One last major championship. One last shot at glory for women's professional golfers this season.
The final major championship of the 2023 season, the AIG Women's Open, tees off Thursday at Walton Heath Golf Club in Surrey, England.
There were first-time major championship winners in the first four majors this season: Lilia Vu won the Chevron Championship, Ruoning Yin captured the KPMG Women's PGA Championship, Allisen Corpuz took the U.S. Women's Open, and Celine Boutier came out on top at the Amundi Evian Championship.
Four women -- Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb, Juli Inkster and Se Ri Pak -- won 17 of the 20 majors from 1999 to 2003. In the past five seasons, 16 of the 23 majors played were captured by first-time major champions.
"I think it's across any tour, any sport," world No. 1 golfer Nelly Korda said. "The players are just getting better. Athletes are just getting better. They have more knowledge. They have more tools to work with, and everyone is way more professional, I feel like, than maybe they were 10-plus years ago.
"I would say as a whole, obviously there were a few that were very professional but I would say everyone takes it very seriously now. So yeah, I would say that, you know, it's tough to win out here. Every year, the girls are getting better. Every year there's younger girls coming out dominating. Rose [Zhang] came out, winning her first event. It's getting tough. So whenever you win, it feels really good."
After winning the Amundi Evian Championship in her native France on July 30, Boutier captured the Freed Group Women's Scottish Open the next week. She is the first woman to win a major and the next tournament since Ariya Jutanugarn in 2016.
Boutier has climbed to third in the Women's World Golf Rankings and leads the Race to the CME Globe and Rolex Player of the Year standings. She's also a slam dunk to be part of the European team that will play the Americans in the Solheim Cup, scheduled for Sept. 22-24 at Finca Cortesin in Andalucia, Spain.
Boutier has a chance to capture the Rolex ANNIKA Major Award, which goes to the player with the best performance in the five majors.Corpuz, the U.S. Women's Open winner, has a 14-point lead in the standings, but Boutier can grab the trophy by winning at Walton Heath. She can also potentially overtake Corpuz by finishing fourth or better, depending on where Corpuz finishes.
"I know the odds [of winning]," Boutier said. "To be fair, like even winning two in a row is already pretty low, so I know three ... it would be unbelievable if it happens. But I'm just not going to put a lot of pressure on myself about that. I'm honestly trying to put some good rounds together and see at the end."
It probably shouldn't be a surprise that rookie Rose Zhang has already posted three top-10 finishes in her first three majors as a pro. She tied for eighth at the PGA Women's Championship and for ninth at the U.S. Women's Open and the Evian Championship. She is the only player on the LPGA Tour to finish in the top-ten in each of the past three majors.
Zhang captured the Mizuho Americas Open on June 4, becoming the first woman since Beverly Hanson in 1951 to win in her LPGA debut.
Zhang missed the cut in her AIG Open debut at Carnoustie Golf Links in Scotland in 2021. She was the low amateur the next year when she tied for 28th at Muirfield in Scotland.
"The last couple years, I've been able to have somewhat of an experience as an amateur in playing these major championships," Zhang said. "And I knew how hard and how grueling every single week is, so taking that into consideration, making sure I'm preparing my body and making sure that I'm going out there and having a really good strategy has allowed me to commit to my game when I'm out there playing. No doubt, it's really hard to be out there, and you know that it's a big event, but keeping yourself in composure and in your stride is something that I've done well in the last three events."
Zhang, 20, is expected to be one of U.S. team captain Stacy Lewis' captain's picks for the Solheim Cup. Zhang is currently 17th in points, despite making only five starts this season.
Zhang told reporters in England on Tuesday that she plans to return to take classes at Stanford in January. She became the only woman to win two NCAA individual national championships while playing for the Cardinal.
"Yes, I'll be going back to class in January," Zhang said. "So I'll be back on campus and I'll be stacking up classes in the winter quarter. Potentially taking some classes in the spring quarter, and then continuing on to continue playing golf and playing on tour."
Zhang said she has leaned on former LPGA star Michelle Wie West for advice. Wie West attended Stanford while playing on the LPGA Tour. She never competed for the Cardinal but graduated from the university in 2012.
"It's essentially what Michelle did," Zhang said. "Both of us kind of talked about it before and that's how she gave me such great advice on what I want to do in my future. I'm definitely inspired by her, with her abilities to both finish her academics as well as play professional golf, and it was certainly something that I was a little bit iffy about.
"But she told me it was totally doable, which encouraged me to continue down that path, too. And we both major in communications, so basically when I was talking to my counselors, they pulled up her transcript for me to see what classes she took, which is really fun to kind of see how someone else did this, and was successful in doing so."
Another new venue
For the fourth time this season, a major championship is heading to a course for the first time. The Club at Carlton Woods in The Woodlands, Texas, was the site of the Chevron Championship in April; Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, New Jersey, hosted the KPMG Women's PGA Championship in June; and the Women's U.S. Open debuted at Pebble Beach Golf Club on the California coast in July.
Walton Heath Golf Club, about 28 miles southeast of London, opened in 1903. Winston Churchill and King Edward VII were past members, and the venue hosted the 1981 Ryder Cup. It's not a traditional seaside links course like other Open venues, but there is plenty of trouble as thick purple heather covers much of the rough on the Old Course and New Course.
The AIG Women's Open will be played mostly on the Old Course, except for the 12th and 13th holes on the New Course.
"When I was out here, it definitely was different from the previous British Opens that I've played, Muirfield and Carnoustie, those are very traditional links-style golf courses," Rose Zhang told reporters in England. "So when I came out here, I was well aware of the heather. The heather is beautiful but it's terrible to be in. Not somewhere you want to be this week."
Recent rain has softened the course, which might benefit players who don't hit it very far off the tee.
"I feel like every single time I've talked about maybe having an advantage because of length at golf courses, you actually kind of see more of the shorter hitters playing well," Korda said. "I think it's just about getting the ball in the hole. I mean, they are used to hitting hybrids into the greens.
"I mean, at the end of the day, everyone just has to play their own game and keep it in play. If you are not hitting the fairways, it gets pretty tough out here with chip shots out. I would say the greens are pretty slow. There's a lot of subtle breaks to them but I also think they have gotten a lot of rain in the past two weeks, so it's played completely different to what it played maybe a month ago."
Korda made a surprising driver change before the third round of the Evian Championship last month, and it sounds like she'll be hitting her old Titleist TSR1 driver again in England this week.
She signed an apparel deal with Nike and an equipment contract with TaylorMade in January and previously hit the TaylorMade Stealth 2 earlier this season.
Korda carded a 7-under 64 in the third round and tied for ninth at 5 under, 9 shots behind Boutier. It was her best finish in a while. She missed the cut at the Cognizant Founders Cup and the Women's PGA Championship before tying for 64th at the U.S. Women's Open.
"When I first started testing with TaylorMade, they reassured me that they want me to play what I will play best with, so I've been trying to kind of figure the driver out, and at the end of the day, they want me to perform my best, and they have been an amazing partner," Korda said.
"They have supported me through the entire process, but right now I'm just going to play with what I played best with and hopefully, you know, they have some exciting things in the work, and I'm really excited for the future."