KILDEER, Ill. – Sung Hyun Park took advantage.
Brooke Henderson, Jessica Korda, Charley Hull and Jaye Marie Green, too.
“Finally a golf course that benefits the long hitters,” Korda said.
The KPMG Women’s PGA Championship was a bomber’s paradise at Kemper Lakes Golf Club in Thursday’s first round.
Park posted a 6-under-par 66 to take the lead.
Henderson, Korda and Green opened with 67s and Charley Hull was among players opening with 68.
All of the aforementioned rank among the LPGA’s top 20 in driving distance.
“The course was long and difficult, and it’s a pretty big benefit for the long hitter,” Park said.
Park attacked, hitting driver at all but one of the par 4s and par 5s. She’s the fourth longest hitter on tour this year, averaging 273 yards a blast.
With her 67, Brittany Altomare was the exception to the rule, a short but straight hitter among the top five on the leaderboard.
Kemper Lakes was set up at 6,635 yards on Thursday, but it played a lot longer, with the course softened by 6 inches of rain over the last week.
“I think that's why the long hitters love it,” said Stacy Lewis, who opened with a 70. “It takes those run outs through the fairways, takes that out of it. There are a lot of doglegs and bunkering. If it was firm and fast, it would be a lot harder for those long hitters. I think if it was firmer, it would level the playing field a little bit more.”
And that’s what Lewis and a lot of other challengers are hoping for with a sunny, hot and dry forecast the next two days.
Park’s climb atop the leaderboard wasn’t just about smashing driver everywhere. Last season, she joined Nancy Lopez as the only players to win Rolex Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year honors in the same year. She won the U.S. Women’s Open, but she has had a roller coaster ride this season. She went through a run of five events in late spring with four missed cuts and a victory.
“Something little was missing, especially my putting,” Park said.
She switched out her 34-inch TaylorMade Spider Red putter this week for a 33-inch TaylorMade Spider Black.
“This week I feel pretty comfortable and confident,” she said.
A pregnant Lewis isn’t hitting it as long as she usually does with a child in tow, but she still marveled at how far Korda and Hull were blasting it past her in their first-round grouping.
“They were 40, 50 [yards] by me, at times,” Lewis said.
Korda ranks eighth in driving distance this year at 270.6 yards per drive.
“This is how golf courses should be set up for us,” Korda said.
Green also liked the setup.
“I've had so many 6-irons and more in today, and that usually doesn't happen, because I hit it a little longer than the average,” Green said. “It was kind of interesting having some 4-irons in, and 5-irons and 6-irons.”
Green, 24, is seeking her first LPGA title in her fifth full season. She did win LPGA Q-School in 2013, and again last year after a tough year required her to return. She’s the only player to win Q-School twice since it moved to Daytona Beach, Fla., in 1991.
Green’s quick start sets her up to make a run at joining Pernilla Lindberg, Danielle Kang, Sung Hyun Park, Mo Martin, In Gee Chun and Hyo Joo Kim as players who claimed a major championship as their first LPGA title over the last five seasons.
Lindberg gave a giant dose of hope to every dreamer seeking a major breakthrough winning the ANA Inspiration in April. She did what every frustrated player with a big dream wants to do. She transformed herself. She became the player she imagined herself to be through all the tough, lonely battles that keep dreams alive.
Green is looking to do the same this week.
“I love majors, because it doesn't make you feel like you have to birdie so many holes,” she said. “It makes you feel like you can be kind of chill and play and let the birdies come to you, whereas other tournaments, where 25 under wins, it's a little stressful. I like more of the grind, where you can make a bogey every now and then and it's OK.”
With the fairways and greens drying out, the rest of the week promises to be even more of a grind.