Glamour Group Wows Crowds Despite Struggles

By Ron Sirak

| Jul 06, 2023 | Pebble Beach, Calif.

Glamour Group Wows Crowds Despite Struggles

As glamour groups go at the 78th U.S. Women’s Open, few have had more glitter than this one. On a misty morning with the marine layer hugging the coastline of the Monterey Peninsula, Jin Young Ko, No. 1 in the Rolex Women’s Golf Rankings, No. 2 Nelly Korda and No. 13 Lexi Thompson started their historic first round at Pebble Beach Golf Links on No. 10. And all three discovered the USGA championship test exceedingly demanding.

The heavy air from the overcast conditions, small greens and gnarly rough made the 6,487-yard, par-72 setup play even longer but the conditions did not dampen the spirts of the large gallery that snaked across the cliffs above the Pacific Ocean to follow these three marquee players. While all three may have been disappointed with their start in this first-ever major championship on this iconic course, the appreciative fans were not.

None broke par with Thompson leading the way with a 2-over  74. Korda signed for a 76 and Ko a 79.

While all three players are still in their 20s, they have extensive and impressive competitive résumés. Thompson, 28, has not missed a Women’s Open since first qualifying for this event at age 12, a streak now reaching 17 starts. The 2008 U.S. Girls’ Junior champion also was 4-0-1 for the USA in the 2010 Curtis Cup. The first of her 11 career LPGA victories came at the age of 16 and she won her only major to day in 2014 atthe Chevron Championship at 19.

Thompson enjoyed a streak of at least one LPGA Tour victory in seven consecutive seasons, but hasn’t hit the victory circle since  the 2019 ShopRite Classic. Her U.S. Women’s Open record, however, has many highlights. She has finished in the top 5 in three of the last five, including a share of second in 2018, two strokes behind winner Jeong-eun Lee6, and was third in 2021 when she had a five-stroke lead on the back nine at The Olympic Club, only to shoot an inward-nine 41 to finish one stroke out of the playoff won by Yuka Saso over Nasa Hataoka.

On Thursday, Lexi made three birdies, three bogeys and a double bogey at the par-4 first – her 10th of the day – when her ball plugged in a greenside bunker. She missed five fairways and nine greens as she struggled with some rust. She’s played only five stroke-play tournaments this year.

“I've only played this course once, and it was for an outing last year,” she said after the round. “It's such a special spot. So many amazing views, and I'm just happy that the women are starting to play golf courses of this caliber.”

Asked how Pebble played in the first round, Thompson said simply: “Hard.” Then she added: “I know there could be a lot more wind than there is today. It always plays difficult. Tee shots are hard, and [the] bunkers have a lot of sand and the rough is really thick. It's definitely a major championship golf course.”

As for the double bogey on No. 1, she said: “I [didn’t] hit that bad of an iron shot, only five yards left, and it plugged in the bunker. Only got it out to the fescue that was just above the bunker and chipped it up and missed my bogey putt.”

Korda has eight LPGA wins, including a major at the 2021 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. She also won the gold medal in the COVID-19-delayed Olympics that year in Tokyo. But injuries have hampered the Floridian the past two years, including a blood clot that sidelined her for several months in 2022 and back issues this year. She tied for eighth in last year’s U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles and shared 10 th in 2018 at Shoal Creek. That lack of competition clearly showed on Thursday as she  missed five fairways and 10 greens.

Ko’s 15 wins on the LPGA Tour include two major championships, and she has come close to hoisting the Harton Semple Trophy, finishing tied for second, T-7 and solo fourth in her last three U.S. Women’s Open starts . In six Women’s Open starts overall, her worst finish is T-17. She came to Pebble Beach with two wins in 2023 she has had at least one LPGA victory in each of the last seven seasons, helping her keep the No. 1 ranking.

Now all three will have to fight on Friday to make the 36-hole cut. The low 60 and ties will play the weekend. But as tough as the test is, Pebble Beach offers golden opportunities as well. A score in the 60s could very well get the trio weekend tee times. One thing is for certain: A lot of fans, whether on-site or watching from home, want to see all three play 72 holes.

Ron Sirak is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.