Nothing like the prospect of winning $1 million to mess up your mind a wee bit. In the final Race to the CME Globe before the CME Group Tour Championship changes its format, the five players who can win the bonus by winning here find themselves looking up at Amy Olson with Nasa Hataoka having the best view.
Olson blistered Tiburón Golf Club for a nine-under-par 63 in Thursday’s first round of the LPGA’s season-ending event while Hataoka, one of the five with one hand on the bonus, was a stroke back along with Brittany Lincicome after a birdie barrage on a Tiburón course softened by early morning rain.
The 63 by Olson, who teed off in a drizzle in the second group, was one off the tournament course record by Lydia Ko in 2016. Hataoka nearly matched her, making eight birdies, including the final two holes, while Lincicome would have shared the lead if not for a bogey on the final hole. Lexi Thompson is at 65 with Carlota Ciganda at 66 and Lindy Duncan and Pannarat Thanapolboonyaras at 67.
Olson, 26, won a NCAA record 20 events at North Dakota State University and took the 2009 U.S. Girls Junior. Her best finish this year is T-2 at the Evian Championship and she has five top-10 finishes in her LPGA career. On Thursday, she missed only one fairway and three greens, using just 25 putts in her nine-birdie, no-bogey round.
“It's just fun to be playing well,” said Olson, whose brother was on her bag because her regular caddie is ill. “Rolled the ball really well. The greens are absolutely pure. If you're hitting your line, it holds its line. I was just seeing the line, reading the putts really well, and hitting it where I wanted.”
Lincicome, who is one of the players donating $20 per birdie this week to help those who lost everything in the California fires, opened her round with five birdies in a row and made nine on the day, says she got in touch with her younger self and just had fun.
“I started with playing nine holes in the Annika Pro-Am on Monday with an eight year old girl,” said Lincicome. “Her philosophy was if it gets in the air and it gets on the green, then it's good. It was kind of going back to my 8- or 10-year-old roots. I really just wanted to go back to my 10-year-old self, and I think accomplished that.”
Unlike Lincicome, Hataoka started slow, not making her first birdie until No. 6, but then the floodgates opened as she birdied eight of the final 13 holes, including No. 17 and 18. She said the key was a par save on No. 1 when she rolled in a 14-footer after blasting from the bunker.
“That changed the whole day,” said Hataoka. “Because I was in the second to the last group, I knew what was happening on the golf course and I felt some pressure. I know it is only the first round, but I intend to just enjoy the week.”
Thompson, who made a couple changes this week, putting her brother Curtis on the bag as caddie and going back to an old putter, had five birdies and an eagle in a bogey-free round that required only 29 putts.
“It is great to have Curtis on the bag,” said Thompson. “He knows my game very well and he was helping me read my putts. It's only the first day so I'm just trying to take it one shot at a time. I knew game was there. It was just all a matter of everything coming together and being 100 percent confident with my little swing changes that I've been working on.”
Of the five players who can win the $1 million bonus by capturing the Tour Championship, only Hataoka, a 19-year-old rising star from Japan who’s won twice this year, did damage to the leaderboard. Points leader Ariya Jutanugarn had to fight back to shoot a 70 along with Minjee Lee, who was No. 2 coming in. No. 3 Brooke Henderson rallied for a 73 while No. 5 Sung Hyun Park shot 71.
If Sunday’s final scoreboard has the same order as Thursday’s opening round, Hataoka, who was No. 4 after the reset, would win the $1 million. As of now, Jutanugarn is projected at No. 2 with Lee No. 3, Henderson No. 4 and Sei Young Kim, who shot a 69, jumping over Park, to No. 5.
While this year someone can win the tournament’s $500,000 first prize while another player takes home the $ 1 million bonus, that won’t be the case in 2019. Under the new format, after the season-long points race determines the 60-player field, all points will be reset to zero and whoever wins the tournament wins $1.5 million – the richest prize in the history of women’s golf.
But that is then and this is now. While Olson can’t win the bonus she can win one of the tour’s most prestigious events – plus $500,000. But over her shoulder she has some serious talent, including Hataoka, who can take that half million plus the $1 million bonus. That has things shaping up for a pretty exciting week.