There is an affable ease to Sarah Jane Smith that is a perfect fit for the U.S. Women’s Open, traditionally a test of patience and persistence. On this week especially, when weather delays wiped out practice early in the week and halted play on Friday, the 33-year-old Australian, whose career has been all about delayed gratification, could very well be the right woman in the right place at the right time.
Winless in 222 LPGA starts, Smith goes into the weekend at Shoal with a four-stroke lead over 22-year-old Su Oh, a fellow Australian, in pursuit of the richest purse on tour. Smith, who has played all 13 LPGA events this year but missed seven cuts, was one over par after five holes of this championship then found something as she played the next 31 holes 11 under par. Perhaps it’s because she fits several recent patterns in women’s golf.
The first 13 LPGA events this year have had 13 different winners; The last 11 LPGA majors have had 11 different winners; And the last major – the ANA Inspiration – was won by Pernilla Lindberg, who, like Smith, had never won an LPGA tournament and just happens to be good friends with Sarah Jane. Do you believe in karma?
“I have been friends with P for a long time,” Smith said Friday. “She works just about as hard as anybody out here. To see that that hard work can pay off was nice. I was there when she won. She sent me the nicest message I have gotten as a pick-me-up because I wasn't going through the best times. She's been a great friend. It was really nice to see her break through.”
Now it could be Smith’s time to break through. For the second consecutive day, Smith shot 31 on the back nine. She then played the front side in cruise control and shot an even-par 36 for her second 67 on a Shoal Creek layout that was much more stingy Friday than Thursday. That left her at 10-under-par 134 with Oh at 138. Of those who had finished 36 holes before play was stopped on Friday, no one else was closer than seven strokes, a group that included Inbee Park and Sei Young Kim.
Among who hadn’t finished Round 2 when the horn sounded to suspended at 7:20, Ariya Jutanugarn was six under par through eight holes, Michelle Wie was two under through seven holes and Lexi Thompson was one under through seven holes. The cut, which was projected at four over par when play was halted, cannot be made until they finish the second round Saturday morning.
In addition to the putter, Smith pointed to three other keys to her week: Going back to her old clubs; a pep talk from coach Sean Foley and husband Duane, who is her caddie.
“We're experienced together,” Sarah Jane says of Duane, who she has known since they were kids together in Queensland, Australia. “He knows me better than anyone on the golf course and off, probably,” said Smith, who punctuates her sentences with an endearing, shy laugh. “We draw off each other's energy which sometimes can be bad. Hopefully neither of us go get too crazy nervous and keep it under control.”
Earlier in the year Smith put new sticks in the bag but a few weeks back she chucked them. “Went back to my old clubs I have been using for a couple of years,” she said. “I have got PING irons, TaylorMade driver, PING hybrids. Then I actually put a Callaway 3-wood in last week, which has been really good. I flew home [to Orlando] after San Francisco and missed the cut there. Picked up my old clubs to take to Texas.”
In Foley, Smith has someone who is not only a swing coach but also a mental guru. “Sean is in constant contact,” Smith says. “I sent him a text message on Sunday and I said, ‘I don't know what I'm doing. I'm playing well, and it's just not sort of coming together.’ I said, ‘Is there a book or something I can read?’ He called me on Monday. And he's like, there is no book, you idiot. Keep showing up, it's going to turn around. He just kind of set me straight.”
Smith's score of 134 was two strokes off the 36-hole U.S. Women’s Open record set by Helen Alfredsson in 1994 and it marked only the second time she had made the cut in her seven trips to the tournament. Before this week, she had never broken 70 in a U. S. Women’s Open round.
“I haven't been in the position before,” Smith said. “But I hope to show up like it's another day. I'm happy with the way I'm playing. I feel comfortable on the greens, which has been something that has been a little bit off. So it's nice to be able to feel like I'm seeing the greens really well and seeing some putts go in. Hopefully that keeps going.”
No one knows better than Smith that she is only halfway home. But few have been better prepared by experience than Smith to patiently wait for her turn. In many ways, she seems ready for the challenge ahead. She’s already proven she’s in it for the long run.