Brittany Lang withstood Oakmont Country Club’s slick, sun-browned greens and the unrelenting heat to shoot a 2-under 69 on Thursday to take a one-shot lead in the first round of the U.S. Women’s Open.
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Lang leads 2008 champion Inbee Park, South African amateur Kelli Shean and three others.
"You said it couldn’t be done, but on any golf course you can shoot a low number,” Lang said. "If you’re hitting the ball good, you can for sure shoot a low score out here. But if you’re not on your game you can shoot a big one.”
Rolling in a 40-foot putt on the 442-yard No. 15 to seize a two-shot lead before giving up a stroke at difficult No. 18, Lang managed to shoot the round of the day at a time of the day — late afternoon and early evening — when Oakmont’s greens were chewed up and as unpredictable than ever.
Shean was pushed to become a world-class golfer by idol Ernie Els, and South Korea’s Park were joined at 1-under 70 by two other Korean golfers, M.J. Hur and Amy Yang.
Sakura Yokomine of Japan and Scotland’s Mhairi McKay, who teed off at a yawn-producing 7 a.m. EDT as part of the first threesome on the course, were alone at even-par 71.
Cristie Kerr, America’s world No. 1-ranked golfer following her monumental 12-shot win at the LPGA Championship two weeks ago, was among a more-than-crowded group of 14 at 1-over 72. She was glad to be there, too.
"I think that’s a pretty good start for me,” said Kerr, who bogeyed the first two holes but came back almost immediately with two birdies.
Kerr, the first American to be top-ranked since the world rankings were adopted, admittedly spent nearly a week settling down emotionally following one of the most dominating performances in women’s golf history.
Lang hasn’t needed five years to convince herself she could contend again at the Women’s Open, which she threatened to win as an amateur in 2005. She wound up tied for second with fellow amateur-at-the-time Morgan Pressel, two shots behind winner Birdie Kim.
Lang has twice been a runner-up on the LPGA Tour and has more than $2 million in winnings. What she wants is a win, and what better tournament than this one?
"But I know that if I think about winning the tournament, I probably will not win it,” the former Duke student said.
Shean, a University of Arkansas golfer, might be drawing some inspiration from Lang’s 2005 near-miss as an amateur.
The 22-year-old’s career developed after she enrolled in a junior program sponsored by Els, who has repeatedly encouraged her during her career and watched Thursday’s round on TV.
She’s already been alerted to this: Els won his first major, the 1994 U.S. Open, on this very same Oakmont course.
"He taught me all the things I needed to know,” Shean said. "Being able to interact with him and have any kind of relationship with Ernie Els is unbelievable,” Shean said.
Shean gripped hands with her caddie, Chandler Rackley, several times before difficult shots, and it’s because the two have more than a working relationship. They’re boyfriend and girlfriend, and Shean said having him nearby means she’s "having the best time of my life out there.”
She also loved shooting a 70 at Oakmont, even if she lost the lead that Lang would soon take with a bogey 6 on the par-5 No. 9, her finishing hole.
Shean yanked her drive inches away from some fescue that separates fairways and was forced to chip out. Her approach landed about 120 feet away on the huge green that also contains Oakmont’s practice green, and she three-putted.
"It was the longest putt I have ever had in my entire life,” said Shean, whose only previous LPGA-level tournament appearance was a 27th-place tie at the P&G Beauty Northwest Arkansas Championship last year.
For one-time wunderkind Michelle Wie (11-over 82) and returning champion Eun-Hee Ji (6-over 77), it was a day of misery.
Wie, the world No. 10-ranked golfer and the LPGA Tour’s longest driver, didn’t alter her aggressive style on a course that demands patience and persistence. She paid the price with her worst round since an 84 at the Evian Masters in 2007.
Wie dropped seven shots to par during a tournament-ruining stretch from Nos. 14 to 17 that occurred on her front nine and included a trio of three-putt holes. She found herself pitching awkwardly out of sidehill lies in deep bunkers and trying to control putts that threatened to slide off greens, as did many others in the 156-golfer field that includes everyone in the world Top 20.
"I had a couple of good shots out there,” she said. "Not many.”
Even after her ill-conceived game plan didn’t work, Wie still talked of “going for birdies” on Friday on a course where pars often are difficult to achieve, as the first-day results proved.
Ji decided to rebuild her swing even after surprising Kerr to win at Saucon Valley last year, but her game hasn’t recovered.
Alexis Thompson, who recently turned pro at age 15 although she’s not eligible to compete full time on the LPGA Tour, was at 3-over 74.