Sure, there are lots of familiar names near the top of the leaderboard at the end of the 1st round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship. Michelle Wie fired a flawless 66, displaying impeccable touch on the soft par-71 Pinnacle Country Club's greens; So Yeon Ryu and Shanshan Feng headlined the big group who put together solid 67s; Suzanne Pettersen, Na Yeon Choi, Angela Stanford, Jessica Korda, and Azahara Munoz took different paths to their 68s (NYC's may have been the most frustrating, as she bogeyed the short par-5 18th after Golf Channel's coverage ended); defending champion Inbee Park, a rejuvenated Juli Inkster, a steady Lydia Ko, a scrambling Cristie Kerr, and not-missing-a-beat Amy Yang posted 69s; and the likes of Stacy Lewis, Anna Nordqvist, and Chella Choi got under par with 70s. Plus, it's certainly no surprise to see Gerina Piller and Pornanong Phatlum at -4, Jenny Shin at -3, Hee Young Park and Catriona Matthew at -2, or Meena Lee and Mina Harigae at -1--given the way they've all been playing of late.
So why is this leaderboard so surprising? Let's start at the top, with Alena Sharp, who was -5 through her 1st 12 holes and responded to her lone bogey on the par-4 5th with back-to-back birdies on 7 and 8 to close out her round and finish with a great 65. Sharp has posted a 65 in the 3rd round of the Manulife and a 66 in the 3rd round of the North Texas Shootout, the latter of which where she notched her only top 15 of the season (it's her only her 2nd top 20, and, in fact, her 2nd top 40 of 2014, as well!), but she hasn't gotten a top 10 in a stroke-play event on the LPGA since July 4th weekend 4 years ago, she's had a terrible putting year, and has been fighting to stay in the top 80 on the 2014 LPGA money list through the Marathon Classic so she can maintain, or improve on, her #101 position on the tour's priority status list. Yet unlike Hall of Famer Se Ri Pak, who was also -5 through 12 holes during the morning wave but fell apart down the home stretch, making 2 doubles and 2 bogeys, Sharp bounced back from her sole mistake on the front 9 and finished strong. Not half bad for someone who hasn't cracked the top 100 on the money list since 2011!
But Sharp isn't the only surprising presence on the 1st page of the leaderboard. How about Alejandra Llaneza, who put together a bogey-free 66 in the morning wave yet didn't get a single mention during the 2 hours of Golf Channel's tape-delayed coverage? Her weakness this year has been her approach shots, but she hit 16 of 18 greens yesterday. It's not like this round totally came out of the blue--she's broken 70 twice each at Kingsmill and the Manulife and notched 2 Symetra Tour top 10s this spring--but it sure is great to see another Mexican golfer (post-Lorena) doing well on the LPGA!
Emma Jandel is another huge surprise at -4. Sure, she's coming off a top 5 on the Symetra Tour last week, but she's not even in the top 50 on their money list and has played in only 6 LPGA events this season before this week, missing the cut in all of them.
Even though they haven't been playing well lately, Caroline Hedwall (2013 Solheim Cup heroine), Moriya Jutanugarn (2013 Rookie of the Year), Jennifer Rosales (2-time LPGA champion), and Ji Young Oh (2-time LPGA champion), also at -4, have to count as lesser surprises than Paz Echeverria. Sure, the Chile native has 4 top 25s this season and broke 70 3 times at the Manulife earlier this month, but I'm sure nobody was expecting her to make 7 birdies yesterday!
Or how about rookie Line Vedel making 7 birdies, too, on her way to a 68? Sure, the Dane is #3 in the ROY race, with a top-5 finish at the Swinging Skirts, and has plenty of LET experience, but I challenge anyone to say they saw her lowest opening round on the LPGA in her rookie season coming! In fact, there's a European flair at -3, with LET superstar Lee-Anne Pace and LPGA '06er Karin Sjodin (who's been poised to break the $1M barrier in career LPGA winnings for what seems like years) joining Vedel only 3 shots off the pace.
And the list goes on! I'll single out veterans Moira Dunn, Hee Won Han, and Jimin Kang at -2 for special mention.
Not all the surprises were pleasant, either. Paula Creamer and Natalie Gulbis had to pull out before play began due to injuries, Ariya Jutanugarn opened with an uncharacteristic 74, rookie Mirim Lee with a 75, and Lizette Salas with a 73, and 2-time champion Ya Ni Tseng made 5 birdies but could manage only a 71.
With 76 players at E or better, I'll be rooting for Ai Miyazato (E), Mika Miyazato (+1), Ayako Uehara (+2), and Chie Arimura (+3) to keep Harukyo Nomura (-2) company on the right side of the cut line. And for big comebacks from Seon Hwa Lee (76), Tiffany Joh (75), Jeong Jang (74), and Jane Park (72). Can't wait to see the coverage tomorrow! (Yes, I got Golf Channel.)