ORLANDO, Fla. – Two South Koreans atop the leaderboard at the LPGA Tour Championship came as no surprise. They just weren’t the two everybody expected.
Stealing the spotlight from two others vying for a historic player of the year honor, Amy Yang and Seon Hwa Lee each shot a 5-under 67 on Thursday to share the clubhouse lead when the opening round was called for darkness.
No pressure on them.
“This week is good,” Hwa Lee said, smiling.
The bigger challenge falls on their two more acclaimed countrywomen.
Jiyai Shin and Na Yeon Choi are in contention to become the first South Korean to take home the LPGA’s player of the year award, a huge honor in a golf-crazed country that sent swarms of media to cover them this week. But Shin (77) and Choi (73) each got off to a disappointing start, leaving them well off the pace.
Julieta Granada finished two shots off the lead on a chilly day at Grand Cypress Golf Club that had many players wearing earmuffs and winter hats with temperatures dipping into the low 40s just before dawn. There were four players three shots off the pace.
“I just tried to make par every hole because the fairways, the rough are longer and thicker, and the greens are fast and slope a lot,” Yang said. “I just tried to play safely.”
This year’s season-ending event doesn’t have the usual script.
For the first time in a decade, Lorena Ochoa and Annika Sorenstam won’t win player of the year now that they’re retired. That leaves five in the field with an opportunity to take home the tour’s top honor and – along with Suzann Pettersen – perhaps the No. 1 world ranking.
So far, none of them has seized the moment.
American Cristie Kerr (71), Yani Tseng (75) of Taiwan and Ai Miyazato (80) of Japan – the only others who could win the player of the year award – all struggled in the conditions. Choi was 4 under through 12 holes, but she gave back five shots over the next three holes.
“I don’t think it was one bad shot,” Choi said. “I feel like I left some shots out there. Luckily, we’re all so close and still have a chance.”
Choi and Shin also are the only players in the running for the money title. So far Choi has earned $1,814,558 for a $34,790 lead over Shin.
The chilly conditions, by Florida standards, made greens firm and fast. But it was the course, a Jack Nicklaus-design that was renovated between 2007-08 with more undulating greens, that really made things difficult.
Even some of the more seasoned pros couldn’t believe the course bears Nicklaus’ name.
“He must have been having a very bad day,” quipped Laura Davies, who shot an opening-round 70. “Someone went mental on the greens.”
The field doesn’t have much time to make a push.
The LPGA Tour Championship is applying the same format it used last season, cutting to the lowest 70 scores and ties after 36 holes and an additional cut after 54 holes to the lowest 30 players and ties. That makes the margin for error even slimmer.
“Especially with the cold weather again (Friday),” Yang said. “Another safe game, yeah. At least I’ll try.”