It's looking like defending champion Ya Ni Tseng and Arkansas Razorback Stacy Lewis have a date with destiny this week at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship. Tseng had been kind of hanging around, tinkering with her swing and putting stroke over her 1st 13 holes of bogey-free golf, but a birdie on the par-5 14th and walkoff eagle on the par-5 18th electrified her round and turned a 69 into a 66 on the par-71 Pinnacle Country Club. Lewis, too, finished with a flourish, birdieing 3 of her last 4 holes, including her last 2 in a row to Razorback Hog Calls, to join the world #1 at -5.
For awhile, it looked like world #2 Suzann Pettersen would join the top 2 golfers in the LPGA's Player of the Year race at the top of the leaderboard, but a couple of dicey 3-putts on her 1st and last holes on the back 9 dropped her to -3, 1 shot behind Solheim Cup teammate Karen Stupples (who had a lot of great looks on the back but could only drop the hardest of the bunch, a 40-footer on the par-3 15th that gave her a bogey-free 67) and tied with Sophie Gustafson (who got it to -4 through 14 but took a bogey on the tough par-4 16th). With Paula Creamer, Morgan Pressel, and Brittany Lang backing up Lewis at -3, the weekend is shaping up to be a great preview of the Solheim Cup. And of course with Jin Young Pak birdieing 5 holes in a row on the front near the end of her round to post a 67 of her own--1 shot ahead of Na Yeon Choi (who got her 1st win of 2011 last week in Korea), In-Kyung Kim (who played her last 13 holes in -4), and Chella Choi (who hit 16 greens yesterday) and 2 shots ahead of Ai Miyazato (who birdied 3 holes in a row early on the back as she started her round but played her last 14 holes a birdieless +1) and Amy Yang (who by contrast bogeyed 2 of her 1st 3 holes but played her last 15 holes in bogey-free -4)--Asia is well-represented at the top of the leaderboard, as well. 11 Americans, 7 Asians, 4 Europeans, and 1 Canadian broke 70 on a day in which Pinnacle Country Club's pin positions and greens provided most of the challenge, as the weather conditions were perfect.
For the golfers fighting to end the season in the top 80 or top 100 of the LPGA money list and avoid Q-School, however, it may have felt like they needed to play perfect just to have a hope of ending up barely good enough. Although Taylor Leon (#111) was able to withstand the different kind of pressure that accompanies a fast start (she was -4 through 14 and parred in for a bogey-free 67 that had her leader in the clubhouse for most of the day), many others on the bubble fell hard down the leaderboard. Lisa Meldrum (#135) was -3 through 11, having birdied 3 holes in a row as she made the turn, but back-to-back doubles and a bogey on the par-3 17th left her needing a walkoff birdie to salvage a 72, which she fortunately did. Moira Dunn (#106) birdied 11 and 12 to get to -2 very early in her start on the back, but bogeyed 17, took a quad on the par-3 3rd, and bogeyed the par-4 4th before righting the ship with 2 birdies in her last 5 holes of bogey-free golf to post a 73. Now they'll need to work hard just to make the cut today. At least Adrienne White, whose only 2 starts this season came at the Safeway and Canadian Women's Open and netted her nothing (she followed up a 1st-round 69 with a 75 playing at home a couple of weeks ago), has put herself in position to get onto the money list for the 1st time in 2011. Still, even though she's low Canadian so far, she was -4 through 15 holes of bogey-free golf before bogeying 16 and 17 and failing to birdie 18. Similarly, 2nd-low-Swede Pernilla Lindberg (#96) must be kicking herself after following up a hole in 1 on the par-3 11th with a double bogey on the very next hole and then following up a 10-hole bogey-free stretch that included 4 birdies with back-to-back bogeys on 5 and 6. Meanwhile, Harukyo Nomura (#102) birdied her last 3 holes in a row to finish with a 70, but she'll look back to a bogey on the 8th and double on the 9th and wonder about what might have been. And Ilhee Lee (#113) will be giving herself credit for bouncing back from each of her 3 bogeys with a birdie almost immediately afterwards, but wishing she never put herself behind the 8-ball so often in the 1st place.
But everyone can play the could-woulda-shoulda game. Two of my favorite young American golfers, Mina Harigae and Tiffany Joh, got under par in very different ways. With 6 birdies, 2 bogeys, and a double, the 2009 Player of the Year on the Futures Tour rode the roller-coaster yesterday on the way to her 69, while T-Joh, who's put herself in great position in recent weeks on the LPGA but struggled in the final round both times, made 11 straight pars to start this tournament, then bounced back from a bogey on the 3rd with birdies on the 5th and 7th to post a 70. Harigae's tied with Angela Stanford, among the many others at -2, while T-Joh matched the likes of Mi Hyun Kim, Mika Miyazato, Inbee Park, and Sandra Gal. Considering how badly Solheim Cuppers Michelle Wie and Vicky Hurst played--Wie went +7 over her last 8 holes and Hurst cancelled out her 3 birdies with 3 bogeys and 3 doubles--and that former champion Seon Hwa Lee matched their 78s, Harigae and Joh should be pretty pleased with their 1st rounds.
On to the weekend, then. I'll leave you with LPGA.com's notes and interviews and the pairings for today's round, which are flipped versions of yesterday's. Tseng and Lewis have a great chance to make early statements, while I'm hoping to see a lot of Ai Miyazato, Mika Miyazato, Na Yeon Choi, and Amy Yang on the DVR this evening (got a birthday party for a friend of imoto's this afternoon)!
[Update 1 (5:00 am): Nice of Ruthless Mike and Ryan Ballengee to call attention to Leon's fine round, although Ryan got a little careless with who's actually leading the tournament!]
[Update 2 (6:16 am): Bangkokbobby does his usual bang-up job. I hadn't noticed that Grace Park finished weakly, as so many others did, as well.]