Oakmont, Pa. – The biggest surprise of the first day of the 65th U.S. Women’s Open at Oakmont Country Club?
How about the fact that five players were able to finish under par, including first-round leader Brittany Lang’s impressive 2-under 69?
The storied course in the suburbs of Pittsburgh was primed to test the 156 players who qualified and at day’s end, a large portion of the field was not up to the test. Oakmont’s USGA Course Rating for the championship was 80.8 and many players reached that number on Thursday.
Oakmont’s legendary greens were at their devilish best. At speeds in the high 13s on the Stimpmeter combined with plenty of firmness and the severe undulations, the green complexes on the Henry Fownes design are among the most difficult to putt in major championship golf.
The rough was not as high as it was for the 1992 Women’s Open, but it had enough bite to get the attention of the players, many of whom opted to hit 3-woods, hybrids and even irons off some tees to give themselves a shot at keeping the ball in the fairway.
Just how tough did the course play statistically? Very tough.
Not one hole played under par and by mid-morning, the scoring average for the field was at 75. It wasn’t too far into the afternoon before that average jumped to 76 and then to 77.025. At day’s end, it was even higher at 77.11.
But Lang found a way to reach three under, the only player in the field to get that low. A bogey at 18 left her one stroke ahead of four players, including South African amateur Kelli Shean and 2008 champion Inbee Park of Korea.
Any golf course you can shoot a low number, there’s no question about it, said Lang, a runner-up in this event five years ago as an amateur. If you just know where to hit it, if you’re on your game hitting the ball well, you’re gonna hit fairways, you’re gonna hit greens and you’re gonna make pars. One or two [putts] are going to go in. I got very lucky today that a lot of long putts went in. If you’re hitting the ball good, you can for sure shoot a low score here.
In fact, Lang had five 3s on her final nine holes.
Joining Shean and Park with 70s were two other Koreans, M.J. Hur and Amy Yang. Two golfers posted even-par 70s: Scotland Mhairi McKay and Sakura Yokomine of Japan.
Shean held the lead most of the afternoon at two under par, but bogeyed the par-5 ninth when her drive found a divot inside a hazard line to the left of the fairway. She reached the par-5 hole in three, but three-putted for a bogey. She is the only amateur in the top 10 after the first round.
You know, this course is hard, said Shean, a senior at the University of Arkansas. If you’re going to get mad over a couple three-putts or a bad bounce or something, then I don’t think you’re going to enjoy it very much.
Teeing off on the 10th hole at 7:44 a.m., Paula Creamer made it through the hot and steamy morning with a 1-over 72 and sits in a 14-way tie for eighth along with top-ranked Cristie Kerr. The group at 73 includes 15-year-old Alexis Thompson, who turned pro two weeks ago, Natalie Gulbis, Brittany Lincicome and Ai Miyazato, who owns four LPGA Tour wins in 2010.
Creamer was mostly pleased with her round, but would have enjoyed it even more had she not finished with back-to-back bogeys at Nos. 8 and 9.
That made her surgically-repaired left thumb throb even more, although Creamer had nothing but positive things to say about Oakmont.
This is not a week-to-week golf course, nor is it set up like a week-to-week golf course, she said. But I’ve always said Cherry Hills [outside of Denver] is one of my favorite golf courses. This is right up next to it. It’s in great shape, it’s fun, hard and makes you go crazy at times.
Michelle Wie, one of the LPGA’s brightest hopes for the future, struggled to find the fairway (4 of 14 hit) and greens (6 of 18) in shooting an 82.
You really can’t do that (miss fairways). But mostly I think it was the putting that got me, said Wie, after finishing with 34 putts and likely shooting herself out of the championship with a first-nine 43. I felt like my irons were good. My wedges were good. I just need to put it in the fairway so I can hit those [greens].
Kerr, No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings and a pre-championship favorite, hit her first drive on the par-4 first hole down the middle of the fairway. A good omen, perhaps? Not as it turned out, as she ended up making bogey and doing the same at the second. She recovered from that shaky start and is three shots out of the lead.
It was little solace to her that the first two holes at Oakmont finished the day as the toughest two holes in the first round.
It was a tough start after a great tee shot, but I was kind of fighting momentum all day, Kerr said.
The length of the first round was definitely a topic of conversation as well. The first group of the day off No. 10, Brittany Altomare, Charlotte Mayorkas and Mhairi McKay took five hours and 25 minutes to play and were put on the clock after three holes.
When you have a course such as this, it’s challenging to stay on the clock, on pace, said McKay, who had the early clubhouse lead. We did make up time, but you know, we’re playing three holes quickly and there’s not too many easy shots out there. So that became quite tough.
Kerr was quick to add: The USGA said they wanted us to play in 4:40, 4:45. There’s 156 people in the field. On this golf course, there’s no way. We were an hour over that. We all knew that.
At the bottom end of the field, the numbers were even more reflective of just how difficult Oakmont was on day one.
Forty-four players – nearly a quarter of the field – finished with scores of 80 or above, including Korea’s Mi-Jeong Jeon and Martha Nause, who shot 86.
Mike Dudurich is a freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.