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Young players have taken over women’s golf

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Less than two weeks ago, in the final round of the Women’s PGA Championship, winner Ruoning Yin navigated Baltusrol Golf Club with composure and shot-making befitting an LPGA veteran, not a 20-year-old in her second year on the tour.

Back in late April, Lilia Vu, 25, outlasted Angel Yin, 24, in a playoff to capture the year’s first major title at the Chevron Championship. And in the fifth and final major of 2022, Brooke Henderson, 24, birdied the 72nd hole to take the Evian Championship.

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Then there’s Rose Zhang, 20, who on the heels of a record-setting career as an amateur won her first start as a professional on the LPGA Tour in early June. She became the first player since 1951 to win her professional debut.

Entering a historic week at Pebble Beach Golf Links, which is hosting the US Women’s Open for the first time, the future of the women’s game appears as bright as ever, with 20-somethings having claimed six of the past seven majors and holding 19 of the top 20 spots in the world rankings.

“I love that all the major champions are so young,” said Michelle Wie West, 33, a former prodigy who won the 2014 US Women’s Open after becoming the youngest player, at 13, to make the cut in 2003. “… The next generation is here. They’re here, they’re powerful, and they’re here to stay.”

Yin turned professional in 2020 and won her first three tournaments on the China LPGA Tour, a first for that circuit. At Baltusrol, she did not have a three-putt or a bogey in her final round and hit the final 37 greens in regulation to finish at 8 under par.

But she was far from the only young player on the leader board. One stroke back was Japan’s Yuka Saso, who was 19 when she won the US Women’s Open in 2021. Also in the mix down the stretch at the Women’s PGA were Yin’s countrywoman Xiyu Lin, 27, and Megan Khang, 25, who was the highest -finishing American. Each landed at 6 under for the tournament to tie for third.

“Definitely want to win some more,” said Yin, who revealed her recalibrated goal is to collect at least five majors in her career. “… I feel like I’m in a pretty good spot right now, and my game is quite on spot, and my mental [side] is pretty strong. Yeah, I’m looking forward to winning more.”

Zhang was playing in her first major championship as a professional, and she surged within a stroke of the lead on the back nine until a pair of bogeys derailed her. The rookie still managed her best finish at a major (tied for eighth) following several appearances as an amateur.

Zhang’s arrival at the US Women’s Open comes with elevated anticipation not only because the lone woman to win consecutive NCAA golf individual titles played at Stanford, some 90 miles from here, but also because she set the Pebble Beach women’s course record (9-under 63 ) last year. Not surprisingly, she’s the betting favorite (+1,100), according to BetMGM Sportsbook.

“I would never have expected myself to be in this position,” she said. “Just being able to be in contention has been incredible feeling-wise, and I feel like my game has been on par with a lot of the professionals and the veterans out here. But, yeah, it’s not something I anticipated.”

So stacked with contenders in their 20s is the field of 156 that the top players in the world rankings, South Korea’s Jin Young Ko, 27, and American Nelly Korda, 24, come into the week drawing less fanfare than usual.

The top-ranked Ko is seeking her first major championship since 2019, when the 15-time winner on the LPGA Tour secured the Chevron Championship and the Evian Championship. Korda’s lone major title came at the 2021 Women’s PGA; a blood clot in 2022 and an ailing back this year compelled her to step away from the game for stretches to concentrate on rest and rehabilitation.

“It’s such a shift from when I was first playing, where it was the elder stateswomen who really prevailed,” said Kay Cockerill, an on-course reporter for NBC Sports who played on the LPGA Tour from 1987 to 1997. “… The theory at the time was you had to put your dues in, and you had to cut your teeth, and you needed all these years. … I think the golfers – especially women, who mature physically and mentally much sooner and faster generally than men do – it’s not out of the question to think that they’re almost at their prime [at] 20 to 25. … And they’re sort of taking that flipped view of, ‘Hey, I’m going to play high-level golf as quickly as I can.’ “

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