On Monday, NBC Sports golf analyst Paige Mackenzie sat down with On Her Turf to preview the 75th edition of the U.S. Women’s Open, which is being held at Champions Golf Club in Houston, Texas, later this week (December 10-13). This Q&A has been edited lightly and condensed for clarity.
On Her Turf: For the new golf fans out there, can you describe the significance of the U.S. Women’s Open and your first memories of the tournament?
Paige Mackenzie: The U.S. Open is the pinnacle of the sport. As a kid, this is the event that I grew up watching. It is the most prestigious and it always had the biggest purse. And not only is it the national championship, but it also features the best players in the world.
On Her Turf: The 2020 U.S. Women’s Open was originally scheduled for June, but it was postponed because COVID-19. What impact did the postponement have on tournament setup?
Paige Mackenzie: [With the competition in December], we’re fighting daylight a lot more. So the first two rounds will actually be held on two golf courses (the Cypress Creek course and the Jackrabbit course). Players will tee off both the first tee and the tenth tee, and then do two waves of tee times. Athletes will be play one round on one golf course, then one on the other. After the first two rounds, they will make the cut, and half of the field will proceed to the final two rounds, which will be held on the Cypress Creek course.
On Her Turf: What type of impact does playing two courses have on the athletes?
Paige Mackenzie: Preparing for two courses just takes more time. With the U.S. Open, it’s run by the USGA, and they tend to test and push the golf course to its limit. They’ll grow out the rough, they’ll make the fairways narrower, they’ll make the greens firmer and faster. The result is that the U.S. Open is the pinnacle of demanding golf courses. This is true on both the men’s and the women’s side. The U.S. Open usually has the highest finishing score of any tournament all year long. So for that reason, you have to be mentally sharp on every single shot. And because it’s on two golf courses this year, it’s just going to be that much more mentally tiresome for the players. So there’s just going to be a little bit more of an onus to conserve energy.
On Her Turf: What about the weather conditions? It’s not like Texas gets that cold, but it’s still December…
Paige Mackenzie: It’s chilly. Well, it’s chilly for golf. It is expected to get into the 30s overnight, so in the early mornings, you will get a firmer ground, because it will have like the frozen sub layer. And we also might run into frost delays.
On Her Turf: Given how many LPGA tournaments were postponed or cancelled this year, how have the players dealt with the uncertainty throughout the season?
Paige Mackenzie: Right now, I think most of the women are just excited to be playing. One of the differences between golf and other sports, especially team sports, is that players are independent contractors. There’s no guaranteed contract. Almost every single endorsement deal that the players have is dependent on the number of starts that they make. So for that reason, a lot of the players were without income at all when tournaments weren’t going on. So I think there’s a feeling of gratitude that the LPGA Tour found a way to have as many events as they did this this season. Because it was really tough on some of the professional golfers to not have any way to make a living.
On Her Turf: How did the financial situation compare on the women’s side versus the men’s side?
Paige Mackenzie: It’s definitely different. I think, generally speaking, the men just had more money in the bank account [to begin with], so I think there’s less hardship there. However, on the men’s developmental tours below the PGA Tour, those players were in the same boat. Those players were out of work for five months. You had some guys taking jobs at grocery stores, stocking shelves, just to make ends meet. So it was hard across the board for a lot of the players, men and women. It’s just that upper tier had a little bit more cash in the bank.
On Her Turf: Looking ahead to this week’s U.S. Open, which women are you most excited to watch? Who’s your favorite going in?
Paige Mackenzie: Going in, my favorite is Sei Young Kim from South Korea. She is a phenomenal talent. One of the reasons I like watching her play is because she has incredible power and aggressiveness. You’ll get a sense of that if you listen to her and her caddy. She’ll pick a really specific and aggressive target and he’ll almost like push her away, [encouraging her to] tone it down a little bit. And so it’s really fun to watch somebody that’s so confident. During her rookie year, she won three times. Last year, she ended up winning the season-ending event in dramatic style. She made a 25-foot [birdie] on the last hole to take home a winner’s check of 1.5 million, which was the largest payday in women’s golf history. She has won her last two starts, so this week we’re going to see if she can win three starts in a row.
Inbee Park, a legend in the sport, is also on my shortlist of favorites this week. She won early in the season is at the Australian Open in February, but then obviously COVID happened and she lost her momentum. But in the last couple of starts that she’s made, she’s played great.
Inbee is known for is playing great at major championships. They are much more demanding tests, and Inbee is extremely methodical. She does not make mistakes. She likes to stay conservative, be patient, and use her biggest weapon, which is her putter. So Inbee and Sei Young represent two contrasting styles.
For people who aren’t familiar, in the lead-up to the 2016 Rio Olympics, Inbee Park was injured. There were some other South Korean players who could have filled her position, and she was actually pressured by some in South Korea to give up her spot because of the injury. But she didn’t, and then she went on to win gold. It was one of the most impressive Olympic performances I’ve ever witnessed – across all sports.
On Her Turf: I know from covering other sports that South Korean fans are often very knowledgeable and passionate. What does that look like in golf?
Paige Mackenzie: A lot of the players from South Korea have fan clubs that they correspond with. The fans come out to the tournaments wearing t-shirts and hats, carrying signs. It’s great. All of the places that the LPGA travels to within Asia, you have these energetic fans. It’s amazing to see their love for women’s sports. It’s actually opened my eyes to the possibilities for women’s sport. Because there’s such an admiration and appreciation for the finesse that golf is played with. In the United States, I think we get really caught up with power and strength all the time. People compare men and women in that way, but they just play differently. It’s not that one style is better or worse, it’s just different. So when the LPGA travels to countries where maybe the culture is more appreciative of the finesse, it helps create a really enthusiastic fan base.
On Her Turf: In terms of the American women, what are your expectations for them this week?
Paige Mackenzie: Well, one of the best Americans – Nelly Korda – has been injured. I’m not sure if she’s going to be able to tee it up this week.
Danielle Kang is someone I’m keeping my eye on. She’s taken some time off – five weeks – heading into the U.S. Open. The last time she took the same amount of time off – this past spring during the COVID break – she came out swinging and won the first two events after the break. So I’m anxious to see if we’re going to see a similar reaction this time.
Angela Stanford also has a great story. She’s had a long and successful career; she’s now in her 20th year on tour. Earlier in her career, one of the highlights/lowlights was when she failed to win the U.S. Open in 2003. It was a three-man playoff, an 18-hole playoff the Monday after the tournament ended. They don’t do that anymore. Angela was coming off of a win the week prior so she was the one you thought maybe would have gotten it done. And Hilary Lunke just nipped her. Fast forward 15 years – and Angela actually wins a major championship in 2018 at age 40. It was awesome to see. It kind of felt like her swan song, a great way to cap off her career. But then last week, she goes and wins again – in Dallas – and she’s Texan through and through. And now she has the opportunity to win back-to-back with the U.S. Open, still in her home state.
Angela has been such a role model on the LPGA Tour. Her mom has fought cancer several times and Angela has a foundation that helps children with college scholarships if they or their family members have been affected by cancer. It’s just great to see someone that has given back so much throughout their career also be so successful for such a long period of time. I mean, it takes a lot of energy and passion to be competitive for 20 years in any professional sport.
On Her Turf: In terms of up-and-coming players… Is there anyone who might not necessarily be in the running to win this week, but that you’re really excited about looking ahead to the future?
Paige Mackenzie: Yeah, Yealimi Noh. She’s technically a rookie on the LPGA tour, though she did play a handful of events last year as a non-member… and she nearly won two of them. Last week in Dallas, she was in contention. And she is young – only 19 – and has a lot of potential. So I’m keeping my eye on her for sure.
On Her Turf: I’m curious about your own transition from player to commentator… I imagine that, when you were playing, you usually had the blinders up, trying to stay focused on your own game. What was it like when you made the transition to the broadcast team and suddenly had to be in tune with how other players were playing?
Paige Mackenzie: When I started working for Golf Channel, I actually was still competing full time. And I remember my first week… it was actually U.S. Open in 2013. And I had not qualified. And I remember while I was on the plane, I was kicking myself, like, ‘What am I doing flying on a week that I have off, going to a studio to talk about about players that I compete against in a tournament that I should be playing in.’ But what I realized is that I loved it. I watched the tournament and I never once thought about what I would have done. I just looked at what each of those players had done well. It’s been a challenge, and it’s certainly different, but it actually came pretty naturally to me. I really like being able to to sit back and enjoy what I’m seeing, and try to share some of those things that I might see differently than what the audience sees.
On Her Turf: Golf is notoriously difficult to produce, given that multiple things are happening at the same time. What’s your approach in terms of keeping up-to-date on how the tournament is progressing?
Paige Mackenzie: Yeah, it’s been a journey for me in the booth. For me, I love test taking. I love being prepared and feeling like I can walk into a show and know the direction the tournament is going in. But you also want to be reacting on the fly to what you are seeing. So I feel like been a really a pretty big learning curve. For me, I don’t have the resume of a Hall of Famer like Judy Rankin, Johnny Miller, or Paul Azinger. I haven’t walked the fairway down to the 18th hole, trying to win a tournament. Instead, I think what I can bring is the enthusiasm that I have for the players, and how they differentiate themselves from each other. I’m speaking as an educated fan with the best seat in the house, watching some of my peers do some pretty incredible things.
On Her Turf: A question about golf culture… When I was in college, I remember being impressed when a friend signed up for a golf class, specifically because of the role the sport often plays in business relationships. How have you seen the role of golf in business evolve over time, especially when it comes to women in the workplace?
Paige Mackenzie: [The business side of it] was very much ingrained in why my parents introduced my brother and me to the game of golf. It wasn’t because they wanted us to play professional golf or have a career in the golf industry. It was to help us develop a skill and a networking tool. When I was about nine years old, my dad taught me how to shake somebody’s hand and look them in the eye. And he said, ‘You’re going to meet a lot of people in the game of golf. My first job offer was on the golf course.’
And so my dad didn’t want us to fall behind and not have that [opportunity]. I actually see that a lot with women. I play in corporate events all the time and it is the CEOs and CFOs and general counsels of these big companies who are the ones playing – and networking – and I can count on one hand how many women I play with in a year. So women are shut out of this incredible opportunity, just because they don’t have the skill of playing golf. I hope that more young women will take up the game, but also that moms and dads introduce their daughters to the game. It’s not just a sport, it’s a life skill and a networking tool.
On Her Turf: From the outside, golf can seem pretty intimidating to try. If someone is interested, but doesn’t know where to start or doesn’t have a lot a resources, what do you recommend?
Paige Mackenzie: You don’t have to go out and buy all new equipment, you can use a rental set. Take an individual lesson or a group lesson. Or, one of my favorite places to introduce somebody to the sport is Top Golf, which has locations around the country. It’s like a driving range that operates like a bowling alley.
The other thing I think can be an obstacle for women is that they might not have the confidence to go out and try it. They don’t want to embarrass themselves, especially if it’s a business setting. But here’s the thing: I see men embarrass themselves all the time. So it’s not that the men are better players, they’re maybe just more willing to put themselves out there. So that’s always my advice to women… you’re no worse than anybody else that I’ve seen play.
[READ MORE: HOW TO WATCH THE 2020 U.S. WOMEN’S OPEN]