Amy Olson may have taken a step toward honorary Scottish citizenship in Thursday’s start to the AIG Women’s Open.
The American put up a 4-under 67 at Royal Troon in blustery conditions that even the great Scot Catriona Matthew joked were too extreme to want to play in outside a major championship.
“I don't know that I'd actually go out and play on a day like this at home,” said Matthew said. “I'd probably sit and look at them and think, 'What idiots they are to go out there and play.’”
Olson was one of just three players to break par, with winds gusting more than 30 mph. She’s three shots clear of fellow American Marina Alex and Germany’s Sophia Popov.
Royal Troon, host for the first time to the AIG Women’s Open, formerly known as the Women’s British Open, was properly brutish with the winds making the the deep bunkers, the gorse and the dunes more difficult to avoid.
Fourteen players couldn’t break 80 in the first round.
That included European Solheim Cup stars Celine Boutier and Bronte Law, who were instrumental in the Euros’ thrilling defeat of the Americans in Scotland late last summer.
Boutier, who went 4-0 in that Solheim Cup, shot 81.
Law, who helped set up Suzann Pettersen’s winning putt with a late singles victory, shot 80.
They were in good company putting up big numbers on a day when the scoring average was 75.63.
Lexi Thompson and Cristie Kerr opened with 78s, Inbee Park and Brooke Henderson with 77s, Danielle Kang, Stacy Lewis and defending champion Hinako Shibuno with 76s.
“It was so tough,” Olson said. “I can’t even describe how difficult it was out there.”
Olson, 28, the former U.S. Girls’ Junior champ and 20-time collegiate winner at North Dakota State, has been knocking on the door to her first LPGA title for a few years now. She nearly broke through in a major way at the Evian Championship two years ago, when her chance to win went awry in a dramatic finish.
“I seriously love major championship golf,” Olson said. “I love the difficult conditions.
“I just really feel like the cream rises to the top. You can't get away with anything, honestly, and so it requires every part of your game to be sharp. I love that challenge. I relish it.”
But Olson knows there are 54 holes to go, a “marathon” of golf, as she called it, with even more difficult weather expected to come Friday. There are heavy rain showers forecast, with wind gusts to 42 mph.
“You never know how things are, and how brutal the weather is going to be,” Popov said. “No one can really prepare me for what's going to come tomorrow. It might go totally sideways.
“But I'm prepared for that, because, honestly, this is British golf. Like anything can happen at any point.”
Matthew, by the way, is in the early hunt despite being in semi-retirement as a player. She won this championship 11 years ago, at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. She’s just five days from her 51st birthday, with most of her focus on the game as the European Solheim Cup captain. She led the Euros to victory at Gleneagles in Scotland last year and will lead them again next year, when they meet the Americans at Inverness in Toledo, Ohio.
Nobody in their 50s has ever won a men’s or women’s major championship. Fay Crocker is the oldest winner of a women’s major. She was 45 when she won the Titleholders in 1960.
Matthew made her first LPGA start in a year last week, at the Aberdeen Standard Investments Ladies Scottish Open, site of her last LPGA start before that. She missed the cut. Her last Ladies European Tour start was in December. Though she’s a Scot, Matthew estimates she last played Royal Troon 26 years ago.
For Olson, an American, there’s something about links golf that stirs her soul, though she doesn’t get to play it as much as she would like.
“I love playing links golf,” Olson said. “I feel like over my career I've gotten a lot more comfortable with it, a lot more experience with it.
“Where I grew up in North Dakota, it gets extremely windy, and so I grew up playing the ball very low, and I've adjusted my ball flight to be higher, to be able to play a lot of our tour golf courses, but I still have the ability to bring it down. I think that served me very well over here.”