ROGERS, Ark. – On her way to the lead Friday in the Northwest Arkansas Championship, Morgan Pressel enjoyed chatting with an unusual playing partner.
Pressel and Juli Inkster played alongside 17-year-old Daniel Watkins from The First Tee program. A dozen players from the youth development organization are joining the pros during the first two rounds in a best-ball competition that is taking place alongside the LPGA tournament.
“We had a lot of fun out there,” said Pressel, winless since the 2008 Kapalua LPGA Classic. “It didn’t really come out until the last hole when he admitted to me that he was very nervous about the spectators and didn’t want to kill anybody. I told him that Tiger hits it all over the place, too, and has a lot more spectators than we do, so not to worry about it.”
Although some of Watkins’ shots went astray, he played well enough to maintain a good pace of play, and Pressel seemed to enjoy a carefree round at Pinnacle Country Club. She shot a 5-under 66 to take a one-stroke over Yani Tseng, Gloria Park and Na Yeon Choi. Michelle Wie, coming off a victory in the Canadian Women’s Open, was another stroke back along with Suzann Pettersen, Janice Moodie, Danielle Downey and Jee Young Lee.
This is the first time the LPGA has tried this setup, with First Tee players joining the pros during competitive rounds.
“Juli was more a coach than I was,” Pressel said. “I’m sure a lot of the girls were hesitant to want to play with juniors, as it might be a distraction. But as you could see in my game today, it loosens you up.”
Pressel, also the 2007 Kraft Nabisco winner, finished with birdies on Nos. 8 and 9. She hit 15 greens in regulation and missed only one fairway to move to the top of a loaded field. After the event, the tour is off until Oct. 7, and with the exception of Paula Creamer (thumb injury) all of the top players are playing.
Tseng, who won the Women’s British Open and the Kraft Nabisco this year, is off to a good start as she tries to get back on track. Since winning the British, she finished tied for 45th at the Safeway Classic and missed the cut at the Canadian Women’s Open.
Tseng birdied No. 18, a 515-yard par 5. Her second shot, a 3-wood from 233 yards, landed around the front of an elevated green.
“I think I killed that shot,” Tseng said. “It was like 245 into wind, so I hit a great shot there. I just couldn’t see my ball so my caddie said my ball was just running back to front edge and I made a good two-putt there.”
On the same hole, the big-hitting Wie came up short of the green with her second shot and settled for par.
“I didn’t birdie any of the par 5s today and I bogeyed one of them, so I definitely need to do better,” Wie said.
Other big names at Pinnacle include Cristie Kerr (72), Ai Miyazato (71) and Jiyai Shin (71).
Thursday’s pro-am was canceled because of bad weather, but it was hot and muggy Friday, enabling the course to dry out. The top four players on the leaderboard all teed off in the morning, when scoring conditions appeared more favorable.
“I’m not sure that that had so much to do with it drying out, or just that there was quite a bit of wind when we first teed off,” said Paige Mackenzie, who played in the afternoon and shot 72. “For our first three quarters of our round, or first two thirds of our round, we had quite a bit of wind.”