Valentine’s Day left no love notes for the ANA Inspiration. Instead, it sowed the seeds for some of the most difficult opening-round rough Mission Hills has sported in the 48 years it’s hosted the LPGA. The first major of the year began Thursday as a true championship test with no one managing to go lower than three-under-par 69 until Ally McDonald, playing in the last group birdied the last hole for a 68.
Only twice since 2005, when Rosie Jones, Mi Hyun Kim and Karen Stupples led with a 69, has a score as high as 68 led the ANA after one round. This year, Lexi Thompson, Jin Young Ko, Hyo Joo Kim and Linnea Strom were sitting on the lead with 69 before McDonald did them one better.
If there is a consolation, in 2005, Annika Sorenstam won at 15 under par after opening with a 70. That’s the score recorded by 10 players in the first round, including Lizette Salas, Lydia Ko, Jessica Korda, Cristie Kerr and Amy Yang. In all, 41 players were bunched at even par or better, knotted within four strokes of the lead.
On Feb. 14 – Valentine’s Day – 3.69 inches of rain was recorded at Palm Springs International Airport, the most since 1943 and about the length of the rough that shrouds Mission Hills this week. Straying from the fairway made it difficult to hit greens and missing greens made for extremely challenging chip shots from the gnarly grass.
As if that was not penal enough, the powers that be also added about 60 yards to the Dinah Shore Tournament Course and narrowed the landing area on more than a few of the fairways. That combo, along with greens that putt as pure as silk on slick, contoured surfaces with subtle breaks, make for a true major test.
“I played the par 5s really well today, which is exciting,” said McDonald, 26, who earned her LPGA card off the Symetra Tour money list in 2016. “On a major championship golf course you have to take advantage of par-5s.”
As well as she played, McDonald saw room for improvement.
“I was a little disappointed with kind of how I handled all the emotion throughout the back nine, because I had a lot of control on the front,” she said. “Overall I'm really excited. Feel like my game is coming around like I want it to. Yeah, just looking forward to tomorrow.”
Like last year’s winner, Pernilla Lindberg, McDonald is winless on tour. She worked her way around Mission Hills with seven birdies and three bogeys, using only 27 putts, including a 5-footer for birdie on No. 18.
Both Thompson and Kim replied on solid putting. Lexi missed seven fairways and seven greens while Hyo Joo missed nine greens but both need only 26 putts. Ko was more precise, hitting 11 fairways and 16 greens. Strom actually got to four under par but bogeyed No. 18.
Last year, Inbee Park, Jennifer Song and Lindberg, who won in an eight-hole, two-day playoff, were tied after 72 holes at 15-under-par 273. Since Morgan Pressel won at three under par in 2007, the winning score has been between nine-under and 15 under par each year.
But nature and tournament officials conspired to toughen the course. Before competition began, player after player said these were extremely demanding conditions – and they were right.
“They brought in the fairways I think five yards on each side or something like that,” Thompson said after her 69. “[It’s] a lot tighter than I'm used to seeing it and the rough is up, so that's a major championship. I think it should play long and the rough should be up. Course is in probably the best shape I've ever seen it, honestly.”
Strom, 22, who helped Arizona State to the 2017 NCAA team championship, earned her LPGA card by finishing fifth on the Symetra Tour money list last year. Her secret weapon is having fellow Swede Sophie Gustafson, who had five LPGA wins and played for Europe in eight Solheim Cup, as her caddie. Gustafson played the ANA 15 times.
“Having Sophie on the bag, especially a week like this, I think that helped me a lot today,” Strom said. “Like we talk and just try to have fun out there and just enjoy it. And just having a player, you know, she knows how it is to be in a situation, so, yeah, it's good.”
Jessica Korda, playing in only her second tournament of the year after a forearm injury, had one of the more adventurous rounds with seven birdies, three bogeys and a double bogey.
“A serious roller coaster,” she said after signing for a 70. “It was a crazy day. I literally had everything you could possibly have. I still hit it good, but that bad one I have to get back on the range and work on right now. Just rusty. A little bit uncomfortable and more nervous. It happens.”
As for the conditions, they got Korda’s attention. “It's really tough, especially if you hit it in the rough,” she said. “Even around the greens, you just don't know what you're going to get. Definitely brought it in and made it a little bit longer. It's good for me. I really like the longer setup. But it's tough. It plays like a major.”
And isn’t that what it’s all about – playing like a major? One of the good things about difficult conditions is that it makes it less likely someone will bolt from the pack. And that’s what we have after the first round of the ANA, setting the stage nicely for an exciting 54 holes ahead – at least.