SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. (AP) Annika Sorenstam has plenty of fond memories of the course at Pine Needles. Now she hopes to be healthy enough to make some more.
Last year's U.S. Women's Open champion is hopeful that nagging neck and back injuries will heal by the end of June to allow her to defend her title at the site of one of her previous U.S. Open championships.
"Pine Needles has a special place in my heart for several reasons," Sorenstam said Monday. "I love that whole area ... and I love coming back."
A bulging disk in her back and a ruptured disk in her neck have Sorenstam off to her worst start since 1999, but she was optimistic she'll recover well enough to try to become the third player to win four Women's Opens.
Doctors told her last week that she had improved by about 50-60 percent, Sorenstam said during a conference call during the U.S. Open's media day.
Sorenstam - who claimed her third title last year by beating Pat Hurst in a playoff - won it for the second time in 1996. That was the Open's first visit to Pine Needles, and this year it will be played at this south-central North Carolina course for the third time in 11 years.
"One of the reasons for our success has been the ingredients of what make a championship successful," said Kelly Miller, the Open's general manager.
If Sorenstam is healthy enough to return, she'll find a revamped layout that was extended by about 400 yards.
The extension project to the 6,644-yard, par-71 course will change the way four holes are played, said Mike Davis, the USGA's senior director of rules and competition. The 15th hole received the most drastic facelift - it's about 125 yards longer than and bumped up to a par-5.
"We have a reputation for changing par-5s into par-4s," Davis said. "Unprecedented here, folks - we're changing a 4 from the last two Opens back to a 5. ... It really makes for a much better par-5."
The course also had its greens rebuilt, its pin placements were moved and its rye grass surface was replaced with Bermuda grass, Davis said.
"Accuracy is going to be required, but with a 2-2+-inch rough, it's going to be short enough so that the women will be able to certainly advance the ball around the greens, but they will be challenged with distance," he said.
One of the local favorites figures to be Amanda Blumenherst, a sophomore at Duke who will play in her second Open. Last year, she finished with a 293 and tied for the lowest score by an amateur.
"It was one of those 'afterwards' feelings ... afterwards, it felt pretty good," Blumenherst said.