PHOENIX – Inbee Park just kind of ambles along and then BAM! She’s back on top. That’s how it felt during Round 1 of the JTBC Founders Cup. Park walked in the shadows of 16-year-old Lydia Ko, who played alongside her and led the way for most of the morning wave, and then suddenly the World No. 1 walked off her 18th hole with a share of the lead.
Four birdies in her last five holes gave Park a routine 6-under 66 Thursday, making her leader in the clubhouse along with American Gerina Piller, who is still searching for her first victory.
“On the back nine I had shots a lot closer than the front nine,” said Park, “and obviously I holed some putts on the back nine.”
Park hit 14 fairways and 15 greens at Wildfire Golf Club. She said her putting isn’t quite where it was at her peak last season, “but I think it’s coming.”
Her only mistake of the day was a three-putt on the third hole (her 12th).
Suzann Pettersen has to win this week to have a chance at overtaking Park for the No. 1 ranking.
Meanwhile Ko dropped out of a share of the lead after finding a hazard on her last hole, the par-4 ninth. She birdied six holes on the front nine to take an early lead and said she literally ran out of fuel down the stretch. She’s a shot back of the current clubhouse lead after a 5-under 67.
“I normally eat more than I did today – and I normally eat a lot, so that’s saying something,” Ko said. “I forgot to bring my food and my protein bars. That’s my excuse.”
Ko came to Phoenix from Carlsbad, Calif., where she picked up at new putter at the Callaway Performance Center. She also has a new caddie (Mark Wallington) this week, as well as a new home base in ChampionsGate, Fla.
Changes aside, the learning curve for this New Zealander isn’t nearly as steep as it is for most rookies. She had a different caddie on the bag every week for most of her amateur career as she mostly used local loopers. Ko’s mother said she’s simply trying to find someone who can strengthen her weak areas (not that there are many of those either).
In four events so far this season, Ko has finished no worse than T-19. She tied for third at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open. Seven of her 16 rounds thus far were in the 60’s, which ranks second on tour. She’s second in greens hit (78 percent) and second in fairways hit (82 percent).
SHORT SHOTS: Piller put new clubs in the bag this week – new 5-wood, 3-wood and putter – and found immediate success. She hit the fairways metals for the first time on Wednesday after going to Cool Clubs. “They just checked on my specs and kind of gave me an affirmation of what my clubs were,” Piller said. “I thought it was me, and it was actually my clubs, so I got that taken care of and I’m really confident and I feel good with all my clubs in the bag.” Piller has only been playing golf for 14 years and is one of the most athletic players on tour. One of last year’s break-out Americans, Piller started working with Mike Wright one year ago and feels like she has gained consistency. … Pat Hurst tried to Monday qualify but shot 74. She wound up getting in the field anyway after Caroline Hedwall withdrew with a wrist injury. Hurst shot 70 on Thursday, two days after being named Inkster’s assistant captain for the Solheim Cup.