BETHESDA, MARYLAND | They all stopped. A little after 1:00 p.m. on a damp, overcast Thursday, 20 players stood on the putting green at Congressional Country Club, some warming up before their afternoon times while others worked out their post-round frustrations. The ninth green is a short pitch away, making the large putting green a perfect venue. When the group that went out at 8:22 off 10 arrived, every player, coach and caddie halted and turned. They had to see it to believe it.
In Gee Chun two-putted the ninth for par but that didn’t stop the crowd from whooping and cheering as she took the short walk to the scoring tent after firing a new course-record 64. At the time she finished, Chun stood seven shots better than anyone in the field, a round that left her peers shaking their heads.
“I don’t know what course In Gee is playing,” Nelly Korda said after shooting 1-under par in the opening around.
That was the consensus on Thursday. “She's just on fire,” said Brooke Henderson, who also opened at 1-under par. “Sometimes In Gee does that. Sometimes she just plays so well, and nothing bothers her. It's really cool to see. Hopefully I can be more like her tomorrow and make some more birdies and climb up the leaderboard.”
Chun can make birdies in heaps. When she won the Evian Championship, the second her of two major championship titles, Chun opened with a 63 and went on to set an all-time major scoring record of 263. Her career low is a 62 at the Pure Silk Championship. But those rounds came way back in 2016. Recently, Chun has played okay but there has been no hint of a round like this. She had a runner-up in Singapore at the HSBC Women’s World Championship back in March, but she hasn’t cracked the top 10 since. Her last three outings were a tie for 15th at the U.S. Women’s Open, a tie for 72nd at the Shoprite Classic and a tie for 67th last week at the Meijer LPGA Classic for Simply Give - not the kind of trendline that makes you see a course record in the offing.
Plus, Congressional was a beast on Thursday. The PGA of America set it up 50 longer for the women than the PGA Tour set up TPC River Highlands for the Traveler’s Championship where Rory McIlroy’s 62 was only two shots better than Chun. And Rory didn’t tee off in a cold rain and steady wind.
Nelly is one of the longest hitters on tour and she was pulling off headcovers for her approaches into par-4s. “It was definitely really, really long,” Korda said. “Especially for me. I am one of the longer hitters on tour and it was long.”
For shorter hitters it was brutal. Lizette Salas hit driver and 3-wood into the par-4 fourth hole and didn’t get to the green. On the long par-5 ninth, Salas hit driver, 3-wood, 3-wood.
“I don't know what golf course (In Gee) was playing,” said 2019 KPMG Women’s PGA champion Hannah Green. “We were looking at the scores, and we were, like, oh, wow, okay, (at the time) 5-under par, but still tough on the back nine. To hear that she's 8, I'm, like, wow, that's impressive. That's like shooting 10-under.
“I hit some hybrids into holes. I hit 5-wood into a par-5. It was long out there. It really helps if you hit the fairways, obviously, but it's still hard to predict what's going to happen. 8-under… props to In Gee for the way she's playing today.”
So, how did Chun do it? What was the secret. Well, she holed a 35-footer in the opening nine and another 20-footer on her back. But that didn’t explain such a huge disparity in her scoring against the rest of the morning wave. When she finished, her strokes gained against the field was a staggering 12.08.
How did she get there? Chun ranks 117th in driving distance on the LPGA Tour. Her swing is languid, beautiful, and technically sound, but she only drives it a couple of paces north of 250 yards. That’s an average. In a cold drizzle on a long course that got more than two inches of rain overnight, she was lucky to poke it 240 on most of the holes.
But Chun has a secret weapon, one she has been working on for a couple of weeks with her caddie and the technicians at Ping.
“It was the 7-wood today,” her caddie Dean Herden said. “It just seemed like almost every hole we had a good number for the 7-wood. She was hitting it great.”
7-wood was Chun’s club of choice from 195 to 205 yards, which was the distance she had for four of her birdies and a few more holes where she made easy pars.
On 15, one of the longest holes on the back nine with a blind approach, Chun hit 7-wood to three feet. She hit it again at the difficult 18th to five feet. The par-3 second, she hit it again and made birdie, as she did again on the fourth.
“I put the 7-wood in the bag last week, so I didn't have a lot of time to practice with it on this course,” Chun said afterward. “But I came here a month ago, and when I was playing this course before, I felt like the greens were going to be really firm, so I thought 7-wood would help me spin it more.
“I'm working with the Ping rep, Scott (Wolpe),” she said. “We talked a lot about the numbers and the spin. It’s worked really well on the course. I made a lot of birdies with the 7-wood.
It was Seven Heaven for In Gee in round one – the lowest round to date on the New Blue at Congressional – and a refreshing early resurgence for a remarkable young champion.