'It's been a really frustrating year because I know how low I can go and how I can play,' said Vega, 23, of North Andover , Mass. 'I think this round has been waiting to happen.'
Indeed it has. After the last two years as the top player at North Carolina State University , Vega has struggled with her professional transition this spring on the Futures Golf Tour. A balky putter has regularly sabotaged her solid ball striking, causing the rookie to miss four of five tournament cuts. But with 23 putts today at the New Innsbrook Country Club and a one-putt green on her first nine holes today, Vega turned a corner in her young professional career.
'I was hitting it like I always do, only today, I was watching it go into the hole,' said Vega, who carded eight birdies and two bogeys. 'I've already learned a lot about staying patient because all of those little missed putts add up. Out here, you have to come out of the gates strong right from the start.'
With her father Alan Vega serving as caddie, the rookie took a different approach on the greens today. After some discussion prior to the round, the two agreed that dad would add a second set of eyes to line up the player on the greens. It was an experiment that proved successful, keeping Vega one shot ahead of fellow New Englander Libby Smith of Essex Junction, Vt. , and veteran pro Kellee Booth of McKinney , Texas -- who both opened with rounds with 68.
Smith was the first on the leaderboard from the morning rounds, grabbing the tournament lead for the first time in her two years as a pro. The Vermonter capitalized on her length, scoring birdies on five of the course's six par-five holes and she used 28 putts to convert on the greens. She surprised even herself after waking up at 4:30 this morning unable to swallow with a sore throat.
'It felt sort of flu-like, so before I went out there today, I tried to get my head into it, knowing that I would have to fight through it,' said Smith, who has one top-10 and one top-20 finish this season. 'The Ibuprofen kicked in around the fourth hole. I knew once I got out there, I'd feel better.'
And following that 'beware of the ailing golfer' mindset was Booth, who banged her head during a fall five days earlier and showed up this week with two stitches in the back of her head. Still fighting 'waves of nausea' -- which showed up during her first two holes, resulting in a pair of bogeys -- Booth scrambled back from her opening 38 on the back nine holes and posted a 6-under-par score of 30 on the front, that included four birdies and an eagle-3 on the par-five eighth hole.
'This is the first time I've broken 70 this year,' said Booth, 29, who has posted three top-20 finishes this season. 'The six par-5s give us a lot of opportunities for birdie.'
The third annual event in Northwest Indiana features an old-fashioned, tree-lined course measuring 6,196 yards, which uses a unique mixture of six par-5s, six par-4sand six par-3 holes. And for players who make the most of the par-5s, it's a chance to go low quickly or to make up lost ground. Former Purdue University player Caroline Goasguen of Montpellier , France , for example, recorded four consecutive 3s on the back nine that included a pair of eagle-3s on holes 15 and 17. She finished at even-par 72.
Vega, on the other hand, was the birdie-maker all day long.
'I'm not surprised at Bri's round today,' said Meaghan Francella of Port Chester , N.Y. , who played college golf against Vega while at the University of North Carolina . She's capable. She needs to know that she belongs out here.'
Chances are good that after today's opening round, Vega proved she's found her groove.