RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. - The ANA Inspiration has a way of making magic happen, for 46 years now creating memorable moments that for the last few decades have ended with a dip into Poppie’s Pond. The march to that Sunday leap begins on Thursday and this year’s first round fashioned a leaderboard as rich as any in the history of golf’s first major championship of the year.
Among those in the hunt are seasoned veterans with impressive resumes; those looking for a breakthrough win; brash, young talent with an eye on the future and a superstar looking for redemption and perhaps of bit of revenge. Pernilla Lindberg, a 31-year-old former Oklahoma State player from Sweden who has never won an LPGA event, grabbed the first-round lead with a seven-under par, 65.
"I started off solid and ended even better," Lindberg said. "The whole day it was pretty steady. I was never in too much trouble. Sure, I was in the rough a few times and had to make a couple of good up-and-downs around the greens, but I never put myself under too much stress. Rolled in a few good putts and just gave myself a lot of good chances."
One stroke back with rounds of 66 are Ayako Uehara, a 34-year-old from Japan, who has also never won on the LPGA, and Beatriz Recari, a 30-year-old Spaniard who got the last of her three LPGA wins in 2013. Two strokes off the lead is Albane Valenzuela, a 20-year-old amateur from Switzerland who plays at Stanford University; Jessica Korda and Ha Na Jang.
At four-under par is a star-studded group that includes Lexi Thompson, 40-year-old Cristie Kerr, a two-time major winner, Sung Hyun Park, last year’s Rolex Rookie of the Year and co-Player of the Year; former U.S. Women's Open champion In Gee Chun, Chella Choi and Brittany Altomare. There may be no one who was as impressive as Thompson in this opening round.
Playing under the shadow of last year’s four-stroke penalty, which knocked her into a playoff she lost to So Yeon Ryu, Thompson shouldered the burden with the same emotional strength as the physical strength that allowed her to hit a drive on No. 3 that flirted with 350 yards. She made no bogeys until her final hole.
“I struck it a lot better than I had been,” Thompson said. “I had a great session on the range and went to the tee with a lot of confidence and I putted well.” Asked if she felt the pressure of last year’s penalty hanging over her, Lexi said: “I just wanted to get playing. Overall, I played well today and I just need to keep it up the next three days.”
Thompson missed the fairway with half of her 14 drives but made up for it by averaging 327 yards off the tee, leaving her short irons into the green out of the gnarly rough. She also had an efficient 28 putts.
Among those also breaking par were Lydia Ko, Brooke Henderson, 15-year-old amateur Lucy Li and Angel Yin, the 19-year-old pro from California you might remember from last year’s Solheim Cup when she reduced galleries to giggles with her prodigious drives. She averaged a robust 322 yards per measured drive. Ryu got off to a slow start with a 75, a number matched by Michelle Wie.
Uehara, winless anywhere in seven years, began her day with a three-putt bogey on No. 10 but kick-started her round with a birdie on No 18, the first of three in a row. A visit with her coach, Ted Oh, early this week proved fruitful.
“He came over and did a little bit of work,” she said, “And now I have confidence.” Asked what she worked on, Uehara said: “Everything.” On Thursday, everything worked, especially the putter as she needed only 26 strokes on the greens. After a 35 on her first nine, she closed with a 31, making birdies on Nos. 1, 2, 4, 8 and 9.
“I was very patient on the course, very calm,” said Valenzuela, who lost in the finals of the 2017 U.S. Women’s Amateur. “I love this course. I feel really comfortable on it.”
Korda started her round with four consecutive birdies, turned in 31 and got to six under par with a birdie on No. 11. But she stumbled with bogeys on Nos. 16 and 16 before closing with her eighth birdie of the day. “I'm really happy with how I handled today, stayed calm, and always a fun pairing with Lydia [Ko],” Korda said.
On No. 9, she put a charge into the crowd when she hit a driver off the deck for her second shot on the 534-yard, par-5, knocking it from 248 yards for a two-putt birdie. “It was fun,” she said. “We kept going back and forth. Lay-up, don't lay-up. That's kind of what I'm just trying to do is have fun out there.”
If you feel like your head is spinning, it should be. This leaderboard is as fun as it gets. Now, we see what they do for an encore on Friday. You get the sense this was the start of a special week.