Kohler, Wis. – What do you get when combining one of the most demanding U.S. Women’s Open layouts with searing weather conditions?
With the mercury on Thursday rising into triple digits and the heat index registering as high as 115, according to AccuWeather.com, at Blackwolf Run, the first round of the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open became as much about survival as skill.
Umbrellas popped, water and sports drink bottles opened and cold towels were wrapped around the game’s best female players and their caddies. And with rounds averaging 5¾ hours, competitors did anything to stay focused on the longest course – at sea level – in championship history.
Can you say … Blackwolf Fun?
For the select few who managed to negotiate the par-72 Pete Dye design, which can play as long as 6,954 yards but measured 6,808 Thursday, it was a pleasant day, even if it felt a bit like playing in a sauna.
Brittany Lincicome, 2007 champion Cristie Kerr and qualifier Lizette Salas, a 22-year-old LPGA Tour rookie from Azusa, Calif., posted the lone sub-70 scores with 3-under-par 69s.
|THEN AND NOW AT BLACKWOLF RUN
|1998 First Round Scores At Par Or Better (18)
|1998 First Round Scores At 80 Or Higher (18)
|2012 First Round Scores At Par Or Better (23)
|2012 First Round Scores At 80 Or Higher (31)
The American trio was one better than four players: Ai Miyazato of Japan, the world’s No. 3-ranked player fresh off last week’s LPGA Tour win in the searing heat of Rogers, Ark.; 17-year-old Lexi Thompson, Beatriz Recari of Spain and past USA Curtis Cup member Jennie Lee, who birdied her final four holes.
Another group of seven golfers, led by 2008 champion Inbee Park and Suzanne Pettersen, carded 71s.
Defending champion So Yeon Ryu bogeyed three of her last four holes for a 74, while world No. 1 Yani Tseng, seeking a Women’s Open title to complete the career grand slam, shot 74. Stacy Lewis, the top-ranked American and world No. 2, struggled to a 77.
Fourteen years ago, when the Women’s Open was first conducted at Blackwolf Run and the winning score was 6-over 290, 18 golfers shot par (71) or better in the first round.
Playing a course roughly 400 yards longer, 23 players were at even-par 72 or better.
Temperatures in 1998, however, never reached the century mark, although player emotions nearly boiled over due to the course’s difficulty.
Hydration and patience were paramount in Round One.
“I was drinking every hole,” said Thompson, who would become the youngest major champion in history with a victory this week. “I had my umbrella out all day and a cool towel around my neck.”
Miyazato wore her traditional high socks, not so much as a fashion statement but as a way to block out the harsh sun and keep her legs from turning to jelly. She also put an ice bag in her golf bag and used an umbrella.
“Most people think I am crazy, but it’s not really hot, though,” said the 27-year-old Miyazato, whose final-round 65 on Sunday won the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship in similar weather conditions.
Salas donned a special long-sleeve undershirt.
“It reflects the sun and keeps you cool,” said Salas. “I don’t know what brand it is, but they’re really good.”
So was her performance, which isn’t anything new.
A year ago at The Broadmoor, Salas, competing in her second Women’s Open and first as a professional, opened with a 69. She remained in the top 10 through the weekend until a final-round 75 left her tied for 15th and the biggest check of her fledgling career ($49,658).
Now a full member of the LPGA Tour after surviving a nine-way playoff for the last available cards at Qualifying School last December, the four-time University of Southern California All-American has made seven of eight cuts in 2012, but hasn’t finished better than a tie for 22nd.
That could change this week. Outside of a bogey at No. 11, Salas played near-flawless golf, finishing off the round in style with a 6-iron approach to 7 feet for a birdie.
A golfer who grew up idolizing Hall of Famers Nancy Lopez and Lorena Ochoa – not only for their games but for their Mexican heritage – Salas has been traveling the circuit this year with family members in her dad’s 2006 truck to help curb expenses. Lopez even called her prior to her first Symetra Tour event last year.
“I don’t know how she got my number,” said Salas. “I met her in Phoenix as I debuted on the LPGA Tour [earlier this year]. And she’s still my role model.”
Native Floridians Lincicome, 26, of Seminole, and Kerr, 34, of Miami, certainly are accustomed to hot and sticky days, especially in the summer.
“You kind of have to take your mind somewhere else and not focus on what you’re doing because 5½ hours, it’s hard to concentrate that long,” said Lincicome. “When it was your turn to hit, you really had to focus 110 percent on every single shot. The holes I bogeyed I thought they were easy wedge shots … and I didn’t put as much energy into those.”
The five-time LPGA Tour winner, including the 2009 Kraft Nabisco Championship, did focus on the greens, registering 27 putts. Her five birdies were offset by two bogeys, and she hit 13 of 18 greens.
“I was very in control of everything today, which is a nice feeling,” said Lincicome. “I knew exactly where my irons were going. The putts, even if I read them wrong, I still kind of got them on track, and I was making them.
“If golf could be this easy every single day, I might make a living out of it.”
Kerr’s round got off to an inauspicious start. After a 15-minute delay on the tee, her drive on No. 10 found the Sheboygan River. She managed a remarkable up-and-down par from 134 yards by holing an 18-foot putt. She followed with birdies on Nos. 11, 13 and 15 and finished with 12 consecutive pars to garner one of two bogey-free rounds, along with Recari.
“My goal is to play this consistently for the rest of the week,” said Kerr, who is seeking her first win of 2012 and 15th of her career. “I’ve been pretty inconsistent this year. But I found that determination, that fire in my belly today that said, ‘I hooked it in the hazard on my first hole today and made an unbelievable par.’ That proved to myself that I was there. I said to myself, ‘No, I’m not letting it go this way today. I’m not letting it go this way this week.’
“You never know when the light switch turns on and I feel like it has.”
Yet another Floridian, Thompson, could become the youngest major champion. She already owns two professional wins, including the 2011 Navistar LPGA Classic that made her, at 16, the LPGA Tour’s youngest-ever champion.
Two minor hiccups midway through her round at 12 and 13 were tempered by a sizzling finish of three birdies in the last four holes. An 8-footer on the difficult par-4 18th, which played 452 yards, capped off the 70, which tied the best Women’s Open round of her career.
The 2008 U.S. Girls’ Junior champion and member of the victorious 2010 USA Curtis Cup Team said some extra putting sessions with instructors Dave Stockton and Jim McLean have provided added confidence this week. At the Kraft Nabisco Championship in March, she struggled on the greens (T-22), and that carried over to last month’s LPGA Championship, where she tied for 30th with no sub-par rounds.
“I was trying to change a bunch of things at one time, which probably wasn’t the best idea,” said Thompson. “Putting is pretty much about confidence and just trusting your line and putting a good stroke on it. If it doesn’t go in, you can’t do anything about it. It’s just a mindset and a few technical things in my stroke and setup.”
Thompson planned a quick lunch before heading to the hotel. Kerr had dinner plans with good friends.
All of them, however, were happy to get into air-conditioned confines.
On this day, it was just good to be … Blackwolf Done.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.