OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. – Apparently, Brooke Henderson loves defending titles as much as she loves playing big, old tree-lined golf courses. And Michelle Wie is simply back in love with playing golf. That’s put both of them near the top of the leaderboard after Thursday’s first round of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.
Henderson, who successfully defended a title in Oregon last year and won in Michigan earlier this year, is the defending champ at the Women’s PGA, having taken the title last year in a playoff with Lydia Ko at Sahalee in Washington.
The 19-year-old Canadian negotiated her way through gusts over 30 mph at Olympia Fields CC near Chicago, which is known as the Windy City for a reason, for a three-under-par 68. She’s two strokes off the lead of Chella Choi, a stroke behind Brittany Altomare and tied with Wie, winner of the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open, and several others.
Also a five under par and playing the 18th hole was Amy Yang when the lightning alarm sounded, halting play for the day. Yang, whose career has been a string of near misses in the majors – the 27-year-old South Korean has 15 top-10 finishes without a victory – has at least one top-10 in a major in each of the last nine years, including T-8 at this year’s ANA Inspiration and seventh in this tournament last year. At four under par when play was suspended was Joanna Klatten
A bunch of big-name players did what you need to do on the first day of a major: positioned themselves nicely. Lexi Thompson and Brittany Lincicome posted 70; Suzann Pettersen had a 71.
“I hit my driver great at times and I hit a couple of loose ones,” Henderson said after attacking Olympia Fields in the same aggressive manner she used in winning at Sahalee. “I was able to carry a couple of fairway bunkers, which is huge, because not a lot of players are able to do that. I was able to take them out of play and then give myself a short shot into the greens.”
The North Course was set up at 6,577 yards to a par 71 for the first round and the venerable old venue played to nearly unanimous rave reviews from of the 156 competitors. It also beat up a bunch of them.
Playing in the morning wave, two-time major winners Cristie Kerr and Stacy Lewis as well as Ariya Jutanugarn, who was No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings until last week, dug deep holes for themselves. Kerr shot 78, Jutanugarn 77 and Lewis 74. Inbee Park played in the more benign afternoon but shot 73. They’ll be working hard Friday to make the cut.
The key words for Wie this year have been consistency and fun. Since winning that U.S. Women’s Open, she’s sabotaged herself often with a clunker round. But the 68 Thursday was her ninth consecutive score in the 60s and matched the highest score in the stretch as she’s finished T-4, T-2 and T-3 in her last three events. She went out in 37 then stormed back in 31.
She also seems to be enjoying herself on the golf course more than she has in a long time. “Just had a lot of fun in tough conditions,” she said. “It was tough out there but kind of have to laugh off the mistakes a little bit out here. I mean, it’s a tough golf course. Olympia Fields is a really pure golf course. It’s playing great right now.”
One of the reasons for Wie’s turnaround is her putting. While she’s not making as many birdies as she could, her lag putting is much better and when she does leave a 4-footer, she knocks it in. She hit 12 fairways Thursday, 14 greens and needed a very respectable 30 putts, employing so many grip styles she says she’s lost track how many she uses.
“Don’t try to figure it out,” she says. “I literally just go and I’m like, ‘this feels right,’ and I just go with it,” she said. “It’s kind of a whatever thing. I’m not really thinking too much about it.” Not stressing so much over golf and just letting herself enjoy the game again might be the best explanation for Wie’s resurgence.
“I kind of was sick of playing bad golf honestly,” Wie said. “I was just sick of being down and started this year with a really good sense of determination and motivation, and I just want to be happy and have fun out here,” she said. Playing the way she played Thursday is a ton of fun.
Henderson, who made five birdies and two bogeys, pounded her driver on average 273 yards, blasting over fairway bunkers rather than laying up in front of them as most did. Clearly, those tall things with leaves here don’t intimidate her any more than the towering pines at Sahalee. Or those trees in Oregon and Michigan.
“I was going to try to take it a day at a time and see what happens,” Henderson said. “But I’m in a great spot right now, so I’m really excited. Minus three on this tough course, and these tough conditions, you know, it’s a great way to start out this championship.”
That’s for sure. And having Henderson and Wie near the top of the leaderboard is a great way to start a tournament as well. Now let’s see what Day 2 brings.
Click here for scores from the opening round of the 2017 KPMG Women's PGA Championship. Round one will resume Friday morning at 7:45 a.m. local time, the second round will begin on-time at 7:30 a.m.