Thursday at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship was a snapshot of the first half of the LPGA season, with so much talent at the top it was difficult for any one star to shine brighter than the others. Then Sung Hyun Park, whose victory in the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open was a springboard to Rolex Rookie of the Year and co-Player of the Year honors, shouted loudly that she just might be that transcendent star. And Brooke Henderson answered just as loudly: Not so fast.
In a year in which 11 of the 16 different winners have been major champions, the first round of the KPMG was dominated by players seeking their first major title. But when the mud settled on a rain-soaked Kemper Lakes Golf Club, Park was on top at 6-under-par 66, one stroke ahead of Jessica Korda, Jaye Marie Green, Brittany Altomare and Henderson, the 2016 champion of this event, who was two over par after eight holes and then birdied seven of her final 10.
At 68 are Charley Hull, Laetitia Beck, Moriya Jutanugarn and Maude-Aimee Leblanc. Three back at 69 are Minjee Lee, Alena Sharp, So Yeon Ryu, a two-time major champion, 19-year-old Nasa Hataoka, who won the Walmart last week, and Amy Olson. Of the 14 players who broke 70, only Park, Henderson and Ryu have a major on their resume.
Park, whose sweet swing generates enormous power with a spring-like hip turn, was flawless, making six birdies and no bogeys. And, as in last year’s Women’s Open, Park had ice water in her veins when she needed it most, making a birdie on No. 15 and then running the gauntlet – the name given to the treacherous three closing holes – in all pars.
“As the score says, it went pretty well, and I really liked how it felt when I did that,” Park said. “The course was pretty wet today, but I felt pretty comfortable, and I know that it's going to be hotter and difficult as the round goes. Of course it's a major tournament and I'm getting more nervous, but I'm doing my best.”
Park, who won a rain-shortened 36-hole event in Texas earlier this year, has not been satisfied with her play in 2018 but thinks she has things figured out. “I felt like something little was missing, especially my putting, but this week I feel pretty comfortable and confident,” she said. “I changed my putter, and I made some change in the putting routine.”
Henderson, 20, won her sixth LPGA title at the Lotte Championship in April. She also changed putters, her switch coming on Monday at the CVS Charity event in Rhode Island, and she needed the new flatstick only 25 times in the opening round.
“My front nine was a little bit rough, but I was happy to get a lot of birdies on the back nine and get myself back into it,” Henderson said after going out in 37 and back in 30. “It was a lot of fun. I just feel like I was hitting the ball great and making a lot of putts, so hopefully waking up early tomorrow morning and getting the next round started, it'll carry on.”
Korda, who has five LPGA wins but has struggled in the majors with only three top-10 finishes, including T-4 this year at the ANA Inspiration, and 16 missed cuts, hit only 11 greens but used her putter only 24 times. Like Park and Green, Korda benefitted from the set-up of the course and wet conditions. Park is fourth on tour in driving distance while Korda is eighth and Green No. 20.
“Finally a golf course that benefits the long hitters,” said Korda. “The last couple weeks it's definitely been a lot of 3-woods or even 4-irons off the tees, so this is really, really nice. It was wet out there, so managing each shot was tough and trying to take some spin off of some wedges that I had coming in. But I love the way that they set up the golf course. I could finally hit drivers.”
Green, a fifth-year LPGA member from Boca Raton, Fla., whose best finish in a major is T-26 in the 2015 U.S. Women’s Open, sang a refrain familiar to everyone trying to get into the LPGA winner’s circle.
“These girls out here are so good that you have to like keep the pedal down,” she said. “You can't shoot 5-under, and then if you shoot even tomorrow you're going to get passed by everyone. So it's kind of learning how to keep coming back the next day and trying to do the same thing, which I think is something you only learn by being in position.”
On Friday, the temperature is supposed to rise above 95. Kemper Lakes will dry out and the pressure of playing a major championship will amp up. The stage is set; now we see who is ready to give her best performance.