PINEHURST, N.C. — Lydia Ko came over to say hello, and minutes later a host of challengers preparing to play in the final round of the US Open — Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka, Kevin Na, and Henrik Stenson — joined Rockland teenager Megan Khang on the practice chipping green at Pinehurst No. 2.
If Khang felt star-struck from the chance encounters, the 16-year-old hid it well. Either that, or she's becoming more comfortable playing in big tournaments and interacting with top stars.
Tournaments get no bigger than the US Women's Open, which Khang will participate in for the second time, starting Thursday. She first played two years ago in Kohler, Wis., missing the cut as a 14-year-old. But Khang is hoping the learning experience at Blackwolf Run, where she shot 75-80 and played practice rounds with Michelle Wie, Lexi Thompson, and Suzann Pettersen, will pay off this week at Pinehurst.
"I was definitely really nervous the first year I played, because there were really only two other people that I knew, and it was my first time playing in a major with all the LPGA pros," Khang said on Sunday, during a break from practice. "Coming into this week, I'm feeling, I wouldn't say a lot better, but I'm settling in better than I was two years ago, and I know more people, so that's more calming. I'm just soaking it all in."
For the first time, the women will play their US Open on the same course as the men, and even though she was competing in another tournament last week, Khang watched as much of the US Open as she could, knowing that she'd soon be at the same place as the men. Either on television the first three days, or in person for the fourth, Khang was looking for helpful tips she could use — where to play, what to avoid, when to be aggressive.
What did she notice?
"How Martin Kaymer was putting from everywhere. He'd be 5-10 yards off the green and he'd be pulling out the putter," Khang said. "It shows I'll need the putter a lot this week."
Kaymer was shown often, because he led the US Open from start to finish. Khang has no illusions of doing the same, but would like to hang around a bit longer than when she made her US Women's Open debut. She earned her way into the field this year by claiming one of two qualifying spots at the only sectional held in Massachusetts, on May 27 at Thorny Lea Golf Club in Brockton.
Khang is no stranger to competing at the national level. In addition to the 2012 US Women's Open, she's participated in the past two US Women's Amateurs, and will be competing for the sixth time next month at the US Girls' Junior. She's exempt into that tournament because she was a semifinalist last year; assuming she plays in the US Girls' Junior this year and next, she'll tie the record of seven appearances.
She's also no stranger to Pinehurst No. 2, although it's been a while since she's played here.
"I did one time, when I was 12, but that was before the whole [course] renovation. I don't remember much, but it was a US Kids event, and I was partners with Kathleen Scavo, and it just so happens that she qualified this year, too, so it's like a reunion for us," Khang said, mentioning another 16-year-old amateur who is in this week's field. "It's funny, because we were like, 'We'll be here when the Open comes,' and our dads were like, 'Yeah!' It's good that we accomplished that."
There hasn't been much that Khang hasn't accomplished on the golf course; she was the overall winner last fall of the Faldo Series Grand Final, an international competition, and she's also been given an exemption into the New England Charity Classic, a Symetra Tour event Aug. 8-10 in Goffstown, N.H.
Off the golf course, Khang is finishing up her junior year at Rockland High School. The last day of school is actually on Wednesday, but she'll be far away, prepping for another major tournament. She completed her schoolwork before she left.
"I actually had to take my finals early. All my friends are like, 'You're so lucky, you're getting out of school early,' and I had to say, 'No, I took six finals in two days. I don't think that's lucky,' " Khang said. "My teachers were like, 'Good luck, and have fun.' "
Khang, a senior-to-be, has heard from numerous colleges about playing golf at the next level. She's in the process of narrowing her list.
"I've definitely thought about college. I have not committed yet, but I think it's going to happen soon," Khang said.
"Right now I'm looking at Wake Forest. UNC is a nice school, too."
Both of those are close to Pinehurst, so perhaps Khang and her father, Lee, who also serves as her coach and caddie, can pop over for a campus visit once they're finished with the US Women's Open.
The Khangs are hoping that comes after the final round on Sunday, and not on Friday, when the 36-hole cut is made. She'll need to play well, since only the top 60 players and ties from the 156-player field advance to the final two rounds.
"I think the key this week is hitting it in the fairway, and when you don't, just trying to get out of there with no worse than bogey," Khang said. "Also, the short game: If you miss these greens, you have to really focus on your short game."
Pinehurst will look and play much different than Blackwolf Run did, but Khang already knows she'll take some things from her first trip two years ago and apply it this week.
"I definitely learned that I have to take my time, because it is awfully slow out there, and I'm normally a really fast player," Khang said. "I have to learn to calm myself down and be more imaginative, because at Blackwolf Run I didn't really putt the greatest or listen that well to my dad. So I'm definitely going to try to listen better and see what he sees on the greens.
"I'm focused on taking it a shot at a time, but one of my big goals going into this is to make the cut, because I didn't two years ago. And if I'm lucky, low amateur."