Pine Needles familiar to local US Women’s Open hopefuls

Six players with ties to the state will compete in this week’s major, led by Jennifer Kupcho, Leona Maguire and Celine Boutier

Former Wake Forest golfer Jennifer Kupcho will be among the favorites at this week's U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles in Southern Pines. (John Minchillo / AP Photo)

SOUTHERN PINES — It isn’t exactly a home-course advantage since Jennifer Kupcho, Leona Maguire and Celine Boutier only got a brief glimpse of Pine Needles during their college days at Wake Forest and Duke.

And yet, the venue for this week’s U.S. Women’s Open is familiar enough that it still feels like home to three up-and-coming young golfers.

“I came back a couple of weeks ago and didn’t remember much, but it’s still a very North Carolina course with all the trees,” said Maguire, a native of Ireland who had played Pine Needles only once — as a senior with the Blue Devils in 2018 — prior to her recent practice rounds. “It’s a wonderful course. I feel comfortable here.”

Maguire, Kupcho and Boutier are the leading championship contenders among the six players with state ties in the Women’s Open field.

Duke’s Brittany Lang, the 2016 U.S. Women’s Open champion and Charlotte native Allison Emery, the 2009 North-South Junior winner who like Kupcho is a Wake Forest alumnus, will also be among the 156 players vying for the title when the tournament tees off Thursday. So will Mina Harigae, who spent one semester at Duke before turning pro in 2008.

This is the fourth Women’s Open to be hosted by Pine Needles, the most of any venue in the tournament’s 77-year history.

The hilly 6,338-yard Sandhills course presents the elite international field with a stiff challenge, evidenced by the honor roll of past champions it has produced. Annika Sorenstam (1996) and Karrie Webb (2001) are both already Hall of Famers. Cristie Kerr (2007) will eventually be enshrined.

Between them, the trio has accounted for 20 major championships.

If major pedigree is a prerequisite for victory at Pine Needles then Kupcho is the local player with the best shot of becoming the first American player to win her country’s national title since Lang’s victory six years ago.

Not only did the former Deacons’ star burst into prominence by winning the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur in 2019, but she broke into the win column as a professional earlier this year at the Chevron Championship in Rancho Mirage, California.

The Chevron, formerly known as the Dinah Shore, is one of four majors on the women’s golf calendar. Kupcho’s victory there, which included a traditional celebratory leap into the pond adjoining the 18th green, established the 25-year-old Colorado native as a rising star on the LPGA Tour.

“Obviously I already knew that I could compete, but I think being able to win is really important,” Kupcho said. “That’s what I’ve done in college. I won a lot, so my confidence was low coming out here not having won in two or three years (as a pro). To be able to say I won, it’s definitely a confidence booster.”

Former Duke teammates Maguire and Boutier have also scored victories over the past seven months.

Boutier, a native of France, won the ShopRite Classic in Galloway, New Jersey, last October by shooting a final round 63. It was her second career LPGA title.

Maguire, the 2017 Ladies British Open Amateur champion who represented her home country in the past two Olympics, broke through for the first time in February at the Drive On Championship in Fort Myers, Florida.

She started the final round tied for the lead but pulled away to earn a three-stroke victory and become the first woman from Ireland to win an LPGA event. It’s an accomplishment that has her brimming with confidence.

“I felt like I played some pretty good golf last year but didn’t quite get there. So it’s nice to get over the line early in the season and guarantee getting into events like this,” she said. “I’m trying to put myself into contention as much as possible so I can get back there again.”

Maguire is hedging her bets as to her chances for that to happen at Pine Needles this week.

“I’ve never typically done well at U.S. Opens, so I’m trying to keep the expectations as low as possible,” the 27-year-old Maguire said. “But it’s a slightly different venue than a lot of U.S. Opens. There’s not the typical big, long rough and beast of a golf course we usually see. You have to think your way around and pick your shots, and I quite like that.”

Among the pretournament favorites are World No. 1 Jin Young Ko of South Korea and American Lexi Thompson, last year’s Women’s Open runner-up, both of whom will play in a group with Kupcho in the first two rounds. Defending champion Yuka Saso of the Philippines and Olympic gold medalist Nelly Korda are also among the top contenders.