BIRMINGHAM, Ala - As surprises go, the fact they played the ball as it lies Thursday at the U.S. Women’s Open conducted by the USGA is right up there with it being hot and humid in Alabama at the end of May, which is to say not much of a surprise. What was shocking – and a tribute to the efforts of the Shoal Creek maintenance staff, volunteer superintendents and the USGA – is the playability of the course in the first round.
After 4 inches of rain wiped out practice all of Tuesday and Wednesday morning, play began on time at 6:40 a.m. and, while there were some mud balls, there were also a few bounces on surprisingly firm fairways and virtually no complaints about course conditions. In fact, disbelief with the high quality of conditions replaced discontent over not playing lift, clean and place.
And the quality of the play more than matched that of the course. Ariya Jutanugarn, an eight-time LPGA winner, Jeongeun6 Lee , so named because there are five others with her name on the Korean tour, and Sarah Jane Smith, a 33-year-old from Australia who’s never won an LPGA event, has missed the cut in five of her six U.S. Women’s Opens and in five of her last six LPGA events, scorched the soft earth at 5-under-par 67 for the first-round lead.
Two strokes back are Michelle Wie, the 2014 U.S. Open champion, Danielle Kang, who won last year’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, and 18-year-old Linn Grant, an amateur from Sweden who is going to Arizona State University in the fall. Grant was one of four amateurs to break par on Thursday, joining Patty Tavatanakit and Kristen Gillman, who were in a cluster of players at 70 that also included Nelly Korda, Sei Young Kim and Inbee Park, and 15-year-old Lucy Li at 72.
Smith, playing in the afternoon wave, started slowly with consecutive bogeys on Nos. 4 and 5 but kick-started her round when she holed out for eagle with a wedge from 85 yards on the par-5 11th hole. She followed that with birdies on Nos. 13, 14 and 17 for a sizzling 31 on the back nine.
“The course is great,” Smith said. “I mean, considering the rain that we've had, I think I only had one ball that was kind of a little muddy. Otherwise I didn't need to pick it up. It was incredible. It was way dryer than I thought. The greens are pure, so the course is really nice.”
As for her recent struggles, Smith says it’s been a painful experience, but she sees a light ahead. “It's been a rough month,” she says. “Putting it in perspective, it's only golf. It hasn't been a lot of fun. I felt like I have been playing okay, haven't been putting well. Making bad decisions and just felt like it's been close and that's been the hard part is not getting a chance to play an extra couple rounds on the weekend.”
Lee played her round, remarkably, without a bogey, and Jutanugarn, as usual played hers without a driver, pounding her away around Shoal Creek with mostly 3-woods off the tee with a few 2-irons thrown in and still was able to reach the 479-yard par-5 No. 6 with a 5-iron second shot, rolling in a 5-footer for eagle.
“So much fun today, especially since today is my first time playing the front nine,” she said about the lack of practice rounds because of the rain and the late arrival of her golf clubs, which didn’t show up until Monday night. “I trust my caddie,” she said. “I know he's going to do a good job.”
Jutanugarn, who won five times in 2016 and twice last year picked up her eighth career win two weeks ago at the Kingsmill Championship. “My game has been improving I feel like every week because I work so hard with my short game,” she said. The combination of her power and that new-found confidence could be a tough combination to beat on a course playing every inch the 6,653 yards it measured in the first round.
“It's incredible that we played today and got a practice round in yesterday,” Wie said after once again displaying the most improved part of her game, using only 26 putts in her four-birdie, one-bogey round. “The greens staff did an amazing job. The greens were perfectly fine. The fairways are fine. You would not have known that it rained that much.”
When asked if she had any mud balls, Wie smiled and said: “I had a couple.” Clearly, part of what she’s learned in her years on tour is not to complain about things you can’t control.
After horrible luck Monday night and Tuesday with the weather at Shoal Creek, the USGA caught a break Wednesday night and caught up Thursday. And with just a tad more good fortune, a truly worthy venue will determine a champion on time and on dry land. Already, an event that started the week under dark clouds is basking in the sunshine of high praise.