OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. – A two-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champion, a couple of Rolex Rookie of the Year winners, the No. 1 player in the world, the Sergio Garcia of the LPGA and the other Jutanugarn sit atop the leader board after two rounds of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.
Danielle Kang, who won the Women’s Amateur in 2010 and 2011, and Sei Young Kim, the 2015 Rolex Rookie of the Year, both blistered the North Course at Olympia Fields in 66 in Friday’s second round to finish 36 holes at seven under par for the early lead with the afternoon wave still on the golf course.
At six under, after backing up a 65 with a 71, is Amy Yang, who has 15 top-10 finishes in majors without a win and would like nothing more than to do what Sergio did in this year’s Masters and shed the label of Champ of the Near Miss. She’s a stroke back at 136 with Jodi Ewart Shadoff, who’s trying to play her way onto the European Solheim Cup team.
At 137 are Moriya Jutanugarn, 22, the 2013 ROY and older sister of Ariya, who is looking for her first LPGA win; So Yeon Ryu, the No. 1 player in the Rolex Ranking who added the ANA Inspiration earlier this year to her other major title, the 2011 U.S. Women’s Open; and Sarah Jane Smith, an Australian who’s been on tour since 2006 without a win.
Playing their way back into the hunt Friday were Lydia Ko, whose 68 got her to four under par; Lexi Thompson, who got to three under par with a 69; and Inbee Park, whose 67 rallied her to two under par. Kelly Shon, who looked to be headed for a missed cut after an opening round 77, carded a bogey-free, 63 to tie the competitive course record. Rickie Fowler and Vijay Singh shot 63 with the course playing at a par 70. This week, the par is 71.
Among those teeing off late were Chella Choi, who started the day at five under par, as well as Brooke Henderson and Michelle Wie, who both shot 68 in the first round.
The wind died down and the heat and humidity was dialed up a notch Friday, foreshadowing the electrical storms that halted play at 2:09 p.m., although it quickly resumed at 2:30.
“Fortunately, when I tee off, [it was] a little less windy [than Thursday],” Kim said. “So I was able to play to the pin, attack the pin. So I made a lot of opportunities for the birdie chance.” She made six birdies and one bogey in her 66.
Kang, 24, who grew up in Southern California and lives in Las Vegas, played college golf at Pepperdine for two years. She’s yet to win an LPGA event and her best finish in a major was T-14 in the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open. But she’s been bogey free through 36 holes on an extremely challenging Olympia Fields.
“Both of those rounds, I kept my game plan, and they were both bogey-free, so I’m pretty happy,” Kang said. “I kept sticking to the iron shots that I trusted all my life, and giving myself opportunities is what we‘ve been doing.”
Yang plodded through the thick air in a workmanlike effort.
After making birdie on No. 18 Friday morning to complete her first round at six under par for a one-stroke lead over Choi, Yang turned around less than an hour later to begin round two. She was one over for the round then finished the first nine birdie, par, birdie to turn in 34 and stretch her lead to two at seven under par.
The mini-burst was kick-started with a crafty knockdown shot under the wind on No, 16 – her seventh hole of the second round – that ended up 3 feet from the hole. Then she closed out the nine by hitting her pitch shot on the par-5 18th hole to a foot for birdie.
As Yang walked off No. 16 green I commented on her gorgeous approach shot to her caddie, veteran Ralph Scarinzi, who’s looped for such Hall of Famers as Beth Daniel and Juli Inkster. “Surprised me,” he said. “I didn’t know she had that shot.” Apparently, she has all the shots. When I asked Scarinzi how long he’d been looping for Yang, he paused for dramatic effect as if adding up the weeks then said, “25 holes.” Not a bad first tournament together for the duo.
“I wasn’t hitting as solid as yesterday,” Yang said. “But I stayed patient out there. I did my best. You know, I believe it’s still there. So I’m looking forward to lay on the weekend.”
Like her sister, Moriya Jutanugarn works with the game coaches Lynn Marriott and Pia Nilsson as well as swing coach Gary Gilchrist. Marriott and Nilsson are trying to make Moriya more of a feel player. To free up her swing they’ve had her doing a drill in which she lets go of the club on the follow through, sending it careening down the practice fairway. The drill seems to have worked.
Juntanugarn bounced back from three consecutive bogeys on her third through fifth hole of round one to play the next 31 holes four under par. On Friday, she hit all but one green in an extremely surgical effort.
“It helps me to maybe think a different way,” said Jutanugarn, whose game has been on the upswing in recent weeks. “I’m trying to work on a lot of things, like how I think on the golf course or like how I be on the golf course and enjoy it if it’s a good day or bad day. That’s kind of getting better this year since I work with Pia.”
Of those among the top eight on the leader board, only Ryu has won a major championship. But lurking within striking distance as we go to Moving Day on Saturday are major winners Ko, Thompson, Henderson, Wie and Park. That’s seems to have the stage set for a lot of fireworks going into the long Fourth of July weekend.