NAPLES, Fla. – Sandra Gal is in control halfway through the CME Group Titleholders Championship.
That’s a big deal given she didn’t feel like she had much control of her swing or game when she was struggling to make cuts earlier this year.
Even in the blustery winds over Tiburon Friday, Gal was undaunted, carving draws and fades on command on her way to a 3-under-par 69. At 11-under, she’s three shots ahead of Sun Young Yoo (68) and five ahead of Gerina Piller (67), Cristie Kerr (69) and Pornanong Phatlum (68).
Gal, 28, is in position to soothe some disappointment this year with the biggest first-place check in women’s golf. The winner takes home $700,000 this weekend.
“It’s easy to say I don’t care about money, and I just want to play well,” Gal said. “Everybody says that. I’m going to say that and try to mean it.
“At the end of the day, I think when you win a tournament, you’re happy fighting and overcoming fear and hitting good shots.”
Gal’s career was on a nice upward arc until she lost her best form this year. The German broke through to win the Kia Classic in 2011, her first LPGA title. She made the European Solheim Cup team that beat the Americans in Ireland that year. Last year, she was voted GolfDigest.com’s “hottest golfer.”
But her game cooled off this year. Through a stretch early in the summer, Gal missed four cuts in six starts, including the LPGA Championship and the U.S. Women’s Open. The swoon cost her a spot on the European Solheim Cup team.
Something started click after she started working with Gary Gilchrist as her coach, but it wasn't enough to win her the favor of European captain Liselotte Neumann. Gal tied for fourth at the Ladies European Tour Masters in July, tied for sixth at the Safeway Classic in August and tied for sixth at the Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia in October.
Did missing the Solheim Cup spark something?
“I was very disappointed, but my good play hasn’t had anything to do with not getting picked,” Gal said.
Yoo, 26, has been working to find winning form, too. She broke through to win the Kraft Nabisco Championship last year, her first major championship and second LPGA title, but she hasn’t won since.
“I was pushing myself a little too hard,” Yoo said. “It was kind of stressful for me, because I wanted to play better and better every week. At the same time, I had confidence after winning. I felt like, `Oh, I can win the big tournament.’”
Gal and Yoo avoided most of the trouble Friday’s winds brought.
Rolex world No. 1 Inbee Park got to 7-under on the front nine, but she made four bogeys over the final 10 holes, including one at the last, where she tried to splash a shot out of a muddy hazard but dumped her ball into a bunker. Park shot 72 and sits seven off the lead. Park wasn’t fretting about it, though. After signing her card, she was off to get ready for the LPGA's Rolex awards program, where she would receive the Rolex Player of the Year award.
“I’m just trying to enjoy the week,” Park said.
Cristie Kerr opened the second round with a double bogey after hitting her second shot into a hazard and then bogeyed the third hole, but she rallied with four birdies and an eagle to get within five of the lead.
“Honestly, I got so PO’d, like I wasn’t going to let this tournament go down the toilet,” Kerr said. “I just got really determined. I said I don’t care if I’m not hitting it great. I’m going to have to just be better mentally. I just made it happen out there. That’s the kind of round I needed in the wind today.”