opening two rounds.

Told that age was just a number, Inkster quipped, "Well, she's not as hardened as I am. She's still smiling."

For all the curiosity about golf's version of "Let's Play Two," some aspects of the week ahead at Pinehurst No. 2 don't change. The U.S. Women's Open remains the biggest event on the LPGA Tour schedule, especially now that the purse has increased to $4 million. And at the end of the week, it's still about that trophy.

"It's not an easy championship to win," Inkster said.

Even so, the grand experiment unfolds Thursday morning when amateur Bailey Tardy hits the opening shot from the same tee box — albeit 36 yards forward — from where Daniel Berger hit the opening shot in the U.S. Open just seven days ago.

One reason the Masters is the biggest television draw in golf is that it's played on the same course every year. Everyone knows it from watching TV.

Now, Pinehurst No. 2 is not as exciting as Augusta National. It's actually hard to tell the holes apart because every hole seems to have pines, sandy areas, bunkers and greens shaped like upside-down saucers that are difficult to hold. The only water hazard is on No. 16 and it's not really in play.

But with the men having just played there, this could get more attention.

Martin Kaymer was in the sandy area left of the fairway on the par-5 fifth hole and hit 7-iron to 5 feet for eagle. What will the women do? Will they knock as many putts off the back of the green at No. 6? Toru Taniguchi had the worst score of the week at 88. Kaymer had the best score at 65 — twice.

Comparisons are inevitable. They're also dangerous.

"If we play this golf course really well and show really well, I think everybody will say, 'Well, they're playing a lot shorter than the men.' Which we are," Inkster said. "We don't hit it as long as them. And if we don't do very well, then people will probably say, 'Well, they're not as good as the men, anyway.' Which we aren't.

"I've played a lot with the guys and I've played a lot with the girls, and men can just hit some unbelievable shots," she said. "But I think we can compete out here with the guys. I think a lot of people that saw the men last week and will come out and watch us and will be amazed at how well these girls can really play."

Inkster said those who don't pay attention to women's golf think everyone hits it 225 yards off the tee.

Little Lucy Li hits it 230. And she's in the sixth grade.

Michelle Wie was hitting it as far as some PGA Tour players when she was 14, and she's not even the longest hitter in women's golf.

No one really knows what to expect.

It won't be entirely the same golf course, starting with the fact they removed more than half of the grandstands around the 18th green because not as many fans will be Pinehurst No. 2 for the second week in a row.

The course is about 900 yards shorter. The pins will be in comparable spots, with a little more forgiveness. The speed of the greens will be the same, though that's not an issue. It's how firm the greens are, and the USGA began running the water on four-minute cycles three times a day after Kaymer won on Sunday.

The idea is for women to use the same clubs. The softer greens are because women aren't strong enough to hit the ball as high or with as much spin as the men.

Kaymer produced the second-lowest score in U.S. Open history at 9-under 271. Only two other players broke par. That would indicate a tough test.

The women are not expecting anything less.

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