When Morgan Pressel became the youngest to qualify for a U.S. Women’s Open in 2001 at the age of 12, four teenagers were in the field with her at Pine Needles: Natalie Gulbis (19), Leigh Anne Hardin (19), Diana Ramage (18) and Christina Kim (17).
Pressel’s feat ignited a trend among junior golfers who thought, why not give qualifying a shot? Five years later, 25 teens comprised 16 percent of the field at Newport Country Club. Four of them were 15-year-olds.
This week the Women’s Open returns to Pine Needles for a fourth time. There are 22 teenagers in the field.
In 2007 Pressel, fresh off her historic victory at what’s now the Chevron Championship, returned to Pine Needles and played her way into the final group on Sunday. Cristie Kerr ultimately won.
Pressel is back this year in a different role as lead analyst for Golf Channel/NBC, having shifted gears away from a competitive career.
Golfweek recently caught up with the 34-year-old, who won twice on the LPGA, to talk about Pine Needles, her switch to TV and who she likes for the 77th staging of the biggest championship in women’s golf.
You qualified for your first U.S. Women’s Open at age 12 and kickstarted a national trend of young players trying to qualify. How did that first week at Pine Needles change your life?
Amateur golfer Morgan Pressel signs autographs during practice ahead of the 2001 U.S. Women’s Open at the Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club in Southern Pines, North Carolina. (Photo: Luke Frazza/AFP via Getty Images)
It changed my life in so many ways. The main way, I would say, is that it really opened my eyes to what I wanted to do with my life. I think I was surprised to be there; I think other people were surprised that I was there, but at the end of the week, just being in the locker room with my idols, playing a true championship golf course for the first time – in what I have always considered to be the biggest event in women’s golf, the one that I grew up putting 10-footers to win in practice – that was really the moment where I went home and said that’s what I want to do with my life.
When you see other youngster you see following in your footsteps, what’s the best piece of advice you can give for those who experience success or a high moment like that at a young age?
Heather Daly-Donofrio, Morgan Pressel and Ashli Bunch take cover during a weather delay during the 2001 U.S. Women’s Open. (Photo: Erik Perel/AFP via Getty Images)
Just enjoy it. It sounds cliche, but it’s easy to get wrapped up in all of the stuff that surrounds you, whether that’s excessive media attention or even now, potentially sponsors and agents and kind of some of the different things that come with being thrown into the spotlight. I would say I didn’t have that as much as kids these days given the way amateur amateur rules have changed. That came a little bit more slowly to me, didn’t come until I was late teens, which is still early, but it’s different than I feel like it is today.
But really soak in the experience. You have the opportunity to be up close and learn from some of the best players in the world, playing on the same stage. That’s really what I tried to do, soak it all in, talk to as many people as I could. Sign up for practice rounds with people that you’ve always idolized.
I remember when I was at Pine Needles there was a long rain delay, and I didn’t want to leave the locker room. I just wanted to sit there in dining and soak it all in.
You played in the final group on Sunday at the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles alongside Cristie Kerr and Lorena Ochoa. What sticks out the most about that round and how long did it take you to get over (a closing 77)?
Morgan Pressel reacts to a missed putt during the final round of the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club. (Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Oh, it took me a while to get over that one. I was very disappointed with my finish. But I learned a lot watching Lorena and Cristie, of course, go on to victory.
I definitely felt like I was very close and had opportunities, and after 2005, maybe it hurt even a little bit more being close again. But, you know, 2007 was a great year for me and I put a lot of expectations on myself after having won the Chevron earlier that year. I think looking back, just realizing that I kept putting myself in that position to succeed and that golf is hard.
I very vividly remember my double on the last.
How did you know that it was time to transition away from competing on the LPGA?
LPGA golfer and TV analyst Morgan Pressel works during the third round of the 2022 Honda Classic. (Photo: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)
I had thought about it for a little while. I would say COVID probably sped up my decision. But I just lost a little bit of the love and motivation. It can be grueling when you’re really struggling, and I just felt like it was time to try something different.
What is it that you love most about working as a television analyst?
Morgan Pressel gets ready for a Golf Channel telecast alongside host Grant Boone (Photo courtesy Morgan Pressel)
I love the challenge. Live television is very intense. It’s fun to share the stories of certainly the players that I know so well. … To really have the opportunity to share that insight with our fans, it’s a neat place to be. I’ve had to learn very quickly all the ins and outs, about just how to be a broadcaster, and the team at Golf Channel and NBC Sports has been wonderful in helping me through that transition. I love the team that I get to work with week in and week out. We have a lot of fun. It is intense, but it’s also a lot of fun.
Who do you like for Pine Needles this year, and what kind of player has an advantage?
Cristie Kerr celebrates with the trophy after winning the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images)
It’s definitely a ball-striker’s golf course, a smart player’s golf course. But also, the greens are just diabolical.
You really need to have an incredible short game to play well. I was there also for the Senior Women’s Open a few years back. There are just some places around the greens that are so difficult and require so much creativity. I mean, when you think about all the things it requires, it’s hard to bet against Jin Young Ko, who leads the tour in almost every category, including short game.
I could see a player like Patty Tavatanakit playing well, a fantastic putter, fantastic chipper. Lydia Ko. I’m not exactly sure how the golf course is going to be set up, with regards to length and power. Whether we’ll have rain or it will be soft. So I don’t know if you can necessarily overpower the golf course. But I mean definitely look to somebody who has a fantastic short game to do well around Pine Needles.
An American hasn’t won the U.S. Women’s Open since 2016. Do Americans try to hard? What needs to change?
Brittany Lang captured the 2016 U.S. Women’s Open in a three-hole playoff following a controversial penalty. (Photo: Getty Images)
I think we all try too hard (laughs). I don’t think it’s just an American thing. There is no question that growing up, as a young American in the sport, the U.S. Open is your dream. It is the pinnacle. It’s just not that easy.
It was certainly hard to watch last year, what happened with Lexi (Thompson) and putting herself in that position. I could see Lexi coming out hot this year. She’s been playing some fantastic golf as of late. Looking for a little bit of redemption, I would assume.
Do they try too hard?
Maybe. I don’t know that that would make them not win. … I don’t know if just because they put more pressure on themselves that they can’t pull through with a victory. … Everybody in that field puts pressure on themselves. It’s just those who can handle it better come out on top.
What have you liked about Lexi’s putting this year?
Lexi Thompson lines up a putt on the second green during the first round of the 2021 QBE Shootout in Naples, Florida. (Photo: Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)
I think it’s been really good. I’ve talked to Martin (Hall), her coach, a lot about it. She’s really worked a lot on her timing, her rhythm of the stroke. She’s worked a little bit on pulling her shoulders back to try and get her arms and her rib cage to work a title bit more together instead of independent hands away from the body. I don’t know if there’s anybody on tour who works harder than Lexi … but I know even more specifically than the putting stroke, I know they work a lot on things that will put her in a good frame of mind to play. Any athlete in any sport needs that.
What did you like the most about Pine Needles?
Morgan Pressel looks on during the 2001 U.S. Women’s Open at the Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in Southern Pines, North Carolina. (Photo: Craig Jones/Allsport)
I love everything about it. Certainly, I was a player who relied a lot on my short game, which is one of the reasons I liked it a lot because I could be creative around the green. It’s a fun course. It’s a course where if you hit good shots you’re going to be rewarded. If you hit poor shots you’re going to struggle to make par or worse. I always liked fair golf courses that way, challenging courses that make you think.