PITTSFORD, N.Y. – With Lorena Ochoa out of the picture, Cristie Kerr began her quest to take over top spot in the women’s golf rankings.
What better time to start than Thursday at the LPGA Championship, the tour’s first major since Ochoa announced her retirement in April.
Relying on her clutch putting, and untroubled by a heavy downpour that briefly stopped play early in the afternoon, Kerr shot a 4-under 68 to match Stacy Lewis and Seon Hwa Lee for the lead at the Locust Hill Country Club outside of Rochester.
Though admittedly “punchy” after a weather-delayed round that lasted nearly 6 hours, Kerr was not hiding her desire to go from being the top-ranked American to No. 1 in the world before this year is over.
“I feel that as far as Number 1 goes, I’m right in there,” said Kerr, who opened the week ranked fifth.
Referring to Ai Miyazato, who took over top spot after winning the ShopRite LPGA Classic last weekend, Kerr added: “Ai’s been really hot winning four tournaments. I’m going to have to do some special stuff for the rest of the year, but it can be done.”
She’ll get plenty of challengers after the first round of the $2.25 million event in which no one was capable of separating from the pack.
Inbee Park, the 2008 U.S. Women’s Open champion, Mika Miyazato and Lindsey Wright were a stroke back, leaving a logjam of 16 players within three shots of the lead.
It’s a group that includes Juli Inkster, who showed that turning 50 doesn’t mean she can’t compete for yet another major title. The 31-time LPGA tour winner celebrated her birthday by shooting a 71.
Inkster proved to be the crowd favorite as she was serenaded at least four times on the course by fans singing “Happy Birthday.
“It was nice to be loved,” Inkster said, before dismissing a question of whether she feels old. “It didn’t feel any different than it felt yesterday.”
Trouble is, her age showed through just a little as she struggled by finishing with four bogeys – sandwiched between a par and a birdie – over the final six holes.
Kerr, in her 14th season, showed no signs of letdown in a round that featured five birdies and only one bogey. She was particularly solid in saving par on her final hole – the 172-yard par-3 ninth – by two-putting from 35 feet on a tricky green.
“This is what I wanted starting the first day,” Kerr said. “You get kind of a taste of the blood in the water. It kind of motivates you and you look forward to getting up to play tomorrow.”
The weather played havoc with shots along the narrow tree-lined, 6,506-yard course that demanded accurate shots off the tee.
The early afternoon downpour had just begun when Lewis reached the green at No. 9, her final hole. Facing an 8-foot putt for birdie, Lewis acknowledged she had plenty of incentive to sink it before quickly escaping to the dry confines of the scorers’ tent.
“I was glad to hit the tee shot before it started to pour,” Lewis said. “I knew I was going to get soaked. And I knew I could go inside and dry off. I just didn’t worry about it.”
The 25-year-old Lewis is finally beginning to play to the potential she showed in tying for third at the 2008 U.S. Women’s Open – a tournament she had led after three rounds. This year, her second on the LPGA Tour, Lewis is coming off a pair of top-16 finishes, and also earned a career-best second-place finish at the Tres Marias Championship last month.
Lee was relieved to make it through the elements with a 68 in what proved to be an up-and-down round.
After opening with a three-putt bogey on No. 10, she responded by chipping in a 127-yard shot for eagle at the 386-yard par-4 12th. She then followed with four birdies and a pair of bogeys before closing by holing out of the bunker for birdie.
“The rain had stopped, so it was not a very hard up and down,” Lee said. “I just had a lot of confidence in my bunker shot, so I just did the right thing.”
Paula Creamer, competing in only her second tournament since having surgery to repair ligament damage in her left thumb, was among those at 1 under. Creamer struggled with her putting, and played with her left thumb wrapped.
Yani Tseng, who won the Kraft Nabisco, faltered down the stretch in her bid to win two straight majors. After getting to 4 under through seven holes, Tseng had five bogeys on her next seven holes – including four in a row – and finished at 3 over.
Anna Nordqvist, the defending champion, opened with a 73.