PINEHURST, N.C. – Stacy Lewis took her time in the practice rounds getting ready for the U.S. Women’s Open this week.
It wasn’t so much the extra balls she was hitting, but all the extra time she was taking to sign autographs as she made her way around Pinehurst No. 2.
Joe Hallett, Lewis’ swing coach, couldn’t help asking her about it.
“I’m just building a lot of good karma out here,” Lewis said.
All that goodwill Lewis built came flooding back to her Thursday in a brilliant start to this historic week. With a 3-under-par 67, Lewis shot to the top of the leaderboard among those off in the morning wave. She is hoping to pick up where Martin Kaymer left off when he won the U.S. Open here last week. She might not be as far out front as Kaymer was early, but, like Kaymer, she seemed to be playing a different course than everyone else.
“It was such an easy day,” Lewis said.
Somebody cover the ears of the USGA executive director Mike Davis, who oversees setups. Easy? Well, yeah, when you hit every fairway except one, and every green in regulation except one, it feels easy. That wasn’t the case for most of the women slugging it around Pinehurst No. 2.
Don’t tell world No. 2 Inbee Park it was easy. The defending champion opened with a 76, nine shots worse than Lewis and just two better than 11-year-old Lucy Li.
Park, winner of the first three majors last year, walked off Pinehurst No. 2 bewildered over how many shots got away from her around those turtleback greens. When Park won the U.S. Women's Open a year ago, she bested Lewis by 12 shots in their pairing together over the first two rounds. Lewis seems determined to return the favor this week. They're playing together again.
“It’s beyond disappointment,” Park said. “It happened so quickly, I don’t know what happened. I was just really shocked at how the golf course played. I didn’t feel like I played horrible, but the score is bad. It’s so easy to make a lot of big numbers here.”
Tell Emma Talley about it. The U.S. Women’s Amateur champ had a share of the early lead but needed three shots to get out of the bunker in front of the fifth green and made triple bogey. She shot 75 playing alongside Lewis and Park.
With the U.S. Women’s Open being played for the first time on the same venue as the U.S. Open in back-to-back weeks, Lewis would relish following the Kaymer script in a wire-to-wire victory.
“I liked watching the men last week,” Lewis said. “I like to hit a cut a lot like Kaymer does. So on a lot of those holes, it was cool to see the plan I had laid out in my head. He was kind of doing the same thing. So it was nice coming into the week, knowing that my plan was going to work on this golf course.
“I thought that somebody can run away with this. If you're hitting the ball well enough, you can definitely run away with it. At the same time, you have to know par is a good number and keep grinding away.”
Kaymer opened with back-to-back 65s and never looked back in his eight-shot runaway. Like Kaymer, Lewis came here with a hot hand. She has two LPGA titles already this season and has finished among the top 10 in all but two of her 13 starts this year. That form doesn’t bode well for a field that knows how she can close.
“Stacy is playing unbelievable,” said Juli Inkster, who opened with a 71. “I don't know if anybody can catch her.”
Before Lewis headed out to the first tee early Thursday morning, she bumped fists with Hallett, her swing coach.
“Remember, brains equal birdies,” Hallett told her.
Nobody played smarter than Lewis on Thursday. With the course playing dry and firm in what felt like a furnace, with temperatures rising to 96 degrees, Lewis was the only player who didn’t make a bogey in the morning wave. She never got herself in trouble hitting 17 of 18 greens and 13 of 14 fairways.
“She didn't make many mistakes today, from tee to the green,” Park said. “She was really good at making clutch par putts today. I think that was really strong part of her game today.”
Lewis, 29, a two-time major championship winner, tied for third in the first U.S. Woman’s Open she ever played back in 2008 at Interlachen. Having just turned pro that summer, she led through 54 holes before faltering in a final-round 78. She hasn’t finished better than a tie for 14th in this championship since.
Every part of Lewis’ game, however, is becoming more suited to winning majors. She wasn’t a terrific putter when she joined the tour, but she leads the tour in putts per greens in regulation this year, ranking just ahead of Park. She was middle of the pack in driving distance when she joined the tour. She ranks 16th in driving distance today, hitting the ball farther and higher than she ever has. She is even working diligently on her demeanor, on being calmer and less upset in a round when circumstances turn against her. She thinks it's an integral component in winning majors, especially a U.S. Women's Open. She has noted how cool and unshakeable all the South Korean winners of the U.S. Women's Open seem, and they have won five of the last six of them.
Inkster sees how driven Lewis is to be the best.
“She's got the heart for it,” Inkster said. “She's got the want. She wants it. Golf right now is a big part of her life. She wants to be No. 1. There's a lot of people out there who say they want to be No. 1, but I'm not really sure they really do. She wants to be. I think it's great for our tour. She's a phenomenal player.”