Even though the weather was fantastic for England, only 2 players broke 70 during the 1st round of the Ricoh Women's British Open. Ayako Uehara and Mo Martin both hit 14 greens at Royal Birkdale; the JLPGA transplant made 4 birdies between the 5th and 12th holes, then birdied the 18th to post a great 68, while the Symetra Tour graduate birdied 3 of her last 5 holes for a fine 69. Martin showed why she leads the LPGA in driving accuracy, hitting 12 of 14 fairways, which amazingly is slightly worse than her average for the season! Uehara, 10th on tour in finding the fairway off the tee, was well below her season average, but took only 1 bogey all day, on her 1st hole.
The surprises continue among the group of golfers at -2. Morgan Pressel has not had a great 2014, but she was -3 and bogey-free through her 1st 12 holes and held on for a strong 70, despite hitting only 7 greens all day. The key was that she took only 22 putts (a bit surprising even for someone ranked 3rd on tour in average putts per round). Mina Harigae bounced back from an opening double with 4 birdies in her last 6 holes to join Pressel at T3. She was 4 for 4 in sand saves on her day. And Sarah Kemp, who played well last week on the LET, birdied 3 of her last 4 holes to match Pressel's and Harigae's 70s. The Aussie beat last week's top 3 finishers, In-Kyung Kim, Nikki Campbell, and Stephanie Meadow, by 7 shots each, T3 and T6 finishers Lee-Anne Pace and Ariya Jutanugarn by 5 shots each (despite a walkoff eagle by the Thai sensation!), and world #1 amateur Minjee Lee by 13 shots. Kemp's key was hitting 15 greens in regulation.
Add Holly Clyburn's name to the list of surprises. Sure, she's #6 on the LET Order of Merit, but it took an eagle on the par-5 6th to get her going after a bogey-bogey start; birdies on 13 and 18 after a bogey on 11 made her the leader in the clubhouse from the very 1st group off the 1st tee this morning at 6:30 am. Not only did she beat playing partner Karrie Webb by a shot and fellow Brit Florentyna Parker by 5, she ended the day low among a promising crop from England, including LET Order of Merit leader Charley Hull (73), amateur Georgia Hall (73), and Jodi Ewart Shadoff (75).
Joining Clyburn at -1 are names you'd expect near the top of the leaderboard: world #1 Stacy Lewis, #8 So Yeon Ryu, and #16 Amy Yang. All of them had their ups and downs early on, but they each finished strong to round out the total of 9 golfers who got under par. Suzann Pettersen would have joined them, but she took a penalty on the par-5 17th when her ball moved after she addressed it (she had hit the green in 2 and resolutely slammed home the birdie putt!). But I'm sure all 14 players at E, from youngsters Lydia Ko, Lexi Thompson, Jessica Korda, and amateur Emma Talley to prime-time players Inbee Park, Anna Nordqvist, Azahara Munoz, Ji-Yai Shin, and Ai Miyazato to big surprises like Amelia Lewis and Marina Alex to a small surprise like Julieta Granada (who takes a 4-hole-and-counting birdie streak into tomorrow's round), can tell a similar "coulda woulda shoulda" tale or ten. I paid particular attention to Ai-sama's round, and it seemed like while she was putting very well, she was having trouble with her positioning shots on the par 5s and was inconsistent with her approach shots.
But her troubles pale beside those of Ya Ni Tseng (82), Cristie Kerr (81), Se Ri Pak (79), Shiho Oyama (79), Caroline Hedwall (79), Na Yeon Choi (78), Mika Miyazato (78), Mamiko Higa (78), and Misuzu Narita (77). Like Inky, Meadow, and Minjee, these players will be fighting to make the cut after horrific starts to their 2014 WBO campaigns; unfortunately, Caroline Masson, who finished T3 at the ISPS Handa Ladies European Masters last week, won't be joining them, as she had to withdraw.
Given how high so many great golfers went, those who hung in there and stayed in the mid-70s have nothing to be ashamed of. Paula Creamer was +5 through her 1st 5 holes but fought back to a 75 with birdies on 15 and 16 and near-misses on 17 and 18. Like Ariya Jutanugarn, JLPGA money-list leader Sun Ju Ahn made a late eagle to salvage a 75 of her own. Last year's JLPGA money-list title-holder, Rikako Morita, was E through her 1st 14 holes, but then went double bogey-bogey and failed to birdie either of the closing par 5s, so she's probably a little more frustrated with her 75. Michelle Wie's walkoff birdie kept her at +3, as well. True, it was her worst scoring round of the year, but she's by no means out of the tournament. Neither are Laura Davies, Catriona Matthew, Angela Stanford, and Eun-Hee Ji, who headline the big group at 74 (but were overshadowed by Linda Wessberg's 6-hole birdie train on the back that allowed her to recover from a bogey-quad opening!), or even Hee Young Park, Gerina Piller, Brittany Lincicome, Miki Saiki, and Su-Hyun Oh, the biggest names among those who shot 76s today. I'm sure they'd all rather be tied at +1 with the likes of Shanshan Feng, Jeong Jang, Meena Lee, Brittany Lang, Chella Choi, Jenny Shin, Pornanong Phatlum, Erina Hara, and Gwladys Nocera, but given how tough the opening holes have been playing, it's entirely possible they could be after 21 holes instead of 18! Particularly if tomorrow's weather forecast is a little too optimistic....
Bottom line is, Royal Birkdale's already been showing its teeth this year, thanks primarily to the rough being lusher than it's been in previous WBOs. Even the 17th, which gave up loads of birdies today, threw a 7 at Ya Ni Tseng, a 9 at Line Vedel, and a 10 at Bree Arthur! It's going to be a real mental, emotional, and physical challenge over the next 54 holes for everyone who makes it into the weekend!